Blessed are the Meek?

I recently had the privilege of delivering the commencement address at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmittsburg, Maryland, just about an hour’s drive from Catholic Relief Services’ world headquarters in Baltimore. I’d like to share just a bit of what I told the graduates.

I told them that I believed that the most misunderstood of the beatitudes uttered by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount is, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” We usually nod at that “meek” term, give it deference and then pass on. We can go with the blessings Christ bestowed on the merciful and the pure of heart and the peacemakers. But the meek? Inheriting the earth? Come on.

I think we feel that unease because we misunderstand the passage. In general parlance, we think the opposite of meek is strong. “Meekness” to me can be defined as a type of humble patience. I suggested that the opposite of meek is not strong, but arrogant. And, boy, does arrogance get us in trouble. This whole financial crisis that might be making graduates a bit nervous about their next step came directly from the arrogance of many in the financial sector who thought they had it all figured out. Are they going to inherit the earth? It doesn’t look that way.

To me, being meek means approaching a problem, not with a certainty that we know the answer—which will often take us down the wrong path—but wondering what it is that we can learn that will lead us to the right solution. I suggested that it takes courage to be humble enough to recognize that we don’t know the answer and patient enough to take time to listen to what it could be.

There is no lack of strength in humble patience. It means approaching other people with an attitude of “What can I do to serve you? To help you?” There’s nothing weak about that. It’s the right formula for a business. Adopt it and you make money because your customers will be happy.

“What can I do to serve you?” That should be the financial leaders’ mantra. Adopting it will put them in the right relationship not just with their customers, their co-workers and their employees, but more importantly with their friends, with their spouses, with their children and with God.

It’s what we try to do at Catholic Relief Services. You may think that everyone involved in humanitarian aid is a pure-of-heart, meek peacemaker, but there is plenty of arrogance in my world. People sit in Washington or London or Geneva and think they know exactly what the poor of Chad or Ethiopia or Indonesia need. They are well meaning, but their plans invariably fail.

You have a much better chance of success if you approach people in their towns and villages and homes and ask, “What can we do to serve you?”

That’s what CRS is doing right now in Haiti, where we are involved in one of the biggest recovery efforts in our history. We are adopting an attitude of service to others, others who are desperately in need of life-sustaining assistance, others who tell us they need better shelter, jobs and sanitation. We are being of service to young girls and women who need protection. And we are striving to be of service to the many Americans who so generously gave us funds to be of help in Haiti. Many have longstanding relationships with priests and nuns, orphanages, schools, or hospitals and want us to rebuild these institutions.

At CRS, we often talk about solidarity with the people of the world, with the poor. Those we serve are not just statistics; they are quite literally our brothers and sisters. If you feel that solidarity, really feel it, you can’t be arrogant. It demands that you be meek. In Haiti, that means we need to humbly listen to the people affected by the earthquake and hear of their dreams and aspirations for their future. It means we will walk side by side in a journey with the Haitian people.

So I asked the graduates to be strong and determined—but meek.

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