Some Thoughts on Piety


The following is Fr. Dennis’ Sunday homily for the Memorial of Sts. Anne & Joachim, given at the closing novena Mass at St. Anne Shrine in Fiskdale, MA, this past Sunday. The Assumptionists have ministered at the shrine and parish since 1955.

In my encounters with students over the years at Assumption University in Worcester, I’ve had occasion to observe the relationships they had with their grandparents. It’s a time in their life, as they look for more independence, when the relationship with their parents can be complicated, a pitched battle sometimes. It was different with grandparents: it was less complicated, more peaceful. You sensed that there was real appreciation and gratitude. Sometimes they would lose a grandparent during their four years, and as it was often their first loss of this kind, they felt it acutely. I think it also served to ground them in the importance of their family.

This time of novena, which comes to an end with tonight’s celebration, has been, among other things, a time for honoring St. Anne and St. Joachim, the grandparents of Jesus. The readings for the feast support this reverence owed to those who came before us. “Let us praise these godly men (and women), our ancestors each in his own time.” The biblical author goes on to say, that they will live on in our hearts for their virtues, their progeny, their wisdom. In the second reading from the letter to the Hebrews, the great heroes and heroines of our faith are brought forward, specifically Abraham and Sarah. Not the least reason to admire these ancestors in the faith is their waiting upon a fulfillment not given them to fully experience. There’s a special kind of greatness in that.

The word that we give for this human quality underlined in the first two readings is piety. It’s one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. What does it mean: it means the reverence for the people, the wisdom, the principles, the institutions that go before us and shape who it is that we are. It is a deeply human thing to do, this recognition of what we owe to others. Before it became a gift of the Holy Spirit, it was thought to be a very important civic virtue.

We happen to be living in a deeply troubling time, it seems to me, when this quality or virtue is under siege. The most recent expression of this has been the decapitating or toppling of statues – done with the intention of righting historical wrongs – but which, in the name of ideological purity, has the effect of severing us from what came before. The real worry is that this leads to a kind of mania for indiscriminately rejecting the past. In the popular media, this goes by the name of “cancel culture.” It’s as if to say, let’s rid ourselves of all vestiges of human imperfection, and start over. I find myself asking, now that the statues are down, do we really think we’re going to do any better?

We Assumptionists are celebrating a Jubilee this year, the 175th anniversary of our founding. As it relates to our present predicament, it’s interesting to note that the Congregation was founded in the midst of something like a “cancel culture.” When our founder, Fr. d’Alzon looked at his native France in the middle of the 19th century, what he saw was a nation and a society that had cancelled out the rights of God, leading to a culture marked by ignorance, indifference and unbelief. His aim was to bring into being a group of dedicated religious, with committed lay men and women alongside, who would be engaged in the great work of building up the Kingdom of God. Building up, not tearing down.

As it relates to our own history in this Province, it has meant the effort to build up, over the last 65 years, this community of faith in Fiskdale; it has meant, for 116 years the work of educating minds and hearts of students at Assumption, to help prepare them to build up the communities to which they will belong; it means the taking of new initiatives in response to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, this time in building up the human dignity of migrants at the border of the US and Mexico. This is our new Jubilee foundation, and we continue to ask the support of your prayers for Fr. Peter and for those who are joining him in El Paso.

Could I ask you for a moment, as we move toward the end of this reflection, to focus attention on tonight’s short Gospel. Jesus looks at his disciples, just as he looked into each of their eyes when he called them to be in his company and to follow him along the way. To these fishermen and assorted others, he says, “blessed are your eyes because they see and your ears because they hear” (Mt 13:16). He goes on to say that “prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see and did not see it, and to hear what you hear and did not hear it” (Mt 13:17).

Dear friends, these words are addressed to us. By virtue of our baptism, we are given a gift that surpasses anything that the great prophets and righteous had received. For them, it was an object of longing. For us, it is the reality of God’s living presence among us. It is this gift that makes us bold to go forth from here to build up our families, to build up our parish community, and to build up our civil society, riven as it is by conflict. We are not alone in this. We are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, the communion of saints, and we have asked good St. Anne, especially during this time of pandemic, to bring us before the Cross of Jesus Christ in loving adoration. May she intercede on our behalf to bring healing in all those places where it is needed and continue to guide the life of this parish and shrine. May God bless you.