Penance and The Mystery of Piety

Penance and The Mystery of Piety
Rembrandt, from Pilgrims at Emmaus

Blessed John Paul meditates on the term “mysterium pietatis,” a term he found 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, Paul exclaims “Great is the mystery of our religion.” Mystery is a notion that means something richer than a riddle or something needing to be solved. It signifies a reality which a person encounters and finds an inexhaustible source for good, (or evil as case of 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. The term mystery can also be translated as “sacrament.” It can only be signified by signs that convey it to us. 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.

So  how do we put this all together? St Paul does 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 Christ is the overwhelming reality of his presence and the awesomeness of his mission in redemption of mankind. But you see the idea of mystery invites response and participation. We cannot be neutral observers, the mystery of our religion is greater than “historical Jesus”. And 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 — the Christian accepts the mystery, contemplates it and draws from it the spiritual strength necessary for living according to the Gospel .

This mystery Blessed says “penetrates to the roots our iniquity” and “evokes in the soul a movement of conversion.” The mystery of piety therefore also signifies the Christian response to God, the growth and transformation as adopted sons of God. And becomes a key sacrament – the conversion as the heart of our response. “Thus the word of Scripture, as it reveals to us the mystery of pietas, opens the intellect to conversion and reconciliation, understood not as lofty abstractions but as concrete Christian values to be achieved in our daily lives.” Yes we can live as faithful sons and daughters – but who could begin to do so, who grow and develop – without the sacrament of penance!?

We can be reconciled with God, within our self, with others – “The mystery of piety is the path opened by divine mercy to a reconciled life.” The great lie of sin is that we cannot overcome sin – that we cannot live as sons of God “in a way worthy of “the house of God.” The absence of grace – which must go together with the sense of sin, the strict demand of the gospel.. He repeats here – a distortion of post Vatican II theologians – that the pastoral is opposed to the doctrinal. This is utterly false according to John Paul II — “Nor can pastoral action prescind from doctrinal content, from which in fact it draws its substance and real validity. Now if the church is the pillar and bulwark of the truth’ and is placed in the world as mother and teacher, how could she neglect the task of teaching the truth which constitutes a path of life?”

This truth is repeated Crossing the Threshold of Hope  and Comments on Humanae Vitae. The denial of truth in the name of being “pastoral” is a sign of the crisis of faith. It is the failure to embrace the mysterium pietatis – accept, contemplate,and draw energy from the face of Christ..

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