The second of the sanctifying gifts of the Holy Spirit given in Confirmation is the gift of piety. Like all the sanctifying gifts, this is a gift you get to keep (as distinct from charisms, which are the gifts you are given in order to give them away to somebody else). The sanctifying gifts are the ones you get to keep because they are ordered toward making you into the image and likeness of Jesus Christ, while the charisms are ordered toward building up others in Christ and renewing the face of the earth.
The trouble with the gift of piety, rather like the gift of fear, is that a lot of us are not really sure we want it all that much. “Piety” is one of those words, like “righteousness,” that has fallen on hard times in the modern and post-modern era. For most people these days it’s a word that has largely negative connotations. Just as calling someone a “righteous” person is basically a way of calling them a self-righteous person in modern parlance, so calling someone a “pious” person is typically a way of saying he or she is a gooey, religious, ostentatiously devout Church Lady type.
That’s too bad, because piety has a positive meaning that we are impoverished to lose. “Piety” means a sense of duty to God which is not looking for applause or earthly reward. Usually, pious duties are carried out in mundane ways (the Sermon on the Mount focuses on the quiet and unobtrusive disciplines of prayer, almsgiving and fasting which millions of pious Christians do each day to no earthly fanfare and without thought of earthly reward). Of course, such is the genius of fallen man that he can turn anything into an occasion of pride and vanity. The humble person’s greatest temptation is the thought, “Hey! Check me out! I’m humble!” And so it’s always possible for us to take whatever acts of piety our culture applauds and use them to draw attention to ourselves. That why Jesus warns, “Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven (Matthew 6:1). In Jesus’ day, “acts of piety” were those recognized as such by his culture. So he counsels against ostentatious prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. These days, there are other “acts of piety” which our culture favors more: care for AIDS victims, supporting public radio, recycling, care for the environment. All these things can be done in a genuine spirit of charity and the love of God just as a good person in antiquity would pray, fast, and give alms. But they can be (and often are) done in a spirit of moral superiority and ostentation that is every bit as crass and self-seeking as the noisiest ancient Pharisee praying aloud on a street corner or blowing trumpets to announce a gift to the Temple treasury.
Most people at most times who seek to be pious are doing unseen and unsung things and having a colossal and largely hidden influence for good on the world thereby. That’s because real piety is like dark matter, the stuff physicists now suspect to constitute most of the mass of the universe. It’s not very visible and doesn’t make headlines usually, but without the small acts of piety—things done in loving service to God just because you love him, it’s the decent thing, that kid needed a little help, that old man looked hungry, it was honest to return the dollar, she needed a little bit of prayer, you just felt like singing a small word of praise to God for that birdsong, etc.—the world would grind to a halt, overheat, and explode. Occasionally, we see genuine piety writ large across the page of history in the tales of the saints or in famous people like Mother Teresa or John Paul II. But such heroes are there only as reminders of the millions of unsung heroes who keep the world going by their tiny acts of love to God and neighbor. Such folk receive no headlines, but their reward from Our Father in Heaven will be very great.