Pentecost is almost upon us.
It is the day when the Spirit was poured out on the Apostles and the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is the birth of the Church. It is the beginning of our universal mission. It is the reason for the Sacrament of Confirmation. But, it is also the reason that we should love our country, our families, and all those joined to us in faith.
Allow me to explain using today’s feast, the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I’ve always found this story remarkable because of what happened right before. Can you imagine it? You’re minding your own business when all of a sudden, an angel appears from heaven and tells you that you are going to give birth, miraculously, to the messiah. You are told that your child will rule over an everlasting kingdom and that he will be called the Son of God. Naturally, you’re a little surprised, so the Angel gives you a sign: the miraculous pregnancy of your much older cousin who was thought to be barren. Out of all the information that you’ve received, what rises to the surface? What detail so captures your attention that it becomes literally the first thing you do after the angel departs?
I don’t know what I’d do, but we know what Mary did.
What most moved her right away was the seemingly extra detail of her cousin’s pregnancy. She doesn’t fret about Joseph. She doesn’t seek advice from a Rabbi. She doesn’t go to the temple or synagogue to pray and ponder. Nope, the first thing she does is go take care of her cousin. Why? Because Piety, that’s why.
Some readers might remember that I wrote an article awhile back about the tears I’ve shed as a priest. In that post, I wrote that I did not cry at my first funeral. In fact, I didn’t and still don’t cry during most funerals. But there is one kind of funeral that causes me to tear up almost every time: a military funeral. The flag, the 21 guns…
To be frank, I first thought this was an imperfection of mine. Here I am celebrating the Church’s rituals and I’m largely unmoved. But, where the highly meaningful, spiritual, and grace-filled rituals of the Church have little effect, a single civic ritual – a ritual that has no meaning or power that we don’t give it ourselves – strikes me deeply. It still might be an imperfection of mine, but my thinking has changed a bit. At least one of the reasons I’m so moved by a military funeral is a very good one. It’s because my brothers, both of them, are veterans. What I saw and felt the first time they folded up that flag and fired those guns, what flashed before my heart was a vision, a presentiment of my brothers’ funerals… who wouldn’t be moved by that?
I mean, most funerals are very similar, so why don’t they trigger that sense every time? Because it looks like every other funeral. Across the world, the funeral rites are used again and again. They are necessary, powerful, and beautiful, but they tend to become a bit universal. But the military honors? They were particular. Especially at the funeral of someone I barely know or have never met, it’s hard to feel much beyond the good will I extend to all who have died. But when I see something that reminds me of family and country, I have a bridge to that experience of grief that I may one day feel more directly.
So, what does that have to do with Mary or the Holy Spirit?
Because of piety. Piety, as a virtue, is a subset of the virtue of Justice. Justice means giving someone what they are due. Piety is specifically fulfilling our duty to family and country. As Thomas Aquinas puts it
“On the second place, the principles of our being and government are our parents and our country, that have given us birth and nourishment. Consequently man is debtor chiefly to his parents and his country, after God. Wherefore just as it belongs to religion to give worship to God, so does it belong to piety, in the second place, to give [honor] to one’s parents and one’s country.” ST II-II, Q. 1, Art. 1, Resp.
When I am moved by a reminder or a premonition of a close family member’s death, it is a natural piety. I am moved by my natural duty toward family even while I am serving the Church’s universal mission in burying the dead. So also Mary was given a universal mission affecting the salvation of the entire world, but she remains a particular human being in a particular family and a particular country. She hears that her cousin is pregnant and she knows it is her duty to help her simply because she is family. In that way, Mary is being very pious.
But Piety does not stop at being a natural virtue. There is also the gift of piety, a gift found in the traditional list of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit and a gift that is directly requested in the Holy Spirit Novena. What is the difference between these two? Again, we can look to the Common Doctor:
“As by the virtue of piety man pays duty and worship not only to his father in the flesh, but also to all his kindred on account of their being related to his father so by the gift of piety he pays worship and duty not only to God, but also to all men on account of their relationship to God. Hence it belongs to piety to honor the saints, and not to contradict the Scriptures whether one understands them or not.” ST II-II, Q. 121, Art. 1, ad. 3.
As we say, however, grace perfects nature.
So the gift of piety by no means excludes or destroys the natural virtue of piety. In fact, if you have no foundation in natural piety, the gift of piety will be largely unintelligible to you. If you have no love for your natural family, why then would you be moved at the idea that you share a spiritual family with all the baptized? If you have no love for your homeland, how would you understand the joy and peace that comes from knowing there is a heavenly homeland?
Pentecost is almost upon us. Remain in prayer, stay close to the Blessed Mother, and ask for a renewed outpouring of the gifts of the Holy Spirit upon you. Among them, take note of the gift of piety. Dispose yourself to receive it by practicing the virtue it perfects. Don’t let a false universalism blot out the very real duty you have to family and country; Mary certainly didn’t. At the same time, don’t let a limited vision of piety (or patriotism) blind you to the supernatural call we have to our larger spiritual family and homeland.
Come Holy Spirit, fill us with the gift of Piety. Teach us to love an honor, to love all men for his sake, to love the family that gave us life, and to love and serve the country in which we live.