By: Quintín Peña, CM
[This article has been translated and made available in the on-line Vincentian Encyclopedia with the permission of Editorial CEME].
Gratitude is the spontaneous response of the human person who is aware of having received some blessing. When individuals view the blessings that they have received from God and from their sisters and brothers as good, then, if their nature is not debased, attitudes of affirmation, joy and the giving of oneself will arise. Gratitude, then, can be given to God or to one’s brothers and sisters.
In the mystery of creation God bestows countless gifts upon men and women and gives them God’s very self but God does this gifting of self and his blessings more fully in the mystery of salvation.
The encounter with God places men and women in the presence of the absolute and fills and transforms their life. Thanksgiving is the response to this on-going, continual gift of grace … a gifts that reaches its fullness in Christ and in the beatific vision.
The movement of grace is an awareness of the gifts and the divine goodness of God. Generosity creates a sense of awe in light of those realities … it is a fundamental religious reaction of men and women who, with joy and reverence, discover something of God, of God’s greatness and glory and also experience their existence sustained and enriched by the power and the generosity of God.
Gratitude toward other men and women is similar to the gratitude that is shown to God.
The action of thanksgiving in the Bible
In Sacred Scripture we find frequent references that exhort us to give thanks to God and to be grateful toward our brothers and sisters: Give thanks to the Lord, who is God, whose love endures forever (Psalm 118:1); Enter the temple gates with praise, its courts with thanksgiving. Give thanks to God, bless his name (Psalm 100:4); Give thanks always and for everything (Ephesians 5:19-20); Be thankful! (Colossians 3:15)
In some manner all the psalms and canticles in the Bible are hymns of thanksgiving and gratitude to God since in all of those hymns the goodness and the saving power of God are affirmed and praised. Thus, there are numerous expressions of gratitude in the Bible. There in Scripture we find teachings on gratitude in the hymns of praise and blessing and thanksgiving … teachings expressed not only in words but also expressed in the experiential attitude of various persons, especially the holy men and women as they lived their lives in relationship with God and with their brothers and sisters.
In the Old Testament gratitude is expressed as joy, praise, exaltation and glorification of God. Gratitude is shown in the joyful and hopeful praise (barak) that is given to God … joyful praise because the just ones rejoice in the salvation that they experience as a gift coming from God; hopeful praise because each salvific intervention of the Lord proclaims a fuller salvation.
The New Testament has inherited the richness of the Old Testament. Gratitude is proclamation, praise, glorification and blessing. Mary’s Magnificat is all of that and so also is the canticle of Zachariah and Simeon. But the attitude of thanksgiving is revealed above all in the words and gestures of Jesus who lived in a continual and full relationship of love, affirmation, joy and commitment to the Father. Jesus becomes Eucharist (thanksgiving) for us and teaches us to live in an attitude of Eucharist through him and with him and in him.
Therefore, gratitude is not an accidental attitude in the Christian life, but arises from the very essence of the Christian life. It can be said that if people are lacking in gratitude then they are not living in a relationship of true love with God and with their neighbor … gratitude is a revelation of the depth and the intensity of one’s love.
Vincent’s thoughts and attitudes with regard to gratitude
Vincent has not left us an extensive study or dissertation on gratitude. He was not a theologian who provided us with lengthy reflections; he is a saint who loved God and his neighbor in an intense and deep manner. His gratitude flowed from his love. There are frequent expressions of his gratitude in his conferences but more especially in his letters. At times his expressions and his praise of his benefactors seem exaggerated, but reading the letters and discourses of Vincent’s contemporaries, we discover that such a style was common during his era. We should not doubt the sincerity of Vincent’s sentiments of gratitude toward God and toward his benefactors.
Gratitude toward God
Vincent’s gratitude was directed primarily toward God, the source of all good things. His expressions of gratitude are frequent in both his conferences and repetition of prayer, as well as in his letters. Those expressions of gratitude reveal Vincent’s recognition of the fact that God is the origin of all the blessings that he, his followers, the Church and the poor had received from their benefactors (CCD:III:44, 70-72; IV:523; V:180-181; VII:138-139).
Vincent’s gratitude is revealed in sentiments of joy, love, humility and respect and led him to spontaneously praise and bless God. For example, in a conference on the purpose of the Congregation of the Mission, he exclaimed: Oh, what happiness, brothers, but what an obligation we have to be attached [to our vocation] … What a great reason we have to praise God, my dear confreres, and to thank him continually for his grace (CCD:XII:71-72; see also, I:489; II:234; V:77-79; VIII:105-107).
Vincent not only thanked God for the blessings that were received but also thanked God for the sufferings and trials that befell various individuals and the Company (CCD:VII:318-319; XI:166; XII:47-48).
Vincent frequently requested that others help him to thank God because he felt incapable of thanking God in a worthy manner for the gifts that he had received: I ask you to help us give thanks and have others give thanks for the goodness of God toward this poor, miserable Company (CCD:II:119-120, 169)
Vincent exhorted his followers --- the Missionaries, the Daughters of Charity, the Ladies of Charity --- to give thanks to God for the blessings they had received, to celebrate the Eucharist and offer their Communion for that intention [those were seen as the best ways to offer God the gratitude that was due] (CCD:II:401; XI:126-127, 158, 162-163).
Gratitude toward people
Vincent was not only grateful to God but was also grateful toward people. It could be said that such gratefulness not only revealed a spirit of thankfulness but also revealed Vincent’s sensitivity to the sentiments and the demands of gratitude. When people requested some favor of him or demanded something, Vincent was unyielding to those requests or demands if he believed it was his duty to do so, but when people reminded him about the debt of gratitude that he owned them, Vincent reacted differently and allowed himself to be won over by the debt of gratitude which he considered as a higher demand before which he ought to concede (CCD:V:168, 181, 543).
For Vincent de Paul gratitude is a demand of justice and ingratitude is a terrible sin and the crime of crimes (CCD:III:47; VII:287; VIII:145; XI:141-142).
Vincent was aware of his inability to give thanks in a proper manner for the favors that he had been granted and so he asked God to reward and repay his benefactors (CCD:I:489; II:169, 348; IV:253-254).
Vincent showed his gratitude as humbly and respectfully as possible and asked God to grant his benefactors health, prosperity and every blessing, especially holiness (CCD:II:169; IV:107-108, 266-267; V:181-183, 219, 581-582).
Vincent was convinced that the benefactors share in the merits of the good works and the ministry of the Missionaries and the Daughters of Charity (CCD:IV:266-267, 456-457).
Sentiments of gratitude led Vincent to ask God to fill him and his followers with the Holy Spirit so that they might respond to the kindness and the intention of the benefactors. We find him writing the following words: this makes me hope that the Divine Majesty will either destroy us or make us worthy of honoring him according to your holy intentions (CCD:VII:244; see also CCD:IV:445-447; VI:410-411; VIII:75).
Vincent showed that obedience and docility and a willingness to respond to the proposals and the intentions of the Founders and the benefactors are a demand of gratitude (CCD:II:213-215, 234-235; V:77-79; VII:287; XIIIb:276-277).
Gratitude impelled Vincent to respond to the benefactors and to serve them in every way possible; if they were in need and in order to avoid any possibility of being brought before the courts, Vincent placed the goods of the Congregation at the disposal of those benefactors (V:19-21, 58-59, 167-168, 397).
Vincent was not only grateful himself, but exhorted his followers to be grateful and to show their gratitude to their benefactors. He reminded them that gratitude toward God and toward their brothers and sisters was the best way to obtain other graces and favors (CCD:II:220, 267-268, 295, 306, 311-313).
The letter that Vincent addressed to Giles Buhot, a priest in the Diocese of Bayeux and a Doctor of the Sorbonne who offered funds to the Missionaries can be viewed as a model of the letters of gratitude that Vincent wrote. In that letter he expressed all the sentiments and attitudes of his spirit of gratitude: With all possible humility, Monsieur, I prostrate myself in spirit at your feet and ask your pardon for having delayed so long in answering the two letters you did the honor of writing me and in thanking you for the favor of having called this poor, despicable Company to Notre-Dame-de-la-Délivrande to serve your diocese. I do so now, Monsieur, with all the tender affection and gratitude of my heart, after the prayers we offered that Our Lord might be pleased to make his holy will known to us. Because, however, I am not worthy to thank you in a manner corresponding to the great benefit your charity is pleased to offer us, I ask Our Lord himself to be your thanks and your reward. With all possible reverence and gratitude, then, our Little Company accepts the charity that you, Monsieur, are pleased to do it. As soon as we receive your orders, we will send someone to visit you to learn in greater detail your intentions and that of those gentlemen who desire to associate themselves with it. May God in his goodness be pleased to grant us the grace to correspond with your expectations of us, Monsieur, and to give us a share in the abundant graces he has given you and, through you, to your diocese! I am, meanwhile, in his love.... (CCD:VI:376-377).
All references to the writings of Vincent de Paul are taken from: VINCENT DE PAUL, Correspondence, Conferences, Documents, translators: Helen Marie Law, DC (Vol. 1), Marie Poole, DC (Vol. 1-14), James King, CM (Vol. 1-2), Francis Germovnik, CM (Vol. 1-8, 13a-13b [Latin]), Esther Cavanagh, DC (Vol. 2), Ann Mary Dougherty, DC (Vol. 12); Evelyne Franc, DC (Vol. 13a-13b), Thomas Davitt, CM (Vol. 13a-13b [Latin]), Glennon E. Figge, CM (Vol. 13a-13b [Latin]), John G. Nugent, CM (Vol. 13a-13b [Latin]), Andrew Spellman, CM (Vol. 13a-13b [Latin]); edited: Jacqueline Kilar, DC (Vol. 1-2), Marie Poole, DC (Vol. 2-14), Julia Denton, DC [editor-in-chief] (Vol. 3-10, 13a-13b), Paule Freeburg, DC (Vol. 3), Mirian Hamway, DC (Vol. 3), Elinor Hartman, DC (Vol. 4-10, 13a-13b), Ellen Van Zandt, DC (Vol. 9-13b), Ann Mary Dougherty (Vol. 11, 12 and 14); annotated: John W. Carven, CM (Vol. 1-14); New City Press, Brooklyn and Hyde Park, 1985-2014.
 Xavier Léon-Dufour, Vocabulario de Teologia Bíblica, Herder, Barcelona. This book was published in English in 1995 by Word Among Us Press and titled: Dictionary of Biblical Theology.
Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM Edited: Christine Mura, DC