Saturday, October 3, 2009

For Piety's Sake!

Virtues and Vices

The first reading for Thursday of the 25th Week in Ordinary Time from the Prophet Haggai planted a seed for reflection which I want to attempt to pursue in writing. What is at issue in that reading? Could it not be said to center around the need to establish priorities in life and what is meant by true piety? Here again is the core of that passage:

“Is this a time for you to live in your paneled houses, when this House lies in ruins? So now, the Lord of hosts says this: Reflect carefully how things have gone for you. You have sown much and harvested little, you eat but never have enough, drink but never have your fill, put on clothes but do not feel warm. The wage earner gets his wages only to put them in a purse riddled with holes. Reflect carefully how things have gone for you. So go to the hill country, fetch wood, and rebuild the House: I shall then take pleasure in it, and be glorified there, says the Lord.” (Haggai 1:1-8)

It’s all too easy for some to dismiss these words as a relic of times past, before social consciousness sensitized people to the virtue of exercising a preferential option in favor of the poor and disadvantaged. But understanding or explaining away this reading can’t be as simple as saying “Things were different back them, but times now have changed. Rebuilding the Temple would have to take a backseat today to the programs of feeding the hungry and clothing the naked…” Permit me to insist out of my faith in the enduring value and relevance of the Sacred Scriptures that Haggai cannot be so easily dismissed. I see no evidence of Haggai having framed an “either/or” situation; I believe that with Haggai we are in the realm of “both/and”. I also believe that rebuilding the Temple was and is the most important part of giving God his due. If not, why has the Church proposed it for our consideration today? In what sense must I commit myself to “rebuilding the Temple”? So went my thought process and thus was the seed for reflection planted. Meantime a week has passed.

Let me pursue my intuition intimated in the first paragraph and ask what is piety, anyway? Piety is neither a vice nor a character defect. It is a virtue of sorts, maybe not like prudence, justice, fortitude, or temperance, or even like altruism or heroism, but it is indeed a virtue. As such, it must have a timeless content. Piety can be qualified in a limiting fashion as filial, meaning our devotion or respect toward our parents. In other words, even modified by an adjective it is not a horizontal but a vertical virtue; it involves being devoted to someone over me: by limitation, to my parents over me, and without a qualifier, to God over me, Who made me and saved me to be His own.

The dictionary does not help flesh out “piety” beyond pointing to its being a religious sentiment. Piety is one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit; the Catechism of the Catholic Church (N. 1831) says: “They (the seven gifts) complete and perfect the virtues of those who receive them. They make the faithful docile in readily obeying divine inspirations.” Those who were moved to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem did so out of piety; they were gifted by the Holy Spirit and hence docile to the word of God spoken by His prophet Haggai.

Piety is certainly a personal thing, but indeed it must be a shared sentiment or strength as well. Public worship of God ought to be pious thanks not only to the presence of a pious celebrant and an inspiring choir, but really thanks to the presence of a Spirit-filled community of baptized folk, gifted by that same Holy Spirit with piety.

When is divine worship pious? When or why might we say that divine worship is not pious? Is piety a demeanor? Let me answer that question directly and say I think not. Piety is, to continue the thought expressed in the CCC, that which “… complete(s) and perfect(s) the virtues of those who receive (the gift). (Piety, a gift of the Holy Spirit) makes the faithful docile in readily obeying divine inspirations.” Piety comes from the heart. Exposure to pious worship ought to render those present open or more open to God. Piety involves attentiveness to God; it completes and perfects my love for God, just as filial piety does for my love of mom and dad.

One of the great worries or urgings felt not only by Catholic people but by all true believers is that of handing on our faith in God to the next generation and sharing more widely the joy of faith which is ours with others. People actually get anxious about this task and seek to render devotion and public worship, in particular, attractive or worthwhile. A movement in the United States in favor of youth called “Life Teen” comes to mind. Among other things “Life Teen” seeks to render faith in God and our Sunday obligation to Mass more appealing to youth by bringing what we do there down or up (you choose!) to what adults believe to be their level. If you sense a note of hesitation or skepticism in my words to describe this movement and other similar attempts by adults to try and make divine worship “appealing” to those who don’t spontaneously embrace the tradition, then you are sensing rightly. We cannot and must not try and compete with the entertainment industry or even with the so-called non-liturgical religious groupings. Very simply stated showmanship or protagonism are no substitute for genuine piety. A rip-roaring, Bible-thumping sermon is not the be-all and end-all of Catholic worship. Jumping and shouting of a Sunday, getting all flushed with emotion, doesn’t necessarily mean that we have been gifted with or by the Holy Spirit and are hence “docile in readily obeying divine inspirations.” The opposite is probably the case as catering to perceived needs might make the object of our concern even more hesitant to join us, whether it be young people straddling the religious fence or fallen-away Catholics we are attempting to call home. Entertainment or mega-church events differ little from the social strictures of two generations ago which buttonholed certain people who though baptized didn’t seem to have appropriated the faith for themselves. Back then many drug themselves to Mass each Sunday bending to social pressure until they could disappear into the anonymity of the big city. Today’s alternative to that kind of social pressure, funneling or containment through entertainment or mastery, doesn’t really have anything to do with freedom or active involvement especially when it comes to choosing the sublime. If I come to be entertained or moved, I’m passive at best, I’m audience and not one of God’s own.

Piety is born of conviction and is a loving and respectful response to love from on high recognized as given and received. I think the protagonism or showmanship which has captured much of the liturgical “high ground” in the Church today is at odds with genuine piety. Being self-serving protagonism does not point to Christ. I’m thinking of the folks who have grabbed “center stage”, if you will: celebrants, certain types of commentators or readers, song leaders and other musicians who have placed themselves up front as an additional pole of attention in competition with what should be the ultimate focus of our worship.

I can remember the bishop of my childhood, who ordained me, sharing with me his honest puzzlement over how the world had changed. He could not figure out where the rage against the clergy in the early 1980’s had all of a sudden come from in the U.S.A., the country which had always been so enthusiastic about supporting its priests and bishops. As a young priest I certainly had no answer for him, but the more I think about it and strive for an answer, it is Shebna from Isaiah (22:15ff) who comes to mind. Shebna, the Lord’s steward, who spends his time building his grandiose “tomb on the heights”. God calls him “the shame of (his) master’s house”. Shebna was among other things prideful and self-serving, no steward at all.

The process of preparing the reception of the new English language Missal/Sacramentary is a unique opportunity for bishops in the name of the Church to call us back from protagonism or showmanship in liturgy to genuine piety, that is, proper focus through a new or renewed awareness of the sacredness of the action performed. Without wanting to sound in the least bit unfair, the exclusive use once again of Latin in divine worship would be the easy way out. It would most likely serve as the straightjacket to rein in our showmen. Perhaps I am still na├»ve enough to believe that we can talk our priests into faithfully observing the rubrics for Mass. Where the architecture permits, it would be great if they’d prepare the gifts at Mass and pray the Eucharistic Prayer ad Orientem. Maybe the fear of contagion through swine flu will give perspective to the greeting of peace in a world deaf to the voice of reason?

My reflection certainly goes on and I would hope yours will too. May the showmen lay down their hats and canes and true worship through genuine piety reign supreme, drawing youth and aged to the foot of the Cross and to the gates of the Kingdom!