Reconciliatio et Paenitentia 19: Mysterium Pietatis

After some long narratives on good and important topics, we arrive at a new Chapter, “Mysterium Pietatis” and a brief introduction to the next phase of our exploration with Pope John Paul II in numbered sections 19 through 22.

I find this a bit confused, but perhaps as we unravel the next sections, we’ll get a clearer idea of the mystery of piety, pity, pieta–so many possible interpretations as we move from Latin to English, not counting the original Greek of the New Testament roots of the notion.

19. In order to understand sin we have had to direct our attention to its nature as made known to us by the revelation of the economy of salvation: This is the mysterium iniquitatis. But in this economy sin is not the main principle, still less the victor. Sin fights against another active principle which-to use a beautiful and evocative expression of St. Paul-we can call the mysterium or sacramentum pietatis. (Human) sin would be the winner and in the end destructive, God’s salvific plan would remain incomplete or even totally defeated, if this mysterium pietatis were not made part of the dynamism of history in order to conquer (human) sin.

Aware of their participation in the mystery of sin, Christian believers approach God with a certain reserve. We are in a place not to end our own sin, but to apply our petition to God. Perhaps the conversation of Jesus initiates this–his question, “What do you want me to do for you?” What would we say? Remove our sin. Remove the dirty and difficult consequences of our poor judgment. Or simply, save us. Such conversations usually require some sacrifice on our part–salvation and forgiveness rightfully extract a price from the Christian.

Here is where the Holy Father discerned one of the biblical roots of mysterium pietatis:

We find this expression in one of St. Paul’s pastoral letters, the First Letter to Timothy. It appears unexpectedly, as if by an exuberant inspiration. The apostle had previously devoted long paragraphs of his message to his beloved disciple to an explanation of the meaning of the ordering of the community (the liturgical order and the related hierarchical one). Next he had spoken of the role of the heads of the community, before turning to the conduct of Timothy himself in the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.” Then at the end of the passage suddenly, but with a profound purpose, he evokes the element which gives meaning to everything that he has written: “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of our religion.”(1 Tm 3:15f)

That text we’ll encounter is as follows:

(God) was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated in the spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed to the Gentiles,
believed in throughout the world,
taken up in glory.

This describes the Paschal Mystery in a lyrical way. The Incarnation and all that followed was God’s way of initiating answers to those age-old questions asked by generations of Israelites. The Old Testament question God asked time and again, though perhaps not in the direct words of the son, “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus is the answer. Jesus responds to the human plea for liberty from sin and death.

Without in the least betraying the literal sense of the text, we can broaden this magnificent theological insight of St. Paul into a more complete vision of the role which the truth proclaimed by him plays in the economy of salvation: “Great indeed,” we repeat with him, “is the mystery of our religion,” because it conquers sin.

But what is the meaning of this expression, in Paul’s mind?

The response to that question will occupy us for the next few days. Stay tuned.

This document is Copyright © 1984 – Libreria Editrice Vatican. The link on the Vatican site is here.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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