All Americans are familiar with Thanksgiving Day; we welcome the return of that great tradition every November. It is a secular, not a religious feast day. Thanksgiving puts the accent where it should be — on giving, saying, and doing thanks.
For men and women of faith, God comes to mind first and foremost for expressions of gratitude when celebrating Thanksgiving Day. We Catholic Christians do this at Mass any day, particularly every Sunday of the year. We know where to look when we want to give thanks!
Everyone knows what “much obliged” — that expression from the old American vernacular — means. It says simply and directly, “thank you.” That’s what Catholics do whenever they celebrate the Eucharist. Eucharist means “thank you.” It is a thanks-saying, a thanks-giving, a liturgical thanks-doing that brings us before the Lord in gratitude as we express our thanks for the great gift of salvation in Jesus Christ. And for salvation, of course, we are all indeed much obliged.
Whenever we put ourselves in the thanks-saying, thanks-giving, thanks-doing mood, it is a good idea to pay attention to a rising sense of entitlement in America, especially among the young, along with the decline in Sunday Mass attendance on the part of the young. I’m convinced that ingratitude has something to do with this. Ingratitude is the very infrastructure of entitlement. Moreover, entitlement has become our cultural condition here in the Affluent Society. We think we deserve everything we have. Entitlement prompts us to make demands, not to give thanks.
St. Ignatius of Loyola once remarked that “ingratitude is at the root of all sinfulness.” He was onto something. When ingratitude takes over one’s outlook, there is an erosion of a sense of obligation, including moral obligation, not to mention what we used to call the Sunday obligation.
“Much obliged,” as I indicated, is a way the old American vernacular had of saying thanks. But if you have nothing to be thankful for — i.e., if you consider yourself to be entitled to everything you have or might receive — you are unencumbered by a sense of any obligation. You are free to be your selfish, solipsistic, narcissistic self. Sadly, we notice a lot of selfishness and narcissism surrounding us in America today. Total self-absorption is another word for sin. And, as Ignatius of Loyola pointed out, ingratitude is at the root of all sinfulness, of all self-absorption.
Fifteen or 20 years ago, I found myself describing students I was then meeting in the college classroom as characterized by a sense of entitlement. They thought they “deserved” good grades, good health, good jobs, and the best of everything the world had to offer. Cultural reinforcement for this attitude of entitlement came, and continues to come, through entertainment and advertising. The young think they have cures for all their ills, protections from all dangers, solutions for all their problems, answers (with or without the help of a search engine) to all their questions. It is all within reach. It is theirs for the taking. No need to say please. No need to say thanks.
This outlook has seeped down into high school and middle school minds — to the teens and tweens who never say thanks. Anyone who is caught in a culture of entitlement has some digging out to do. And that work begins with some thoughts about faith-based gratitude.
Many years ago I pressed a child for a working definition of the word “gift.” It was Christmas Day, in fact, and she was my niece and we were gathered in the family room where gifts and their wrappings had been strewn around all over the place. “What’s a gift?” I asked. “A gift is when somebody gives you something,” this youngster said. And I responded: “What if you had loaned me a dollar last week and now I’m giving it back. Here, take this dollar. Is that a gift?” “No,” she immediately replied. “Well, it fits your definition; you told me that ‘a gift is when somebody gives you something’ and, here, I’m giving you a dollar. . .” A moment’s pondering prompted her then to say, “A gift is when you get something you don’t deserve.”
How true. And that truth can prompt an awareness of gratitude, which, in turn, can provide protection from the virus of entitlement. Life will be a good deal happier for all if we realize that the gifts we get are not only undeserved, but, in the Christian view of things, that they are symbols to remind us of the gift of salvation to which none of us has a claim except through our faith in Christ Jesus the Lord.
This brings me back to the Sunday obligation. It is unintelligible except in terms of gratitude. We Sunday Mass-goers should be acknowledging ourselves to be much obliged to give praise and thanks to God as we go to Mass on Sunday. That’s what Sunday Mass is all about. Not to do so would be to be an ingrate. No one — not even the most self-centered young person — likes an ingrate. So instead of arguing with the young about their Sunday obligation, we should simply invite them to avoid being ingrates by being the grateful Christians they’ve been called to be. That means regarding themselves as much obliged — much obliged to give praise and thanks to God; much obliged to love one another as Christ loves them.
At the Last Supper Jesus said to his disciples, in effect: This is how I want you to remember me — as bread broken and passed around, as a cup poured out. And this is how I want you to relate to one another — as bread broken for the nourishment of others, as a cup poured out in generous service.
Each of us should take a moment on Thanksgiving Day to put the following question to ourselves, and to the young people with whom we live: Am I an ingrate? Or do I really consider myself to be much obliged? Thanksgiving Day will be a more meaningful day in America if we do exactly that.
Father Byron, S.J., is university professor of business and society at St. Joseph’s University, Philadelphia, Pa. He is author, most recently, of The Word Proclaimed: A Homily for Every Sunday of the Year, Year A (Paulist Press).