3 September 2017
Pius is an interesting word. It notoriously describes in Vergil's Aeneid the hero Aeneas, who is pius because he fulfils his duties to Country, Family, and Gods. So we think of it as a word that refers to humans and their duties. (Neatly and unsurprisingly, the renaissance pope, Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, 'nomen sibi assumpsit Pii II'; a very renaissance way of alluding to his secular name. There hadn't been a Pius since 155; Piccolomini's action is almost as arrogant as calling oneself Linus II or Cletus II).
Three ancient Collects spring to my mind. Epiphany V (= 5 per annum) asks God to keep his family continua pietate; and Trinity XXII (= Pentecost 21) starts with exactly the same phrase. In the former case, Cranmer translated 'keep thy household continually in thy true religion'; in the latter case,'keep thy household in continual godliness'. In other words, he took pietas to mean the same quality, roughly, which Aeneas had; human dutifulness; our duty to (among other things) God. But I suspect he was wrong. I suspect it refers to God's benevolence to humankind. Our Covenant God is faithful ... we dare to say dutiful ... to his Covenant. So in this collect God is being asked to keep his household the Church with his continual love.
That, of course, fits in with the use of pius in Verdi's Requiem. We ask that God will grant light perpetual with his saints for evermore, because his merciful love ceases not through all eternity. And do you know the final eulogia of the Byzantine liturgy, in which the priest, by the prayers of the Theotokos and all the saints, invokes the mercy of Christ upon the people, hos agathos kai philanthropos kai eleemon Theos: 'since he is a good and humanloving and merciful God'. Philanthropos surely means the same as pius in our Latin liturgy; it speaks of the endless and unconditional mercy of God and, coming in the final phrase of the liturgical text just as pius does in the Requiem, leaves in our ears and minds a sweet and haunting yet theologically profound memory.
For the old English and Northern European use, represented by the Ordinariate Missal, Pietas also occurs today, in the Latin original of the collect for Trinity XII, (= Pentecost 11 = per annum 27). 'Almighty and everlasting God, who in the abundance of thy pietas exceedest what either we desire or deserve'. Cranmer, wrongly taking pietas to mean solely human religion, our response to God, naturally felt that it was outrageous to praise God for having a lot of religiosity, as if the Almighty can be praised for saying his Rosary regularly. So he cut out the phrase and replaced it with another which is both a lovely piece of English and an edifying thought, but has little to do with the Latin.
And in Trinity XXIII (=Pentecost 22) God is described as 'auctor ipse pietatis' ('himself the author of pietas') and asked to 'be ready to hear'( Cranmer neatly gets the feel of adesto) the piis prayers of his Church. Cranmer fails to pick up the parallelism of the Latin, which is that our prayers are dutiful (in the Vergilian sense) only because God himself has taken the initiative in setting within our hearts both that sense of duty and the grace to respond in duty to him. A shame he missed it: the Latin fits so perfectly his own Protestant emphases on the Divine initiative.