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The Pathway to Greatness

Humility and authenticity are the true measures of greatness

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Describing the qualities of greatness has become a growth industry, especially in the literature of leadership. Among the many attributes manifested in men and women qualifying them as great are the following: purposefulness, self-confidence, boldness, optimism, forgiveness, courage, determination, humility, self-reflection and love. This is only a sampling.

Even within the long tradition of the Catholic Church down through the ages, there have been men and women saints who have been labeled with the title “Great.” The interesting question is, who determines this honorable title? It seems, according to Church historians, that this title is informally bestowed upon a saint after reviewing his or her influence in the world and the Church.

It is not an official title awarded by a pope or some other Vatican agency. In fact, it is historians themselves who seem to determine who is “great,” often many years after the person’s death. The Church wisely prefers avoiding any rush to greatness.

Nevertheless, accomplishments of these saints and their broad influence result in their being recognized for contributions they have made to the Church and the world at large. They lived their lives in such a way as to be worthy of imitation. However, these saints designated “great” are not to be confused with Doctors of the Church.

A Doctor of the Church is a person whose teaching on faith has been deemed sound and of benefit to the Church through their writing, study or research. Along with significant theological contributions, the person must also display a high degree of sanctity, which is why all Church doctors are also canonized saints. An additional requirement to be named a Doctor of the Church is a formal proclamation as such by a pope or an ecumenical council.

Who Are These ‘Great’ Saints?

There is no official list of saints who have been given the honorary title of “the great.” Some are very popular in Church history and some are not. Some that we are familiar with would be Pope Gregory the Great, Pope St. Leo the Great, Pope Nicholas the Great. Others include St. Albert the Great, St. Gertrude the Great, St. Anthony the Great and St. Basil the Great.

All of these great saints were known for various contributions to the Church and the People of God. However, if one were to study each of these saints carefully it would become apparent that their true greatness was not defined by power, position, wealth or fame. Their true greatness was rooted in their Christian faith and in the oftentimes heroic ways they manifested that faith.

Their lives were not guided by modern concepts of leadership and success. Instead, their lives were guided by the Gospel teaching on discipleship. And at the center of this teaching were two fundamental emphases: service and humility. Because of this, the very concept of “greatness” is understood in ways that mystify the modern mind. Let us think of it in terms of “true Gospel greatness.”

The issue of greatness can be found frequently in the synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke). Most of the time, it emerges in discussions between Jesus and his disciples or among the disciples themselves. In almost every case, the disciples have an understanding of greatness that Jesus does not share. Jesus then, in turn, will provide a corrective teaching that the disciples often fail to understand. Let us look briefly at four Gospel texts that exemplify Jesus’ teaching on true greatness.

Mark 9:33-37

While on the way to Capernaum, Jesus is aware that his disciples are arguing about something. He had just finished instructing them for the second time about his approaching suffering, death and resurrection. They did not understand anything he had said, and so they are somewhat embarrassed that Jesus overhears them because, in fact, they have been arguing about which of them is the greatest. For them, greatness included power, position, honor and possessions.

Jesus counters this faulty understanding and these misguided desires with a shocking statement. “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all” (v. 35). Jesus then takes a little child and places it in their midst. At this point, it is not clear what he intends by this gesture. However, later on in another passage, the meaning of the little child imagery will be clarified.

With this teaching, Jesus reverses the approach of the disciples. Ironically, greatness is to be found in being “the last of all and the servant of all.” It is also manifested in how one receives a child in Jesus’ name. More about this later.

Mark 10:35-45

Once again, while Jesus and his disciples are on their way to Jerusalem, Jesus, for the third time, informs his disciples about the tragic events that await him in Jerusalem. He will be humiliated, scourged, put to death and rise after three days.

This time, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, come forward and demonstrate just how little they understand who Jesus is and what he is about. In response to his sad and heartbreaking message, James and John make the following request: “Grant that in your glory we may sit at your right and the other at your left” (v. 37).

Jesus is focusing on his approaching suffering and death while his disciples are concerned about personal greatness and places of honor. The irony here is that the places on Jesus’ right and his left will ultimately be crosses with criminals hanging on them.

Again, he confronts their misunderstanding with a corrective teaching showing what true greatness is. He says: “Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (vv. 43-45).

Greatness is not about acquiring places of honor. It is about serving others.

Matthew 18:1-5

This brief passage comes from the fourth major discourse of Matthew’s Gospel (cf. Mt 18:1-35). It is concerned primarily with issues of the Church. It is significant that the first concern presented deals with the meaning of greatness.

The disciples approach Jesus with a straightforward question. “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Once again Jesus chooses to respond to the disciples by placing a little child in their midst. We saw him do this once before but without much explanation. This time, however, the meaning of the child imagery will be unfolded.

Jesus’ first point is that the disciples must “turn,” or change, and become like children, or they will not enter the kingdom of heaven. This is not a call to return to infancy or assume childish behavior.

The characteristics Jesus associates with being a child are, first of all, humility or lowliness. Whoever is humble like a child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Socially, a child was insignificant and without power; they were on the lowest rung of the social ladder. The turning or changing that Jesus speaks about is a return to humbleness. To turn, or change, requires humility. Humility has no room for pride, ambition or self-centeredness.

Luke 22:24-27

The context for Luke dealing with the issue of true greatness is the Last Supper Jesus celebrates with his disciples. Jesus has just indicated that one of the Twelve will betray him. Rather than being sad that such a thing could happen, the disciples break out into an argument regarding who among them is the greatest. Jesus quickly intervenes with examples, which should not be imitated — namely, the “kings of the Gentiles,” who are known for their authoritarianism.

For Jesus this is not what it means to be great. In fact, it is quite the opposite. The greatest are those who assume the position of the youngest, and the leader becomes the servant. Clearly, for Jesus it is far better to serve than to rule. Furthermore, Jesus sees himself as primarily one who serves.

Humility and Service

Nowhere is humility and service better painted into a portrait of greatness than in the famous hymn found in St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (Phil 2:5-11). This famous hymn describes how Jesus restored the possibility of salvation by reversing the dynamic that placed humankind in that dire situation. The problem began when Adam and Eve, through the distorting temptation of a talking snake, grasped at equality with God. This grasping at equality with God resulted in a divine alienation that was not overcome until the Incarnation of Jesus, the Son of God.

We saw in the Gospel passages above how Jesus reversed the accepted understanding of greatness with a strong emphasis on humility and service. The Philippians’ hymn does the same thing by showing how Jesus, through humility and the total self-giving of his life for others, reversed the dynamic brought about by grasping at equality with God.

Jesus was God from the very beginning, but he lived his life in total self-giving, which ended with his death on a cross. It was as if he gave away his divinity so that the pathway to salvation might once again be open. In his life and death, Jesus manifested true greatness. And this true greatness rests firmly on the foundation of humility and service.

Service is the Measure of Greatness in the Church

The above heading is the title of the homily Pope Francis gave at Domus Sanctae Marthae on Feb. 25, 2020. It is a theme that he returns to frequently, especially when addressing cardinals, bishops and priests.

He continues to emphasize that Jesus wants us to follow the path of service rather than domination. This is all the more impressive when we realize that Pope Francis is one of the most powerful persons in the world. Nevertheless, he models ministry for us by taking the words of the Gospel and putting them into practice.

According to Pope Francis, the greatest in the Church are not the pope, bishops or cardinals, but rather those who “make themselves servants of all, those who serve everyone, not those with titles.” It is “whoever welcomes the most humble, the one who serves the most.” He concludes by saying humility is the only path against the spirit of the world.

Called to Greatness

Most priests do not see themselves being called to greatness, especially in the way contemporary culture understands greatness. We hope that we can be faithful ministers and effective proclaimers of the Gospel, but to be great is not part of our job description. That requires skills we feel we do not have.

We admire but do not attempt to imitate Pope Gregory the Great, Pope St. Leo the Great, Pope Nicholas the Great or St. Basil the Great. But maybe we should rethink that.

Keeping in mind the way Jesus understood greatness as humility and service, and the way the Philippians’ hymn showed greatness as total self-giving, greatness might be precisely what we are called to.

To be great is to be humble. To be humble is to be authentic, to be the real thing. To be great is to serve, to be socially insignificant, to be without power. Remember what is said to the priesthood candidate in the conclusion of the bishop’s homily during the Rite of Ordination: “Keep always before your eyes the example of the Good Shepherd who came not to be served but to serve, and who came to seek out and save what was lost.” In other words, strive to be great.

FATHER EUGENE HENSELL, OSB, is a monk of St. Meinrad Archabbey in St. Meinrad, Indiana, and an associate professor of Scripture at St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology.


On Holiness and Christian Life

At an address on the 15th World Youth Day, on Aug. 19, 2000, Pope John Paul II said, “It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives, the will to follow an ideal, the refusal to allow yourselves to be grounded down by mediocrity, the courage to commit yourselves humbly and patiently to improving yourselves and society, making the world more human and more fraternal.”


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