'Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit'

A few years ago, a friend of mine invited her new pastor to dinner to see how she could support him in his work. He gladly accepted her invitation. They set a date and decided on a restaurant. When the server came to take their food order, my friend ordered first, but her pastor declined, stating that he was "fasting to atone for his sins."

What was it like for the woman who invited this man to be her guest at dinner, have him agree but then proceed to not eat and make the statement that he was not eating for reasons of piety? I do not need to imagine what it was like because she told me -- it was awkward. The dinner became a statement about the piety of the pastor and not about the generosity of the woman who wanted to help. I do not think this was intended, and this is why I often reflect on this scene.

As a person with a long-standing self-righteous streak, I often fall short in the humility category and place the interests of others ahead of my own. As a reminder of my need to be better, above my desk is a copy of this quote from St. Paul's letter to the Philippians, "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others."(2:3,4) St. Paul is one of my favorite Bible personalities because he is proof that change is possible, and this gives me great hope!

This message is affixed above my desk because I need to constantly ask myself in any response: Whose need is being met? Is this about me being right or attempting to prove my expertise? Am I putting others ahead of me and thinking about their needs? Why am I responding or doing something at all?

As Matthew 7:4 reminds us, it is easy to find a speck in your brother's eye, but how do we see the plank in our own? The irony here is that my initial reflection on my behavior is grounded in pointing out the speck in my brother's eye! A first step may be to stop looking at others for flaws and reflect on the people we know who proceed humbly with a clear regard for others.

In my work at the Catholic Schools Foundation, I am privileged to work with smart, talented, successful people who care about Catholic education because they know it makes a difference. Each day, I get to learn from my colleagues, school leaders, students, board members and benefactors; it is a true gift. In these 17 years at the Foundation, I have come to fully believe that the most expert, pious and committed people are also the humblest. Never have I observed a true expert feel compelled to lecture or correct or demonstrate their command of some topic. Nor have I observed the most devout people feel compelled to make a show of their piety. True expertise and true piety are quiet and humble and do not need attention.

As we move into 2024, let us all continue to reflect on St. Paul's message to the Philippians and remember my other favorite Bible personality, St. Joseph. He never utters a word and yet he influenced the world!

- Michael B. Reardon is executive director of the Catholic Schools Foundation, www.CSFBoston.org.