This article was updated Nov. 17, 2020, to correct an error in the second paragraph.
British writer and Catholic philosopher G.K. Chesterton is quoted as saying: “The worst moment for an atheist is when he is really thankful and has no one to thank.” Today, football games and dining room tables filled with food tend to overshadow the real meaning of Thanksgiving for American citizens, even Catholic ones.
Thanksgiving has been on the liturgical calendar for the United States as an optional memorial since 1970. Father Robert Garrow, pastor of St. Stanislaus Kostka in New Carlisle, appreciates the reminder to be appreciative of what God has given.
“Of course, we have the Mass, which is thanksgiving. We give thanks to God for everything in our lives,” Father Garrow stated. He stressed that giving thanks to God for His boundless blessings should be a frequent occurrence, “but it’s an important reminder for us of a greater thanksgiving that we should do every day.”
Scripture is filled with words of praise and thanksgiving to God for all He has done for His people. Even the readings for Thanksgiving Day Mass reflect this theme of showing gratitude to God, particularly the Gospel story of the 10 lepers whom Jesus cured of their disease, and the one Samaritan who returned to thank Him. So, though it may not be a liturgical feast, the Church has certainly embraced the holiday as a natural part of the faith life.
While most Americans know the history of Thanksgiving, there are some historians who claim that the first Thanksgiving was actually a Catholic celebration. More than 50 years before the Mayflower, a group of Spanish colonists celebrated Mass and had a feast with native Timucuans in what would become the oldest settlement in the U.S. — St. Augustine, Florida. Michael Gannon, former professor at the University of Florida, wrote about the event in his 1965 book “The Cross in the Sand.”
Another story tells of a different group of Spaniards lead by Don Juan de Oñate, who in 1598 traversed the dangerous Chihuahuan Desert that spans northern Mexico and southern Texas, seeking to colonize the American southwest. After safely reaching the Rio Grande, Franciscan missionaries said Mass for the colonists, and a great feast with the natives followed.
The Spaniards eventually settled at Santa Fe. The Texas Almanac notes that various historians point to this event and the new settlement as milestones of Spanish influence in America – “one of hundreds of towns the Spanish had already established in the New World” prior to the arrival of the Puritans at Plymouth.
Even if these potential “first Thanksgivings” are not celebrated as such, the traditionally held event did have a Catholic attendee — Squanto, the Native American who taught the Puritan settlers survival techniques in their new land. Years prior, he had been captured by the English and freed by Franciscans who educated and catechized him. It is not known with complete certainty that he converted to Catholicism, but it is highly likely, as his Christianity is documented.
Regardless of when the first such celebration took place, Thanksgiving is clearly meaningful in the “origins of our land,” as Father Garrow reminded. “It is good for us to put aside that day for celebrating.”
And it is important for people to come together to do this. Father Garrow stated that Catholics should celebrate “that sense of community we get on that day — we’re communal beings. … As Catholics, this is a special day to come together … to thank God for our lives, our families, our freedom, our abilities.”
With the COVID-19 pandemic causing such widespread disruption in family and community life this year, Father Garrow believes that it is especially important to reach out to loved ones. “A lot of families have said that they’re not getting together, and that breaks my heart. We’ve still got to come together if we can, even if it’s just a few people. We have to value that time.”
If gatherings are impossible due to health concerns, he recommends using resources such as video chats or phone calls and even cards to reach out to those separated from others. Keeping loved ones in prayer helps bridge this gap as well and unites families spiritually. “Part of what Thanksgiving is about is feeling loved.”
For Catholics, Father Garrow gives many ways to incorporate faith into the secular holiday. Firstly, by going to Mass, since most parishes have a morning offering on Thanksgiving Day. This puts Catholics in the right frame of mind from the start, giving the first and best of the day to God. This has been the tradition in Father Garrow’s own family for years.
It is also a nice gesture to invite one’s parish priest to dinner. “This builds communities and allows families to experience vocations,” Father Garrow explained.
Families should also remember to bless the food that God has provided for them and “pray for those going without.” Some families pray an Our Father and have each member offer their own intercessions and mention the things they are grateful for.
“Thank God, but give back,” Father Garrow advised. To do this, Father Garrow recommended serving at a soup kitchen before or after their own meal.
He tells of a yearly tradition at St. Matthew Cathedral in South Bend that includes preparing a Thanksgiving meal for people in the neighborhood. This both serves the needy and builds community. Parishioners typically bring food to share as a means of giving back from their surplus. This year, the parish will be providing this as a carryout only option.
In Fort Wayne, St. Jude Parish collects food for Thanksgiving baskets for members of the parish who find themselves in need. Other parishioners donate turkeys, pies and canned goods to fill baskets to give away. This ministry began over 30 years ago when neighborhood residents would come to the church asking for food. The St. Vincent de Paul Society came up with this idea as an alternate means of taking care of their parishioners. With the pandemic, Pastoral Associate Mary Pohlman stated that “this year, we’re taking care of our families with grocery cards instead.”
No matter where or when the first Thanksgiving took place, there is no doubt that it was a means of giving thanks to God for His boundless gifts. Catholic families have many ways to bring a sense of the sacred to the day and praise God for His goodness.
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