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True piety

Today, the word "piety" evokes a number of different reactions. For some, piety is associated with the ways in which we regularly show our devotion to God. Some see piety as an old-fashioned, romanticized way of expressing faith. Still others misunderstand piety and use behaviors associated with it to draw attention to themselves or their views. Though there are many modern conceptions of this word, as Christians, we are called to practice true piety, recognizing it as a gift of the Holy Spirit.

What does piety truly mean? Broadly speaking, piety refers to the way in which we relate to God and things that are holy. The word has its root meaning in the ancient Latin virtue that referred to a child's obligation of love and respect for his or her parents. In our faith, it is applied to our familial relationship with God. Piety is born of the grace of divine charity, the filial bond with God in Christ, and manifests itself in a loving reverence that is both respectful and intimate. If piety is not based on a personal love for Our Creator, it lacks authenticity. Saint Paul speaks of love as the source of true pious acts when he states, "If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing" (1 Corinthians 13:1-2). Our piety should be a grace-filled response to our Heavenly Father's love for us in Christ.

Unfortunately, some lose sight of the true source and ultimate end of piety and instead engage in seemingly pious actions for superficial reasons. Recall the Pharisee from Christ's parable who "took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, 'O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity - greedy, dishonest, adulterous - or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income'" (Luke 18: 11-12). It is clear that the real motivation for this man's prayer and sacrifices was to enhance his appearance in the sight of other and bolster his self-image. His prayer did not spring form a love of God. How often do we forget why we are attending the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and become concerned only over whether other people see how much we give in the offertory or how well we sing hymns or how seemingly devout we appear during Mass? While generosity and attention during Mass are certainly important, these necessary external actions are indeed "a clashing cymbal" if they do not find their root in love for Our Lord. To make acts of worship and sacrifice at Mass for the sake of appearances is a spectacularly wasted opportunity to attain what is truly great. We miss the heart of the Mass, the real treasure that that God gives us: His very self in a supreme act of love.

This false sense of piety can also extend to our perception of Church and public affairs. In an age where it is easy to hit "send" on an e-mail or to post a thought immediately on Facebook, we may neglect to examine our reasons for communicating. As Catholics, we have a responsibility to defend the truth and our faith to our nation, to our neighbors and sometimes even within the Body of Christ. However, in all instances, we must ask, "why am I participating in this debate?" Are we speaking out of love for the person to whom we are writing, as well as for the Lord? Or, because something has angered us, are we writing in a way reminiscent of the Pharisee who only wanted to point out his own righteousness instead of truly pointing to the Truth with love?

These distinctions concerning our attitudes are essential for us to make as Christians striving for virtue. In the same narrative of the Pharisee, Christ gives us another example, that of the tax collector. Christ says, "But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, 'O God, be merciful to me a sinner.' I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted" (Luke 18:13-14). This tax collector is a true example of authentic Christian piety. He strives not to be recognized, but rather to earnestly place himself in the hands of the Lord.

The reality that external acts of devotion can be done for the wrong reason does not mean that they should not be done. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that "The religious sense of the Christian people has always found expression in various forms of piety surrounding the Church's sacramental life, such as the veneration of relics, visits to sanctuaries, pilgrimages, processions..." (Catechism, no. 1674). Indeed, our spiritual lives will be enriched by these devotions. We should approach these devotions and the entire liturgical life of the Church with humility, recognizing that they are ways for us to express our love for the Lord. In imitation of the tax collector, we may participate with quietness and a true reverence for the Lord and His Church, thus assuming the posture necessary for true piety.

There are simple specific ways we can live out piety. The next time that we walk into the Church, we can do so in respectful silence, remembering that this is God's dwelling. We recall as we bless ourselves with holy water that Our Lord is the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity and the Redeemer of the world, the font of life from which all nourishment and blessings flow. We can arrive a few minutes early for Mass - not to chat with our friends, but rather to build community in silence by praying and practicing postures of humility such as kneeling with our attention focused on Our Blessed Lord truly present in the tabernacle.

The Lord has given us His Church so that She may help guide us in our spiritual journey. The Catechism goes on to say that "Pastoral discernment is needed to sustain and support popular piety and, if necessary, to purify and correct the religious sense which underlies these devotions" (Catechism, no. 1676). Through the apostolic succession that dates back to Peter, the Church is given the authority to assist the Body of Christ in living piety. Before offering a correction to someone who may not be properly respectful in Church or otherwise in line with Church teaching, consider first praying for their conversion as well as for your own deepened faith. Similarly, when approaching a priest with a concern, do so with respect for his ministry and vocation and out of humble concern, rather than pretensions to piety.

The path of true piety is not an easy one to follow. As human persons with tendency toward pride, too often we can fool even ourselves into thinking that we are only trying to do what is best for others. Remember that even though an action or sentiment may be correct and in line with Church teaching, we are called to do everything out of true love, that is, charity. For this reason, we should consider taking an extra moment to pray and reflect before speaking and witnessing to our faith and always to approach the Liturgy and devotions with love and humility before God.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2011