For those who were reading Peace Garden Passage back in April, you were brought up to speed on a column I’d written that sparked controversy within our community and beyond. This weekend, as I was traveling with my family to our Thanksgiving destination, a note came on my phone from Fr. James Gross, a priest from St. Anthony’s in Fargo. As a courtesy, he wanted to let me know he planned to mention me by name in his Thanksgiving Day homily.
I asked Fr. Gross if I could post the homily after he was through giving it, and he graciously said, “Of course.” I appreciate, this Thanksgiving Day weekend, the chance to revisit this widely misunderstood essay from the perspective of one who “got it” the first time, has kept it close to his heart, and is now holding up some of the forgotten intention, waylaid in the wake of the controversy, to the light. I appreciate Fr. Gross’s take on my earlier words and the hopeful message I’d intended all along.
Peace to all,
From the homily of the Reverend James Gross, St. Anthony’s parish, Fargo, Nov. 24, 2016:
I’m sure a number of you know the local Forum columnist Roxane Salonen…(who) set off a minor firestorm in the community last spring with a column entitled, “Can those without God be grateful guests?” Numerous people argued, either in letters to the editor or online comments, that her piece was a not-so-subtle repudiation of atheists. It was a backlash that certainly took her by surprise. Doubtless there are times when she is itching for a fight, but I don’t think that was one of them.
That column has rattled around in my memory since that time because I feel that I knew exactly what Roxane was trying to say and didn’t consider her point all that inflammatory. She had been a house guest of two families out of state and, reflecting on the warmth of their hospitality, she simply took stock of how her gratitude redounded to the glory of God as a devout Christian.
Maybe there was a more artful way to present the following questions: “How do the godless respond to grace? How do secularists absorb and process love?” Maybe her opponents fixated on those lines too singularly. But the thesis was her experience of the Holy Trinity as the ultimate endpoint of our gratitude. She wrote, “God’s love amplifies the good, true, and beautiful in the world. Without God, the prism dangles but no light shines through to display the brilliant colors within. Those who know God witness the light and all the accompanying colors. Our hearts expanded thus, we can’t help but desire this amplification of love and color for others.”
Was her motive in writing this to be condescending? Rather, I see here a motive of charity and heeding a call to evangelize.
For me, the moral of the story is that thanksgiving is sublime for Catholics, an act of worship. The bountiful meal, the football games, spending time with family—all of that is well and good. But I can’t just stop at secular elements. The moment par excellence of thanksgiving for me is at this holy altar, celebrating the Eucharist. How else could I possibly receive Christ Himself, my savior and king, so intimately? How else could I dare to hope for such a privilege?
“But,” someone may say, “Thanksgiving Day isn’t a Holy Day of Obligation.” That may be so, but are you obligated to hug your mom or dad? The good things that we do aren’t good because someone forces us to do them. If I stand before the pearly gates and tell Jesus, “I participated in Mass because you expected it of me as an obligation,” is that what he had in mind?
The lepers who boldly call out to Christ in today’s gospel had lost everything, including their health, their families, and their jobs—but not quite everything. They had faith, and chose to believe that God can perform in them what appeared to be impossible. And the Samaritan, least likely of them all to practice traditional piety, alone comes back to thank Jesus in person.
I’m so glad that there’s a Thanksgiving holiday in our country. Maybe its roots are not directly tied to Catholics in America, but we can relate well to the spirit behind this day. The Puritans of the 17th century were not so different from us in that they took seriously the virtue of humility. They were not about to attribute all the credit to themselves for the success and protection they enjoyed. If anything, they cooperated with the beneficence of Almighty God, who made every last bit of it possible.
Let me leave you with this thought from St. Bernard of Clairvaux: “If we show ourselves to be acknowledging everything that we have received from God, we prepare a greater place in our souls for grace, and we make ourselves worthy to receive it more abundantly. In fact, the only thing that can stop our progress after our conversion is our ingratitude; the giver, regarding as lost all he has given to the ungrateful, will henceforth be more cautious, in the fear of squandering everything else that he might give to them…happy the person who gives thanks from the bottom of his heart, even for the least blessings, regarding everything he receives as a purely gratuitous gift.” Today we give thanks (and we finish the sentence) to the Persons of the Holy Trinity who, in the Church of Christ, live within us.