Veterans Day Gratitude: When ‘Thank You for Your Service’ Is Not Enough

COMMENTARY: Gratitude is a virtue required as part of justice whereby we remember and appreciate the service done for us and the willingness to show kindness in return.

How should we apply the Catholic understanding of gratitude for our veterans?
How should we apply the Catholic understanding of gratitude for our veterans? (photo: Unsplash)

“Thank you for your service.” 

As a veteran, I have heard this phrase thousands of times. I always appreciate the sentiments behind this saying and never grow tired of hearing it. Not all veterans agree with me on this, but, in my experience, most of us appreciate this acknowledgement of past service even if we believe our contributions were minor. But for Catholics our gratitude for veterans and others who serve the common good should extend beyond this customary statement of appreciation. 

One of my “go-to” Catholic dictionaries (A Catholic Dictionary, edited by Donald Attwater) defines gratitude as “a moral virtue, annexed to justice, which disposes one to remembrance and appreciation of kindness received and prompting to return it in any suitable manner.” 

Gratitude is a virtue required as part of justice whereby we remember and appreciate the service done for us and the willingness to show kindness in return. This is a wonderful example of the “both/and” of Catholic theology — gratitude requires that we both appreciate and reciprocate.

How would we apply this Catholic understanding of gratitude for our veterans? 

While no description could be exhaustive, here are some things I believe everyone should consider. 

First, and most important, is prayer. Prayer for veterans (and those still in active service) should be a regular part of the Church’s and our petitions. Parishes can erect sites where the names and/or pictures of those who serve(d) may be displayed, with appropriate decorations (including flags) and invitations for intercessory prayers. Parish Masses for those who died serving our nation should be offered on Memorial Day, and Masses for all those who served or are serving should be offered on or around Veterans Day.

We should also attend to the graves of those who have served by proper upkeep of our cemeteries. Appropriate decorations, including the flag, should be placed on the graves of veterans. These decorations should always be meticulously maintained. 

We should support the Archdiocese for the Military Services. Our service men and women need and deserve the finest pastoral care available. Our veterans also need and deserve the finest pastoral care in our Veterans Affairs health system. Supporting the Archdiocese for the Military Services should include praying for more chaplains. There is a critical shortage of chaplains in some areas. We should also encourage our local bishops to be generous in releasing priests to serve as military and Veterans Affairs chaplains. 

We should advocate for the finest services for our veterans. Every VA hospital should be among the very best facilities we have. Mental-health services and pastoral care should always be readily available for every veteran. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that more than 37,000 veterans experienced some homelessness during the period right before COVID-19 (2018-2020). And as a recent HUD report makes clear, the pandemic has likely exacerbated homelessness for some veterans: “The report found that 580,466 people experienced homelessness in the United States on a single night in 2020, an increase of 12,751 people, or 2.2%, from 2019.” No one, especially our veterans, should have to live on our streets without proper housing, food or health care. We must do a better job to serve those who have served us. 

We should also encourage those who are qualified to consider if God is calling them to serve in the military. Every new recruit is a blessing to our nation and a tribute to those who served before them. In addition, one should discern if God might be calling you to offer service to our veterans by visiting a VA facility or veterans who are homebound or in need of assistance. Many will also be called to donate time or resources to a veteran organization. I am a life member of the American Legion and greatly appreciate all they do for our veterans. 

Last, but certainly not least, one of the best ways to honor our veterans is to build up our nation to be what it is meant to be: a just, generous, kind and good society. 

As Catholics we know what such a society is: one that fully embraces and lives out all the tenets of Catholic social teaching. Such a society, among other things, promotes and defends life from the moment of conception until natural death (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2258-2330). It honors and respects the primacy of the family, recognizing the rights of parents as the primary educators of their children (Catechism, 2197-2232). 

Such a society values and protects the common good and encourages active participation of all in society, including ready access to exercise the right (and duty) to vote (Catechism, 2238-56). Such a society defends and promotes all human rights, recognizing with each right comes the appropriate duty to exercise it in service of the common good (Catechism, 2235-2237).

Such a society defends religious freedom (Catechism, 2104-09) and promotes social justice (Catechism, 1939-1948). A basic element in any just society is how the most vulnerable are served, and thus we promote a preferential option for the poor (Catechism, 2443-2449). The dignity of work and the rights of workers to organize and receive a living wage are also valued (Catechism, 2426-2436). 

We honor veterans when we fulfill our obligation to pay a just amount in taxes (Catechism, 2240) and to promote the right to economic initiative (Catechism, 2429). And, of course, we honor God and our veterans when we care, as good stewards, for God’s creation (Catechism, 2415-18). 

Gratitude is a demanding virtue. It requires a sincere respect and admiration for God and others’ sacrifice with a willingness to offer service, as one is able, in return. When it comes to our veterans, we should have a ready willingness to sacrifice for their true good. And it is all right to begin by thanking them for their service.