We celebrate Thanksgiving this year shortly following the visit of our Holy Father, Pope Francis, to the United States. On the occasion of his visit, he was the first Pope ever to address the Congress of the United States. This certainly was an historical occasion and one for which we are very grateful as we celebrate the feast which commemorates the founding of our great nation.
Pope Francis began his address by expressing his gratitude to be able to speak openly "in the land of the free and the home of the brave," not only to Congress but through it to the entire people of the United States. It was his desire to speak "with the many thousands of men and women who strive each day to do an honest day’s work, to bring home their daily bread, to save money and – one step at a time – to build a better life for their families. These are men and women who are not concerned simply with paying their taxes, but in their own quiet way sustain the life of society." The men and women the Pope described are those who epitomize what our great nation is all about from its very foundation when the first Thanksgiving was celebrated. They are all of you.
In his address to Congress, Pope Francis made reference to four Americans who are this year marking significant anniversaries – “Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.” The Pope commented that these four Americans "shaped fundamental values which will endure forever in the spirit of American people. ... These men and women offer us a way of seeing and interpreting reality. In honoring their memory, we are inspired, even amid conflicts, and in the here and now of each day, to draw upon our deepest cultural reserves." As we celebrate Thanksgiving, it is fitting for us to reflect upon these four Americans especially in regard to their own understanding and appreciation of the meaning of gratitude within our nation.
The one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln is marked this year. Abraham Lincoln is well known for his undaunted commitment to a new birth of freedom within our nation. His vision was based on the common good and the equality of all men and women made in the image and likeness of God. He put an end to slavery within our nation and was responsible for the unification of our country even in the face of the great conflict of the Civil War. It was in the midst of this bloody war that Abraham Lincoln took the extraordinary step of declaring a national day of thanksgiving as an annual holiday to observe the blessings which God had seen fit to bestow upon a fractured people. In his Thanksgiving Day Proclamation of 1863, President Lincoln expressed that even in the midst of "a Civil War of unequaled magnitude and severity, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict.”
Lincoln enumerated how continued blessings of growth had been bestowed upon the nation due to the gracious gifts of God who treated us with great mercy. He called upon the American people to observe the last Thursday of November as a day of thanksgiving and praise to God for all of His deliverances and blessings. Lincoln asked the people to do humble penitence for their "national perverseness and disobedience," commending to God all those who had lost their lives, had been wounded and had suffered due to the war, and to restore the country "as soon as may be consistent with the divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and union." From the first settlers who came to our nation to the official proclamation of Abraham Lincoln and to this day, Thanksgiving is celebrated in our nation with gratitude to God for His many blessings upon us and with the realization of our need to continue to bring all men and women together as a family made in the image and likeness of God despite our sins and failures and even in the face of suffering and duress.
It is fifty years from the march of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. as part of his campaign for full civil and political rights for African Americans. The dream of Martin Luther King for the freedom of all is one that continues to inspire us and one that is the deepest and truest part of our life as a nation from its beginning. As we celebrate Thanksgiving how fitting it is to reflect upon the famous words of Martin Luther King spoken at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington in 1963, one hundred years after the Thanksgiving Day Proclamation of Abraham Lincoln: "We will see the day when all God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to joins hands and sing ... Free at last, Free at last, Thank God Almighty, I'm free at last!" These stirring words of hope and gratitude are in close conjunction with the words of Abraham Lincoln in keeping with the purpose of our nation as given to us by God. We have come a long way in trial and suffering but still have a long way to go. We are thankful for the many blessings God has bestowed upon us and know that, as long as we are faithful to Him, He will lead our nation to His Kingdom.
This year is the thirty-fifth anniversary of the death of a well-known advocate for social justice and the poor - Dorothy Day. She was born in Brooklyn, New York, but her family moved to the San Francisco Bay area and then to Chicago where she was baptized in the Episcopal Church. In 1960 she moved back to New York City where she worked as a journalist on social concerns. She grew to admire the Catholic Church as “the Church of the Poor” and became a convert to it. Her conversion to Catholicism led to personal pain and the loss of many of her associates. However, she founded the Catholic Worker Newspaper and movement which were the cause of many houses of hospitality and farming communes throughout the United States and other countries. She died among the poor in New York City and has been a great example of Gospel outreach.
Cardinal John O'Connor announced in 2000 that the Vatican has accepted his petition to initiate the cause for the beatification and canonization of Dorothy Day. She received the title "Servant of God" and progress on her cause continued under Cardinal Edward Egan who established the Dorothy Day Guild and under Cardinal Timothy Dolan with support from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. As we celebrate Thanksgiving, her words on Thanksgiving are most appropriate and much in keeping with those of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King: "So in this month of thanksgiving, we can be thankful for the trials of the past, the blessings of the present, and be heartily ready at the same time to embrace with joy any troubles the future may bring us." It is this sentiment of gratitude which has made our country a home for the immigrant and the needy, what it is today, and where it should be heading for the future.
It was one hundred years ago that the well-known Cistercian Monk, Father Thomas Merton, was born. Thomas Merton became a popular writer from the monastery where he influenced many contemplatives and those in the world regarding the importance of living in union with God. Pope Francis explained that, "Merton was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions." Of the many volumes of his works, the most well-known and popular, is the Seven Storey Mountain.
As we celebrate Thanksgiving this year, Thomas Merton's words on gratitude certainly sum up what this national feast is all about: "To be grateful is to recognize the love of God in everything He has given us – and He has given us everything. Every breath we draw is a gift of His love, every moment of existence is grace, for it brings with it immense graces from Him. Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, it is never unresponsive, it is constantly awakening to new wonder, and to praise of the goodness of God. For the grateful person knows that God is good, not by hearsay but by experience. . . . Gratitude is therefore the heart of the Christian life." Gratitude certainly is the heart of the Christian life and the heart of our nation founded in order that we might be able to practice our faith and give thanks to God. Thomas Merton summed up the meaning of gratitude well as he reflected upon it in the following words: "There is no neutrality between gratitude and ingratitude. Those who are not grateful soon begin to complain of everything."
As we celebrate Thanksgiving this year, may we give thanks to God for the many blessings He has bestowed upon us, our families and our nation. May we continue to realize that even in the difficult times, God is with us and through His mercy and grace can bring new gifts. Gratitude is at the heart of our faith and is at the heart of our nation.
A blessed Thanksgiving to all!
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
November 20, 2015