The last time I saw Brother Steve Ohnmacht, he said, “Joe, I don’t think I’ll be able to make the Assembly.” I thought he meant he would be too sick to join us in Kearney; he meant, “It is time to say goodbye.”
We said goodbye to Brother Steve at St. James Church in Liberty, the parish where he worshipped and served on the RCIA team for many years, on Thursday, March 26. Then, on Friday, March 27, we celebrated his life with his family and friends at St. Benedict Church in Nebraska City and, as he requested, laid his body to rest next to his parents in the parish cemetery.
Steve’s life came into focus on Palm Sunday when Pope Francis said in his homily that these three words, “he humbled himself,” are difficult for most human beings to comprehend. He calls it the way of humility and it is “a way which constantly amazes and disturbs us: we will never get used to a humble God.” But Steve did. His life in the community was marked by humility and service.
Humility weaves its way through the Scriptures of this Holy Week. Beginning with the song of the suffering servant from Isaiah, through the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday, to the anguished scream of abandonment on Good Friday, this week invites us to trace how humility marks the life of God and so must characterize our relationships with each other. “Humility is above all God’s way,” Francis said in his Palm Sunday sermon. “God’s humbles himself to walk with his people, to put up with their infidelity.”
While the dictionary makes a distinction between humility and humiliation, Pope Francis does not seem to distinguish between the two: “This week, Holy Week, we take this path of Jesus’ own humiliation. Only in this way will this week be ‘holy’ for us too!” After tracing the experiences we share with Jesus that are humbling in the passion story, the Pope said, “There can be no humility without humiliation.”
Certainly one who is humiliated knows something about humility. But there is also a false humility, like those who say they are nothing after receiving an award that tells them, “You’re really something!” But being humble, practicing humility, is really about putting others needs and concerns before one’s own. To be hospitable, one must practice humility. “In the end,” Pope Francis said on Sunday, “Humility also means service. It means making room for God by stripping oneself, ‘emptying oneself.’ This—the pouring out of oneself—is the greatest humiliation of all.”
The way of humility is contrary to the way of the world that places so much emphasis on externals, on being full, on status and success. As Jesus confronted the devil in the desert the first week of Lent, refusing this superficial way and choosing another way, so the Pope said that only with Jesus “and only by his grace, with his help” can we “overcome this temptation to vanity, to worldliness, not at significant moments, but in daily life as well.”
The only way that the suffering servant of Isaiah and Jesus could stand the humiliation they experienced is because they knew who they were as God’s beloved. When one is humiliated it is counter-intuitive to feeling beloved. Instead we feel like dirt—humus, the root word for humility and humiliation. Listen to what the servant experiences: “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting.”
But the beloved also knows “God is my help, therefore I am not disgraced; I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.” We hear the echoes of this in Jesus’ experience as described by Paul in his Philippians’ hymn. The emptying, the humbling, the “becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross,” is turned upside down as “God greatly exalted him.”
The challenge of this Holy Week is to walk with Jesus with open hands and open hearts, to be humble, to be loved. The knowledge of being loved by God allows one to let go of those plaudits and applause that certainly feel good at the time but then fade in memory and inspiration as the journey of life continues. Remember, this Holy Week begins with palm branches being waved in adoration and ends with nails in the palms of Jesus’ hands as he is fastened to the wood of the cross. It is a journey of humility as the cheers and songs of praise turn to jeers and chants of “Crucify him!”
Yes, it is the journey of a life, the journey of a lifetime, a journey each of us must take. May we meet often in prayer during these holy days until we arrive together at an empty tomb and celebrate the joy of the resurrection—a joy that our Brother Steve now experiences. May we know ever more deeply and accept every more humbly our identity as God’s beloved during these holy days. And may we experience the joys of Easter so abundantly that it will make us ever more humble.
Fr. Joe Nassal, C.PP.S.
For the Leadership Team