1863 was the bloodiest year of the Civil War. By some estimates, more than 200,000 American soldiers died that year. Our nation was wounded, deeply divided, and angry. Political leaders were distrusted and reviled, the economy was fluctuating wildly, immigrants and minorities were marginalized, and religious practice was waning in some places, and taking new and unusual forms in other places. In 1863, many people wondered whether the United States would survive as a nation very much longer.
Writing to his divided and discouraged country, President Lincoln issued a proclamation recalling the many blessings that Almighty God had given our nation. Lincoln recognized that the United States had been showered with “the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”
Lincoln called for a national day of thanksgiving, because he knew that in moments of division or discouragement, or fear, the first thing to do is to remember what the Lord has given us, to remember our responsibilities to him, and to give thanks.
The Lord has, indeed, remembered us in his mercy. He has graced us with his presence, in his word, in the Church, in the Sacraments, and in the hearts of millions of earnest believers across our country who seek to do God’s will in their lives. He has graced us with the gift of freedom: the liberty to seek the Lord and to serve him, and to worship him, as he has called us. He has graced us with peace, and security, and a prosperity so excessive that each one of us has the ability to do incredible amounts of good for those who are poor and without the basic material goods of life.
Because of the Lord’s blessings, we have the freedom to follow the commands of the Gospel in extraordinary ways. Because of his blessings, we have the freedom to love our neighbors well, to protect and serve our common good, to build the bonds of unity in our nation, despite our profound political disagreements. Because of the Lord’s blessings, we have the freedom and responsibility to support unborn children and their parents, even in crisis situations. We have the freedom to build a culture which values and supports human dignity and the gifts of life, marriage and parenthood.
Because of the Lord’s blessings, we have the freedom and the responsibility, to build an economy in which every family can meaningfully participate and benefit.
Because of the Lord’s blessings, we have the freedom and responsibility to welcome immigrants generously to our nation, to provide families with an opportunity to share in our blessings and prosperity, to remember that we are a continent of immigrants, who, through God’s blessings, have become a nation. We must never forget these truths.
In 1987, Pope St. John Paul spoke to our nation saying that “the ultimate test of your greatness is the way you treat every human being, but especially the weakest and most defenseless ones.” Because of God’s blessings, we can make our nation great, by making our nation holy. We have the freedom and the responsibility to do so.
We are living at a moment of extraordinary division, discouragement, uncertainty, and fear in our country. Even in our local community we are living in a moment in which racial, social, economic, religious, and political differences have become charged, too often, with anger or resentment. Our moment in history calls for Thanksgiving: God calls us to remember what he has given us, to repent of our own sinfulness, and to foster the common good, trusting in His Providence.
In his Thanksgiving Proclamation, Lincoln expressed hope that as Americans give the thanks “justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers… and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and union.”
May we give God thanks. May we repent of our sins. May we live the freedom and responsibility God has given us. And may God restore our nation to peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.