Sestercius coin of Antoninus Pius as Caesar, with Pietas on reverse.
“Pietas, in Roman religion, personification of a respectful and faithful attachment to gods, country, and relatives, especially parents. Pietas had a temple at Rome, dedicated in 181 BC, and was often represented on coins as a female figure carrying a palm branch and a sceptre or as a matron casting incense upon an altar, sometimes accompanied by a stork, the symbol of filial piety.” Source: britannica.com
A few days ago I read posts by Father Z and Father Hunwicke, both of which unpick for us the Collect for that day and both of which make reference to the word pietas as used in the original Latin. Both of these giants of the blogesterium tell us that pietas as applied to God refers to His mercy. When applied to us poor mortals, pietas, as Father Z remarks, refers to:
“dutiful conduct toward the gods, one’s parents, relatives, benefactors, country, etc., sense of duty.” It furthermore describes pietas in Jerome’s Vulgate in both Old and New Testament as “conscientiousness, scrupulousness regarding love and duty toward God.” The heart of pietas is “duty.” Pietas is also one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit (cf. CCC 733-36; Isaiah 11:2), by which we are duly affectionate and grateful toward our parents, relatives and country, as well as to all men living insofar as they belong to God or are godly, and especially to the saints.”
This rang some bells with me. I think it possible that this notion of pietas is what people vaguely refer to when, as is our wont, we fulminate out loud or quietly to ourselves, about a feeling of something lost that we once seemed to know – the respect for family, life and our fellow citizens, perhaps more honoured in the breach than the observance, but keenly if inarticulately missed. It is not ‘Britishness’, or ‘Englishness’. The idea of citizenship, now taught in schools, comes close, but is not it. It is, to use a narrow example, the giving up of one’s seat on the bus…it is the returning of change if undercharged in a shop, the not talking in libraries, the not dropping of litter, the not ‘showing-off’. It is the attitude, seemingly now long-lost of: ‘if you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything!’
We can all complain about this strange, unspoken loss – perhaps the accusation of ‘disrespecting’ someone is not a stupidity but the projection of a keenly-felt loss of ordinary civility. Pietas is fundamentally about duty and closely linked with the often-mocked idea of what is natural and good. It is also, in my mind, linked with the concepts of modesty and temperance – notions that have narrowed somewhat over time. I notice that some faith communities lead lives in which piety, family stability, modesty and duty are part of a disciplined and happy lifestyle. I wonder a bit about the wider population.
One can read reams of words by grumpy old men and women writing about the loss of pietas, whether or not they realise that this is what they are doing; in general, I now agree with them that the country is Going To The Dogs at times when I am in That Sort of Mood. The question is how to change this in a time when preaching is ‘old-fashioned’, mocked and in some areas, illegal? Perhaps I am getting closer to understanding what I meant when I was writing about Salus populi suprema lex esto.
“22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, 23 meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.” Galatians 5:22-23
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