Lex Cordis Caritas - The law of the heart is Love

by Bishop Thomas John Paprocki

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

In my preparation of homilies and in my own spiritual reflection, I have often found it helpful to look into the etymology of key words, especially technical theological terms. Etymology studies the origin of a word and the historical development of its meaning. For example, the etymology of the word “etymology” itself comes from the Greek words, etymon, which is translated as “true sense, original meaning,” and logos, which means “word.” Thus, etymology is the study of the true meaning of a word.

I mention this in light of our national celebration of the Thanksgiving holiday. What does it mean to give thanks? Before considering the etymology of the word “thank” in English, it occurs to me that the word for “thank” in Latin is gratia, which literally means “grace.” Thus, the phrase for “thank you” in Latin is, Gratias tibi ago, which is literally translated as, “I give you graces.”

Of course, the Spanish and Italian languages are derived from Latin, so the Spanish word for “thanks” is gracias and in Italian is grazie. Just as in Latin, then, the person saying muchas gracias in Spanish and tante grazie in Italian is not only saying “many thanks,” but is literally wishing someone many graces.

In looking at the English word “thank,” it would appear initially that it is not related to the Latin word gratia or “grace.” The word “thank” stems from the Latin word tongēre, which means “to think.” But to think what? One interpretation is that the concept of thanks associated with this word developed from the sense of thinking someone well. Indeed, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the Old English noun from which the word “thank” derives chiefly meant “thought, reflection, sentiment; mind, will, purpose, grace, mercy, pardon; pleasure, satisfaction.” So even in English there is the sense of thinking well or wishing graces to express our appreciation.

It is also interesting to look at the responses given when thanks are expressed. The traditional reply as a matter of courtesy in English has been to say, “You’re welcome,” although more commonly today it is not unusual to hear, “No problem” or “It’s my pleasure,” which are both close to the Spanish, De nada or Es mi placer, respectively. However, in Italian, the response is Prego, which literally means, “I pray.” Thus, when an Italian says “Prego” in response to tante grazie,” in a sense that person is indeed saying, “I pray for the many graces that you have just wished for me!”

Our celebration of Thanksgiving should also be seen then in connection with our upcoming Year of the Eucharist, which will begin in our diocese on Dec. 8 of this year, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. The word “Eucharist” comes from the Greek eukharistia, which means “thanksgiving.” So every time we celebrate the Eucharist, we are giving thanks to God for all the gifts of His creation, especially the gift of the Real Presence, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ that we receive in holy Communion.

During this Year of the Eucharist, my fervent hope is that you will grow in your appreciation of this great mystery and the importance of participating in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and receiving holy Communion at least every Sunday. I pray that the Eucharist will indeed be a true expression of thanksgiving for the many gifts of God’s abundant graces.

May God give us this grace. Amen.