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  • Writer's pictureFr. Vili Lehtoranta

Gratitude – The Rarest and Most Beautiful Virtue

Fr. Vili Lehtoranta


On Easter week 2024 I made a trip to Washington D.C. to visit the Finnish Embassy. On the way there I stopped at Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to see Wheatland, the home of James Buchanan, who was the President of the United States in 1857-1861. Though not one of the most appreciated Presidents, Buchanan was renowned for being a true gentleman. When a group of Japanese diplomats visited Washington D.C. in May 1860, they were stunned by American informality and cordiality; they were treated though they were long-standing friends. When they met President Buchanan in the White House, one of them described Buchanan having “a most genial manner without losing noble dignity,” and another said: “I saw the President, a splendid gentleman.”*1

President Buchanan was a true gentleman, because he also appreciated the great virtue of gratitude. In August 1840, while still a member of the Senate, he gave a speech at the Pennsylvania State Democratic Convention in his home town of Lancaster. That year the Democratic President Martin Van Buren was challenged in the elections by the Whig Party nominee and the eventual winner William Henry Harrison. The Whigs had adopted a fierce anti-immigrant platform. Buchanan pointed out that most immigrants who came to America were fleeing the oppression of the kings and aristocrats of their own countries, and said:

And what does this country owe to these persecuted foreigners? Was there a single battle fought during the revolutionary war, in which they did not freely shed their blood in defense of our liberties? We owe a debt of gratitude which we can never cancel, to the brave Irish and Germans who assisted us in that glorious struggle. The names of Montgomery and De Kalb, and a host of other foreign patriots, ought ever to be embalmed in the grateful memory of American freemen. Whence then the deadly and persevering hate of the Whig party to foreigners?*2

President Buchanan’s token of gratitude prompted me to write something about this beautiful virtue. The text is based chiefly on the chapter about gratitude in Bishop Francis Kelley’s book Dominus Vobiscum (1922). Bishop Kelley was the Bishop of Oklahoma City in 1924-1948, and his book is one every priest and seminarian should read at least once in his life.

What Gratitude Is

What is gratitude? One good definition says that gratitude is a “moral virtue which enables a person to be grateful and thankful for a kindness received, returning such kindness according to opportunity and means.”*3

My favorite passage about gratitude in the Bible is the story of the Ten Lepers, which is read on the thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost:

And it came to pass, as He [Jesus] went unto Jerusalem, He passed through the midst of Samaria and Galilee. And when He entered into a certain town, there met Him ten men that were lepers, who stood afar off. And they lifted up their voice, saying, Jesus Master, have mercy on us. Whom as He saw, He said, Go, show yourselves to the priests. And it came to pass, as they went, they were made clean. And one of them, as he saw that he was made clean, went back with a loud voice magnifying God. And he fell on his face before His feet, giving thanks; and this was a Samaritan. And Jesus answering said: Were not ten made clean? And where are the nine? There was not found that returned, and gave glory to God, but this stranger? And He said to him: Arise, go thy ways, because thy faith hath made thee safe.*4

When I was once talking about this passage with Bishop Dolan, we both agreed that this is kind of a sad Gospel narrative, because the nine healed men were too busy to show gratitude. (Bishop Dolan also said that he and Father Cekada used to joke, after the nine priests left the Society of St. Pius X in 1983, that the remaining SSPX priests must have asked each other: “Where are the nine?”) All ten lepers of the Gospel went obediently to the priests, and long before they reached their destination, they were all cured of their disease. But upon perceiving that he had been restored to health, only one of the ten hastened back to Jesus. This man, who belonged to the foreign race of the Samaritans, was convinced that before presenting himself to a priest, he should first give thanks to the wonder-worker Who had cured him.

Upon seeing him coming back to give thanks, Jesus said His sorrowful words: “Were not ten made clean? And where are the nine? There was not found that returned, and gave glory to God, but this stranger?” Of course Our Lord was well aware that the original number of lepers had been ten. His question was a rhetorical one, meant to draw attention to the ingratitude of the nine.

It might seem somewhat strange to note that Jesus, Who sent the group to the priests, now seems pleased with the one man who has not carried out His order. But He wanted to teach us the proper attitude we should have toward God for benefits received. The Samaritan could not believe his good fortune. He felt himself unworthy of such a favor, and he was correspondingly grateful for it. So grateful, in fact, that he had to say so at once; the journey to the priests could wait. The other nine, on the other hand, may have thought, upon perceiving themselves cured, that they had best see a priest at once. Gratitude to their benefactor could wait. The problem was, though, that by the time they had gotten their certificates of health from the priests at Jerusalem, it would have been impossible to find and thank their benefactor, Who, unlike the birds of the air which had nests, and the foxes which had lairs, had nowhere to lay His head, i.e. no home of His own. Jesus wanted to be thanked, and was, in His human nature, hurt when He was not.

How To Cultivate Gratitude

The duty of gratitude, which the Samaritan showed, arose from the acceptance of a gift. A gift is always given by the free will of a benefactor. That means that we can never earn a gift, and that’s why we always owe gratitude to our benefactors, to God first and foremost.

In one of our St. Gertrude the Great School religion classes for little children, we speak about a soul as Our Lady’s garden. Like any garden, our soul garden needs much toiling and tilling. And God freely gives us the seeds to cultivate virtues which make our soul beautiful. But so often we fail to plant them, or if we do, we fail to tend them. Gratitude is the rarest of the beautiful plants that should grow in the garden of the soul. I would say that in our time it is even rarer than chastity. Despite the great immorality which prevails in our modern society, there are still numerous people who live dedicated and chaste lives. But gratitude is the least practiced of the virtues, though certainly it is one that should be most prized.

Still, if any virtue has a claim on the heart of man, surely that virtue should be gratitude; for our total dependence on the goodness of God, and His infinite love and generosity to us, should make us value the impulse to gratitude as one of the holiest emotions of our souls. If a follower of Christ had true gratitude in his heart, he would never sin. It is as if he neglects gratitude, that he becomes a sinner. Gratitude to God is one of the secrets of holiness.

It is important to note that gratitude consists first and foremost in an internal state, namely a grateful heart, rather than in any external effect, such as a real return for the gift. Therefore everyone, even the poorest of the poor, is capable of gratitude.

Gratitude In a Priest

In a priest, gratitude should be the prince of virtues. A priest who has developed this virtue is sure of the success of his work, for no virtue draws men in deeper charity to others than gratitude. No virtue makes him kinder, and no virtue is more powerful in bringing back kindness in return. Gratitude will disarm the worst opposition. It bears humility in its train. A word of appreciation has turned aside many a deadly blow, and brought peace where the battle clouds were gathering fast. Gratitude is like sunlight to the storm clouds, which dissolve them no matter how black they may be.

I often wish that I could convince the priestly superiors how powerful would be their influence were they to strive always to manifest gratitude in their administration. I sometimes see in the clergy this strange attitude, that kindness and gratitude to the subjects is somehow a sign of weakness. It is quite the opposite. Who ever was more kind, more charitable, more long-suffering, and more forgiving than Christ? And whoever possessed more authority than Christ, the Man-God, and Savior of the world? Gratitude and all the other virtues it carries with its train put a superior very high in the affection and respect of those whom he is called to govern. And who is a superior but one who depends entirely, under God, on what is done through him by God? Alone he has no force or power. St. Paul wrote to his faithful in Corinth:

I planted, Apollo watered, but God gave the increase. Therefore neither he that planteth is anything, nor he that watereth, but He that giveth the increase, God. And he that planteth and he that watereth are one. And everyone shall receive his own reward according to his own labor. For we are God’s coadjutors, you are God’s husbandry, you are God’s building. According to the grace that is given me, as a wise workmaster have I laid the foundation. And another buildeth thereupon. But let everyone look how he buildeth thereon. For other foundation no man can lay, beside that which is laid, which is Christ Jesus.*5

All of us, priests and laymen alike, would do well if we only tried to realize how mighty is the display of the virtue of gratitude. Then we could do many mighty things that today are left undone. We think ourselves very wonderful beings when we see things grow under our hands or look at the fruits of our labor. No one on earth ever flatters us as much as we flatter ourselves. We may not throw the grains into the thurible to incense our own idol self, but we are always careful to keep the coals bright and ready. We take credit for the work of others a thousand times more devoted, more zealous and by far more humble than ourselves, as a right due to us to whom nothing is due. The Valley of Josaphat where, according to some traditions, the Last Judgment will take place, is destined to be a valley of unpleasant revelations for many of us. Then the mountains of truth shut us in, and the Book of Self is laid open and we will read the record written by our own thoughts and actions, even those long forgotten.

Resolutions To Be Made

For the subjects it might be well to consider some of the opportunities they have to practice gratitude to their own profit. As said, true gratitude, this beautiful virtue, which is proper only to angels and men, is rare. The pages of world literature are filled with laments caused by ingratitude. In Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night, Viola says: “I hate ingratitude more in a man than lying, vainness, babbling, drunkenness, or any taint of vice, whose strong corruption inhabits our frail blood.*6 Parents sometimes complain that the more they do for their children, the less thanks they get. It is not really that the children mean to be ungrateful. Of course they do appreciate the gifts and will never forget the sacrifices of their parents. But they are so busy. Like with the nine lepers, thanks is put off until tomorrow, because life is too pressing a matter for courtesy. Or could it be that, instead of being too busy, we are too self-centered to think of others?

Everyone has had some favors from his superior, whether he be a parent, priest, or teacher. But often we are tempted to forget them at the first disappointment or rebuff. Always remember such favors with appreciation. We are obliged to make some return for the benefits received, in so far as that is possible. Do not be shy in your expressions of thanks, for gratitude and dignity can live side by side. A line at Christmas or birthdays, a word of good cheer, or a note that you pray for your benefactor, all these do great things. These little acts of thoughtfulness are better than apologies and flatteries, and they pay well. No superior is so hard or distant that he would not soften before a kind and grateful soul.

For us superiors: do we owe our people gratitude? I think few of us would deny this. We know very well how much we owe to our people. But still so often we act more like a governor, rather than a pastor. Publilius Syrus, a Latin writer, once wrote: “Beneficium accipere libertatem est vendere” – To accept a favor is to sell one’s liberty. Perhaps that is true in a general, worldly way; but still, there is a lesson in the application of this saying to the Christ-like superior who receives generously from his people. He really does, and should sell one kind of liberty in return for a favor: his liberty to be ungrateful. So what if a parent, a priest, or a teacher is poor among his fellow men? He has riches that others do not know. Would any of us exchange the love of our people, especially of the children, for the salary of a corporate executive? A sure road to win the affection of the people under us is the road of gratitude.

For the priests it is so very easy to show gratitude that it's a pity that often we do not use this powerful instrument for good more than we do. A little act goes a long way. Gratitude is one of the marks and signs of a gentleman, for it is a mark and sign of a refined character and a kind heart; and every priest should be a gentleman.

In memory of my ordaining Bishop, His Excellency Daniel Dolan, a good priest, a loving Bishop, and a perfect gentleman


*2 John Bassett Moore (ed.): The Works of James Buchanan, Volume IV. Philadelphia, PA: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1908, pp. 292-293.

*3 Albert J. Nevins (ed.): The Maryknoll Catholic Dictionary. New York, NY: Dimension Books, 1965, p. 256.

*4 Luke 17:11-19.

*5 1 Corinthians 3:6-11.

*6 Act 3, Scene 4.

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