The Mystery of Piety and the End of Secularism

We depend upon the work of the Holy Spirit because our awareness of good and evil halts before the brink of darkness and we pull back. We come to a depth that we cannot plumb. Who wants to peer down inside ourselves and see the demons who may be lurking? Augustine spoke about the “abyss,” unfathomable to oneself. So Pope John Paul II said that it is not enough to search human conscience, or “the intimate mystery of man,” but we must search the “depths of God.” In order to show these mysterious depths, Pope John Paul II juxtaposes the mystery of evil and the mystery of piety. Mystery is a notion that means something richer than a riddle or a problem needing to be solved. It signifies a reality which a person encounters and finds an inexhaustible source for good, (or evil); we participate in the mystery, we must live it. Gabriel Marcel says that we are dominated by the mentality of “problem” and neglect mystery – problems can be solved and controlled. The mystery must be suffered and lived.

Pope John Paul II argued that we must understand the human condition in light of these mysteries of sin and piety. We must see how human beings suffer an attraction towards these two poles of existence, essentially religious in terms. “The terms or poles of contrast are, on man’s part, his limitation and sinfulness, which are essential elements of his psychological and ethical reality; and on God’s part, the mystery of the gift, that unceasing self-giving of divine life in the Holy Spirit. Who will win? The one who welcomes the gift.” §55

Pope John Paul II’s takes the phrase “mysterium iniquitatis” from St. Paul concerning the mystery of sin (2 Thess 2.7). The text from St. Paul is an obscure reference to a man of rebellion who will brought under judgment at the end of time. John Paul claims to “echo” this phrase to signify “the obscure and intangible element hidden in sin.” Although a function of human freedom, sin touches on a something “beyond the merely human, in the border area where man’s conscience, will and sensitivity are in contact with the dark forces.” It is precisely the depth of evil and death that modern culture in its progressive and ideological aspects refuses to face; we refuse to face the shuddering depth of our own complicity and capacity with evil. We need the Spirit of Truth to “convince us of sin” in this depth.

As for the “mysterium pietatis,” John Paul gets this term from a passage in St. Paul’s First Letter to Timothy, 3.15 ff. As if to emphasize the profound mission of the Church, the bulwark of truth, St. Paul exclaims “Great is the mystery of our religion.” So what is the mystery of piety? Piety is the latin term for a basic gratitude to parents and country, and it is extended to mean gratitude and right relationship towards God. It is part of what we call “religion” or the binding of the self to God. The Greek term is eusebia – it means to be well disposed towards something, with proper respect and awe; hence again it could mean religion. St Paul does not leave us in suspense – he says that Christ himself is the mystery of our religion – and he repeats a hymn to Christ — whereby:
· He was made manifest in the reality of human flesh and was constituted by the Holy Spirit as the Just One who offers himself for the unjust.
· He appeared to the angels, having been made greater than them, and he was preached to the nations as the bearer of salvation.
· He was believed in, in the world, as the one sent by the Father, and by the same Father assumed into heaven as Lord.

The mystery of Piety is essentially the “righteousness” of Christ about which the Holy Spirit is led to testify and convince us. It is the mystery of his redemption of mankind through the cross and resurrection. It is the continued mystery of his presence in word and sacrament — “Mysterium fidei.” The idea of mystery invites response and participation. We cannot be neutral observers; the mystery of our religion is greater than a “historical Jesus”. We must look upon him whom we have pierced. We are not mere passive recipients of this grace, legal imputation fails utterly to capture the “mystery of our religion.” The Christian becomes what he loves — John Paul said “the Christian accepts the mystery, contemplates it and draws from it the spiritual strength necessary for living according to the Gospel.”

The Holy Spirit will convince us about sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16.8-11). These convictions, if you will, define the mission of the Church in the world. In Augustinian mode, John Paul said”The Church constantly lifts up her prayer and renders her service in order that the history of consciences and the history of societies in the great human family will not descend towards the pole of sin, by the rejection of God’s commandments ‘to the point of contempt of God,’ but rather will rise towards the love in which the Spirit that gives life is revealed. Those who let themselves be ‘convinced concerning sin’ by the Holy Spirit, also allow themselves to be convinced ‘concerning righteousness and judgment.'” §48

In his earlier work on Reconciliation and Penance, Pope John Paul II also used the polarity of “mystery of sin” and “mystery of piety.” As we read above, “who will win? The one who accepts the gift.” In this previous work, Pope John Paul II said that the Mystery of Piety “penetrates to the roots our iniquity” and “evokes in the soul a movement of conversion.”

Secularism remains confidently on the surface of life and imagines a flattened human existence. The abyss opens and widens ominously on the edges of society, in the secrets of the heart, and when lawlessness prevails. The “mysterium iniquitatis” emerges right before our eyes and continually looms up under our denials. The previous century was the era of unprecedented evil and the demons rode as high as the sky. And yet secularism still trumpets it false notes throughout the West. “And though the last lights off the black West went” . . . “the Holy Ghost over the bent /World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”

Pope John Paul II would ask us — do we accept the gift? “the mystery of the gift, that unceasing self-giving of divine life in the Holy Spirit. Who will win? The one who welcomes the gift.”.

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