Piety Men's 135th Cursillo
Men's 135th Cursillo October 26-29, 2017
My name is Anthony De Cristofaro. My parents and godparents baptized me at Our Lady of Pity Catholic Church on Staten Island, NY (Graniteville to be specific). For the past 30 years, my wife Beth, daughters Regina and Sarah, and I have been celebrating life at St. Mary of Sorrows, in Fairfax. I made my Cursillo in October 2001 at Missionhurst and sat at the Table of Faith and Action.
Before we can build piety into our life, we need to know precisely what “piety” is. St. Webster of the Holy Dictionary gives us decent start: “A firm belief in God shown by your worship and behavior.”
That definition helps in a theoretical sense, but we get a better sense of the definition from the origin (etymology) of the word. Our word “piety” comes down to us from the Italian word – pieta – which translates as “pity.” For someone baptized at Our Lady of Pity, that starts to resonate but still falls short. However, the language of the church is not the language of 20th century Italian – it is the language of ancient Latin. In Latin, “Pietà” translates as “duty.” That’s a little better but not flashy or fleshy enough for me. Such a duty can be to God, to a country or Notre Dame. Piety. Pietà.
Take a trip with me to rediscover pieta in your life. Close your eyes and free your imagination from the distractions of the room, the Parkway, and Mount Vernon. To get to the main entrance of St. Peter’s Basilica, you have to walk past the begging gypsies, the book and rosary vendors, the Vatican Post Office, the colorful Swiss Guard, the watchful carabinieri, and then cue up in line with curious tourists and faith-filled pilgrims.
As you step over the antique wood frame of the threshold, you walk over a large, round, purple stone embedded in the floor. At that very moment, you are standing on the spot where the Pope Leo III blessed Charlemagne as the Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day in the year 800. That blessing happened over 1,200 years ago. At that time, the disc in the Basilica floor was already 500 years old. Maybe that gives us some idea of duty to God and country. But while standing on that stone, look to your right. Regard! Vide!
In the first chapel of the north aisle is Michelangelo's Pietà. Not a copy but the real marble. You’ve seen it countless times in books and movies. Maybe you, too, have been there in person. The Pietà shows Mary holding the dead body of Christ after his crucifixion, death, and removal from the cross but before Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus placed his body in the tomb and rolled the stone over the opening.
No longer is this a babe in swaddling clothes “away in a Bethlehem manger, no crib for a bed.” The little Lord Jesus now lies down his sweet head on the throne of his mother’s lap one final time. If this were the realism of Goya, or Whistler or Casset, we would see the cold, lifeless body, caked with dried blood and sweat that has been brought down from the cross. The crown of thorns still would be embedded in his head from the day-long torture.
Mary is saying her last goodbye to her son. However, the statue is so idyllic and lifelike that a viewer can almost feel the life-like curls of the dead Christ’s hair and the softness of the young Madonna’s lips.
The veins in Christ’s muscular arms and neck seem to be still holding blood. These are not the empty veins of a man who died after hanging from the cross for three hours – his side pierced with a sword until only water flowed out. The folds in Madonna's veil seem made of muslin rather than marble.
How would you depict the face of the Mater Dei if you were the stone carver? Wouldn’t you be inclined to make that look filled with hurt and sadness and stained with 32 years of tears?
That is not how Michelangelo depicted her. We have the serene face of youth and beauty. It’s almost as if Mary just stepped out of the temple in Jerusalem although her heart has just been pierced precisely like Simeon predicted that day.
For her whole adult life, Mary knew what had to happen. Now, she is completing the end of her “duties” as his mother one final time with kindness, faithfulness, and loyalty. She considers the past and contemplates her future. “Woman, behold your son…one final time.”
Now, most of Michelangelo’s famous statues only depict one person. David. Cupid. Bacchus. Moses. But not the Pietà. There are two perfect figures carved out of one ideal slab of marble.
So, I ask you, to which one of these two was the term Pietà directed? Was it the final loving act of the Mater Dolorosa? She had the shame of a potential unwed pregnancy. She crossed the desert to Bethlehem to register for the stupid Roman census. She had the pain of childbirth in a barn. She was a refugee in Egypt to escape the marauding bands of Herod’s soldiers. Did she feel duty that Good Friday or did she feel freedom?
Or was this work of piety depicting the final act of the Son for her and us? He took the crown onto his head. He took the whip onto his back. He took the cross onto his shoulders. He took the nails into his hands and feet. He took the sword into his side.
In what could be her utter sadness and devastation, Mary almost seems serene and resigned to what has happened – frozen in the silence and fullness of time, enveloped in graceful acceptance.
In supporting Christ, her right hand does not even come into direct contact with his cold flesh, but instead a cloth covers her right hand which then touches Christ's side. (Does that remind you of the way a priest wraps his arms and hands with a humeral veil during the liturgy of Exposition and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament before lifting up the monstrance.)
Despite his death and her sadness, there is immense beauty at this moment. This present moment depicts God's love in human terms – and God's love is the first love there ever was.
Just moments before, we got The LAST COMMANDMENT from the cross. It is all about piety. When Jesus saw his weeping mother and the disciple whom he loved, he said to Mary:
That is what Mary is doing one last time. And that is what piety asks of us. Then he said to the disciple:
Standing before this statue is a moment you know that you are standing on Holy Ground. The piety of these two was crushed together long before the Earth formed this slab of marble. That piety has NOTHING to do with pity. Such piety shows us the absolute love, devotion, and sacrifice that each offered for the other, to the other – for us and to us. Pietà. Duty. Love.
We will return to contemplate the duty we have to her Son soon. But now that I had a better understanding of the real sense of the word piety, I turned to the Bible to see how it explains piety. After all, Cursillo talks are rooted in our favorite biblical passages. What I found – surprising -- is that the translators of the NABRE and the RSV and the Jerusalem Bible hardly ever use the word “piety.”
Fortunately, the few critical references where translators use "piety" are very illuminating for this theme. Paul gives us one in his first letter to Timothy.
The FIRST act of piety, Pietà, is the duty to care for your very own family. For this is pleasing to God.
Widows. Orphans. Immigrants. Strangers. Those who in the petitions of the Beatitudes come next. The family is your first duty for piety. Maybe that is what drew Michelangelo to this scene – Mary's closest moment to her son Christ the fruit of her womb. And her last duty.
Mary and Jesus and the disciples were not merely “going through the motions” of religious duties like the rule-making scribes and Pharisees. They had no prayer cards, candles, bells, statues or beads. They just had each other.
Faith does not come to us from any specific religious practices. Piety is not a Betty Crocker or Weber Grill recipe. Piety also is not something that happens only in Church. It has to be faith brought to life based upon “faith lived in his name.” When we do that, we change.
If we have any piety, we have to take it from the seminary or retreat house or classroom or the Ultreya to the sanctuary. But it does not stop there. After Mass, we must take it to the streets to define it and to live out the role of the Church in the Modern World -- a church holding her lifeless Son, a Son who has given his everything.
We cannot do that through internally focused actions alone. We do it in acts that we perform with and for others and with and for God.
Piety then is the time that we are there for God. Piety is the time we spend living out our duty to God – in our Pieta – that replaces something else we would be doing in that time. Watching the Washington baseball or hockey team tonight. Visiting Balducci’s or another favorite restaurant. But as we grow in the quality of our piety it will lead to us changing – repenting – turn back, oh man, foreswear they foolish ways. Piety will push out some of those old ways.
It’s not always easy. That’s why the Church gives us plenty of spiritual aids to nourish our vital union with Christ. Not that Cursillo or I endorse any single practice, but there are many options to try on this menu.
• Morning Offering or Liturgy of the Hours – this was something I was able to share at college and at Missionhurst when my schedule and commute cooperated.
• Meditation (not the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi kind)
• Mass & Communion
• Liturgical Services like Stations of the Cross
• Centering Prayer
• Visits to the Blessed Sacrament
• Rosary/Marian Devotion
• Devotional Guide (Our Daily Bread, the Living Word)
• Spiritual Direction
• The Ignatian Examen (Examination of Conscience)
• Cursillo Team/Palanca
Meet God. Encounter Jesus. Include the Holy Spirit. These are at the foundation of community-building, which was so integral to Jesus’s ministry. We – any Cursillo team or group of candidates – are not here selling ANY of these methods to you. We are here just asking you to set out on the journey to your Emmaus. You never know who you will encounter along the way or how your heart will burn.
The thing about Gospel love is that it must go both ways. Jesus loves me. This I know. For the Bible tells me so. But do YOU love Jesus? Can you be convicted of loving Jesus? What evidence would the prosecutor have to make the case?
True piety is those things YOU do that bring YOU closer to a relationship with Jesus. What works for Phil or Trudy may not resonate with you. True piety brings you to that quiet moment Mary experiences after the crisis and before the Resurrection.
One of my favorite spiritual books is the Rule of St. Benedict. It’s very first word is a marker for our pious practices. LISTEN!
Jesus wants quality time with you just like he had quality time with his parents and friends. He wants to talk to you. Walk with you. "You have been told, what is good, and what the LORD requires of you: Only to do the right and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God." Walk humbly with your God. A walk in the Garden. A walk down a city street. Walk among the April flowers in their “de Colores.” When you walk with a friend, you talk. And you listen to each other.
Piety is the ideal idea of directing your life -- your whole life -- to God. It should be our IDEAL!
After college, I spent some time as a full-time volunteer (not in the Peace Corps), but in the small “p” small “c” peace corps. After graduating from Belmont Abbey, I worked for room and board and a small stipend at Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Charlotte, NC. Our office coordinated the relocation of Indo-Chinese refugees, aka the "boat people" who fled Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand after the Vietnam War ended into various communities across the state of North Carolina.
My supervisor was a Missionary Servant of the Blessed Trinity, The late Sister Francis Louise Sheridan. Sr. Francis taught me a lot about putting my mind and body in the right place for piety. I noticed during daily Mass that she cupped her hands the whole Mass like we do when we are receiving Communion.
After watching her with curiosity for several months, I screwed up the nerve to asked her why she didn’t hold her hands together as my CCD teachers taught. She explained that when she is in prayer if God is going to hand her something to do, she has to be in a position to receive it and take it off God’s hands. After all, St. Theresa reminds us that ours are the only hands, ours are the only feet; ours are the only eyes, ours are the only body that God has now.
When I open my hands in prayer, I often think of Sister Francis Louise taking a break from her day of action before lunchtime and attending Mass in the basement of the chancery with open hands. (I would be remiss if I did not point out that Mary has her left-hand open in the Pietà as well. One hand is holding the Body of Christ while the other hand is open to whatever the Lord has in store for her next.)
What practices have made a difference for me? One that surprised me was and is The Rosary. (Regina at Bellarmine College)
If Piety doesn't take you out of your comfort zone, it's not a cross; it's a crutch.
Piety is the open-handed path to that loving relationship. How do you get to know your friends? You spend time with them. You hang out. You drink. You might go fishing. You might go for a walk. You might visit them in the hospital. You might drive them to the doctor.
The narrative of the Church from Christmas through Easter focuses – rightly – upon the agony of Jesus. But somehow in your Fourth Day, the Church and Cursillo ask you to add a dimension to the story as you think about how Mary must have suffered FOR her son. Suffered WITH her son. COM-PASSION. How terrible must Jesus have felt to see his mother weeping at the foot of his cross? Even in his dying moment, he saw his friends would look after his mother.
Mary stood by him to the end. Unity. Fullness. Completion. Security. Love. Hopefully, by contemplating on this compassion, you will better understand Mary Our Lady of Guadalupe as the model for Cursillo. She could NOT leave the cross. No matter how gruesome it was to see her son tortured, no matter how humiliating to see him naked. No matter how helpless she felt as she watched him labor to breathe his last breath...no matter – she stayed because they were one at the beginning when Jesus emerged from the heavens through Mary and again when he passed BACK to Heaven through Mary. Alpha. Omega.
At the foot of the cross, we see the price of love. We see piety. We see duty. We see the passion. The cross of love cost Jesus his life. It cost Mary, her son. Piety is about our capacity to respond to that love by merely loving God and each other. Mere Christianity.
Friends, I beg you to walk up Golgotha's hill and stand near the cross, right there, next to Mary. See her dead son’s body in her lap after his agony. Listen to his gracious final words. Look into his anguished eyes and hers. See the ecstasy of her beauty. See what his love cost him. See what his love holds for you and me now. You have to decide what is right for your life and prayer type and to build your relationship with Jesus. What will help you get closer to Christ? Whatever helps us to grow with Christ is what you should do.
Part of our problem is that we lack a commitment to the practices that help us grow in our piety. We grow our bank accounts. We grow the equity in our homes. We grow our lawns and gardens. The first leg of this Tripod challenges us to ask, “How are we growing our relationship with God?” If we reach out in the right direction, there is still time to change the road we are on. The Piper Jesus is calling on us to join him on the spiritual stairway to heaven.
How are you directing your life to God and helping others do the same? How can you open the door to a deeper relationship with God? What does it mean to know God has found you? Are you distracted? What will help you cut through the clutter of distractions in your life?
Take a new look at La Pietà by Michelangelo Buonarroti all over again. Take a new look at La Pietà by Fill in Your Name all over again. What will you give back to Jesus? THAT is your piety.