Posted by: Thomas Richard | July 12, 2010

The Importance of Reverence in the Church

Below are portions taken from an article by a remarkable Catholic philosopher, Dietrich von Hildebrand, on the crucially important virtue of reverence. I invite you to read it.


First, Irreverence:

The irreverent man can never remain inwardly silent. He never gives situations, things and persons a chance to unfold themselves in their proper character and value. He approaches everything in such an importunate and tactless way that he observes only himself, listens only to himself and ignores the rest of being. He does not preserve a reverent distance from the world.

He is either the slave of his pride, of that cramping egoism which makes him a prisoner of himself and blind to values, and leads him to ask repeatedly: Will my prestige be increased, will my own glory be augmented? Or he is a slave of concupiscence, one for whom everything in the world becomes only an occasion to serve his lust.

Thus there are two types of irreverence: that rooted in pride or in concupiscence.

The first type is that of the man whose irreverence is a fruit of his pride, that of the impertinent person. He is the type of man who approaches everything with a presumptuous, sham superiority, and never makes any effort to understand a thing “from within.” He is the “know-all,” schoolmaster type who believes that he penetrates everything at first sight, and knows all things “ab ovo.” He is the man for whom nothing could be greater than himself, who never sees beyond his own horizon, from whom the world of being hides no secret. …….

This man suspects nothing of the breadth and depth of the world, of the mysterious depths and the immeasurable fullness of values which are bespoken by every ray of the sun and every plant, and which are revealed in the innocent laughter of a child, as well as in the repentant tears of a sinner. The world is flattened before his impertinent and stupid gaze; it becomes limited to one dimension, shallow and mute. It is evident that such a man is blind to values. He passes through the world with a blighting incomprehension.

The other type of man who lacks reverence, the blunt, concupiscent man, is equally blind to values. He limits his interest to one thing only: whether something is agreeable to him or not, whether it offers him satisfaction, whether or not it can be of any use to him. ….. Every being is, for him, but a means to his own selfish aim. He drags himself about eternally in the circle of his narrowness, and never succeeds in emerging from himself. ….. He does not approach being as does the first type in an impertinent way, but he is equally closed up within himself, and does not preserve that distance toward being required by reverence; he overlooks all things and seeks only that which is momentarily useful and expedient to him. Similarly, he can never be inwardly silent, or open his spiritual self to the influence of being and allow himself to receive the joy that values give. …. He also is shortsighted, and comes too close to all things, so that he does not give them a chance to reveal their true essence. He fails to leave to any being the “space” which it needs to unfold itself fully and in its proper mode. This man also is blind to values, and to him again the world refuses to reveal its breadth, depth and height.


The man possessing reverence approaches the world in a completely different way. He is free from this egospasm, from pride and concupiscence. He does not fill the world with his own ego, but leaves to being the space which it needs in order to unfold itself. He understands the dignity and nobility of being as such, the value which it already possesses in its opposition to mere nothingness. Thus there is a value inherent in every stone, in a drop of water, in a blade of grass, precisely as being, as an entity which possesses its own being, which is such and not otherwise.
This responsive attitude to the value of being is pervaded by the disposition to recognize something superior to one’s arbitrary pleasure and will, and to be ready to subordinate and abandon oneself. It enables the spiritual eye to see the deeper nature of every being. It leaves to being the possibility of unveiling its essence, and makes a man capable of grasping values. To whom will the sublime beauty of a sunset or a ninth symphony of Beethoven reveal itself, but to him who approaches it reverently and unlocks his heart to it? To whom will the mystery which lies in life and manifests itself in every plant reveal itself in its full splendor, but to him who contemplates it reverently? But he who sees in it only a means of subsistence or of earning money, i.e. something which can be used or employed, will not discover the meaning, structure and significance of the world in its beauty and hidden dignity.
Reverence is the presupposition for every response to value, every abandonment to something important, and it is, at the same time, an essential element of such response to value. Each time one gives oneself to the good and beautiful, each time one conforms to the inner law of value, the basic attitude of reverence is implied. This can be verified by examining moral attitudes on the different levels of life.

The fundamental attitude of reverence is the basis for all moral conduct toward our fellowmen and toward ourselves. Only to the man possessing reverence is revealed the full grandeur and depth of the values which inhere in every man as a spiritual person. The spiritual person as a conscious, free being, as a being who alone, among all the entities known to us, is capable of knowing and grasping the rest of being, and of taking a meaningful position toward it, can only be comprehended by a reverent mind. A being who is able and destined to realize in himself a rich world of values, to become a vessel of goodness, purity, and humility—this is a person. How could one really love another person, how could he make sacrifices for him, if he senses nothing of the preciousness and plenitude which is potentially enclosed in man’s soul, if he has no reverence for this being?
Wherever we look, we see reverence to be the basis and at the same time an essential element of moral life and moral values. Without a fundamental attitude of reverence, no true love, no justice, no kindliness, no self-development, no purity, no truthfulness, are possible; above all, without reverence, the dimension of depth is completely excluded. The irreverent person is himself flat and shallow, for he fails to understand the depth of being, since for him there is no world beyond and above that which is visibly palpable. Only to the man possessing reverence does the world of religion open itself; only to him will the world as a whole reveal its meaning and value. So reverence as a basic moral attitude stands at the beginning of all religion. It is the basis for the right attitude of men toward themselves, their neighbors, to every level of being, and above all to God.


The importance of reverence to the entire spiritual and moral life is emphasized in the closing paragraph. It begs the questions, How can we, the Church, facilitate reverence in the members? How can we lead persons into reverence? Can we “teach” reverence? And if so, how? Is it possible that we work against reverence in the Church in some ways, thus sabotaging our own purpose and mission? If so, how could we be doing this – and if we unfortunately are, how can we stop and change direction?

I’m interested in your thoughts.



  1. Dear Thomas,

    Thank you so much for your post and the excerpts from Deitrich von Hildebrand. I would like to comment on your questions, but first allow me to say that it was Dr. John Crosby, at Franciscan University, Steubenville OH who first introduced this wonderful Catholic philosopher/author to me. Dr. Crosby, is a “reverent” man.

    As I audited an undergraduate philosophy course, taught by Dr. Crosby, I learned more about teaching and philosophy from him than anyone I could remember from my own college and graduate studies. Dr. Crosby “reverently” listened to each student who attempted an answer. I was amazed at how he was always able to find some small point in the students’ often rambling, often stumbling answers. He would then take that small good point and build it up into a great answer that clarified everything.

    As Church, we all need to examine ourselves on reverence, so thank you also for asking us:

    “… How can we, the Church, facilitate reverence in the members? How can we lead persons into reverence? Can we “teach” reverence? And if so, how? Is it possible that we work against reverence in the Church in some ways, thus sabotaging our own purpose and mission? If so, how could we be doing this – and if we unfortunately are, how can we stop and change direction?”

    Here are my thoughts:
    1. I believe we, the Church, facilitate reverence by being reverent ourselves. Reading the excerpts can help us to ask ourselves if we are as reverent as we might be. This calls us to prayer. If we do not reverence God, our thoughts, words, and actions can be mere vanity. I believe we need to know God in order to come into true reverence. We are dependent always on His Grace.

    2. I believe we lead best by serving. In the Word made Flesh, God revealed His Fullness. We need to become disciples; that is, “learners” of Jesus. In the Gospels, primarily, we hear how Jesus “reverenced” His Father and how He came to serve rather than to be served. When Jesus washed the feet of His disciples, He showed such beautiful reverence! Even as He confronted sin, He remained a friend of sinners.

    3. I believe that Pope Paul VI said it so well in his encyclical “On Evangelization in the Modern World”, when he said that the world needs witnesses more than teachers but if teachers then those who are witnesses. A witness is a martyr and so I believe we need to be willing to suffer. Reverence as, von Hildebrand points out, is willing to take the time to let a person or a situation unfold.

    4. I believe, as Church, we can work against reverence, by rushing, especially in prayer, but also in each daily action. I see this in myself and I cannot help but observe it in those with whom I interact. When I rush someone, I regret it later. When I am rushed, I feel the same sadness I impose on others. We, as Church, also seem to be losing the “silence” we need to recollect ourselves.

    5. I believe, as Church, we can stop and change direction by Grace. God is always present to us, but we can so often leave Him. Jesus has told us (John 15) to remain in Him. Without Him we can do nothing. Each of us is a unique person created in the Image and Likeness of God and He created each of us for a unique purpose in the Body of Christ. The Church, the Body of Christ, exists to evangelize. God desires each one of us to function properly and upbuild the Body in Love. (Ephesians 4) Love must be a free gift, and so we can begin with freely choosing to be, by His Grace, more reverent as He is.

  2. Thank you Thomas and Deborah for all your God given knowlegde and insight. May Our Loving Lord continue to shed you with His wisdom.

    As I was reading and came to the questions you asked about, the thought of discipline came to my mind.

    It takes discipline to break the fleshy body of bad habits. It takes discipline (and love) to pick up your cross daily and do what the Good Lord is calling us to do. It take discipline and love to suffer for others whether in acts of self mortification, through prayer and fasting, etc… – It is only through God’s Love, Grace and Strength that we are able to do this – I believe that when we are made aware that all this is strength, love, etc.. comes from God, the greater your fear of the Lord.

    May our reverence for the Love of Christ encourage and strengthen our brother and sisters and not discourage them.

  3. Great post, I am almost 100% in agreement with you

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