Piety refers to more than devotional practices - Catholic Courier

Piety refers to more than devotional practices

The words “piety” and “pious” are among the most frequently misused terms in our religious vocabulary. Many assume they refer primarily, if not exclusively, to devotional practices and to persons who engage in them.

Thus, a Catholic is thought to be “pious” if, during the season of Lent, he or she makes the Stations of the Cross each week, or meditates for long periods of time at the back of a darkened church, or subjects herself or himself to acts of mortification, such as abstaining from favorite foods.

In the years prior to the Second Vatican Council, before most current members of the church were born or would be old enough to remember the 1950s, the word “pious” also had a pejorative connotation, especially within clerical circles. Individuals who were regarded as too overt in their devotional practices or who affected a holier-than-thou demeanor, never laughing at even the cleanest of jokes, were dismissed as “pious frauds.”

In traditional Catholic theology, beginning with the Middle Ages, pietas (Latin for “dutifulness”) was defined as a virtue by which an individual is faithful, respectful and caring toward one’s parents and relatives, toward one’s friends, mentors and benefactors and toward one’s country.

But other medieval theologians, including the great Thomas Aquinas, insisted that piety belonged in a special category, beyond even the virtues, and they cited Scripture to support their view.

Piety, they pointed out, is listed in the Septuagint (the original Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) as one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, along with wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge and fear of the Lord (Isaiah 11:1-3). These seven gifts are thought to empower the Christian to be habitually open to the guidance and influence of the Holy Spirit.

Piety, therefore, is more than a virtue. It is a gift of the Holy Spirit by which we are motivated and enabled to be faithful and respectful to those — ultimately, God — who have had a positive, formative influence on our lives and to whom we owe a debt of gratitude.

As one grows older, one realizes how long that list has become. Unlike Jacob Marley’s chain of cash boxes, however, we do not drag that list behind us as a burden, forged link by link by many sins over the course of a lifetime. The list is instead a record of countless blessings received. The only “burden” we bear is to acknowledge, to the extent possible, the sources of those many blessings through words and gestures great and small.

I have tried to do so from time to time in this weekly column, with the hope that a public expression of personal piety might serve some broader purpose, namely to stimulate others to similar acts of piety toward parents, relatives, benefactors, mentors, teachers and others who have helped to shape and reshape their lives for the better.

This week I honor one of those to whom I am bound not only in close friendship, but also in piety. Philip J. King is a priest of the Archdiocese of Boston and a former professor of mine (in sacred Scripture) at Saint John Seminary, Brighton, Massachusetts. This coming Monday, March 26, he turns 82.

Philip King is the only biblical scholar who has been president of every major professional organization in his field: the Society of Biblical Literature, the Catholic Biblical Association, the American Schools of Oriental Research and the W. F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research (in Jerusalem).

Apart from his many scholarly and popular writings, he has published several substantial books, including American Archaeology in the Mideast: A History of the American Schools of Oriental Research (1983); Amos, Hosea, Micah: An Archaeological Commentary (1988); Jeremiah: An Archaeological Companion (1993); and, with Professor Lawrence Stager of Harvard University, Life in Biblical Israel (2001).

This past fall Philip King was honored in an extraordinary way by having an endowed professorship established in his name at Harvard, in the field of ancient studies.

But Phil is a man who wears his honors and achievements lightly. He disdains titles, ecclesiastical or otherwise, and is thoroughly democratic in the relationships he cultivates.

As Grant Kaplan, a professor at Loyola University in New Orleans and a former student of Phil’s, wrote two years ago in the journal Conversations, “he never failed to become friendly with the custodians and cafeteria workers at Boston College.” Phil has not changed today.

“Like Jesus on the road to Emmaus,” Kaplan concluded, “Phil lit my heart on fire when he explained the Scriptures and he made me recognize Christ’s presence over the course of a meal.”

That is piety — in the correct sense of the word.

Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

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