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Faith and thanksgiving

First slide

A few years ago, I drove by my old intermediate school in Springfield and noticed the sign: “Happy Thanksgiving! Family, food, and football.” I thought to myself, “They forgot ‘faith.’”


Thanksgiving ought to be celebrated as a religious holiday. Consider our English history. The first official Thanksgiving Day observance occurred in Virginia. Thirty-eight English settlers arrived at Berkely Plantation on the James River near present Charles City Dec. 4, 1619. The settlement's charter required that the day of arrival be commemorated as a day of thanksgiving to God.


Nevertheless, most Americans associate Thanksgiving with the pilgrims. After a perilous voyage, they arrived Nov. 21, 1620, at Plymouth, Mass. During their first year, the pilgrims suffered many hardships and nearly half of the original 100 settlers died. Fortunately, the native Indians befriended the pilgrims. Squanto, who had learned English from traders, showed the pilgrims how to grow and grind corn, and to hunt and fish in the new land. He also helped negotiate a treaty with Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoag Indians. Gov. William Bradford remarked that Squanto was “a special instrument sent of God for their good.” To mark the first anniversary of their arrival, Bradford declared a day of prayer and thanksgiving to God. About 60 pilgrims and 90 Indians gathered for the celebration. This tradition continued and spread throughout the New England colonies.


As Catholics, we must not forget how our own religion was outlawed and persecuted in England at this time. Nov. 22, 1633, a group of 300 colonists, one-third of whom were Catholic, set sail to establish the colony of Maryland, where all people would enjoy religious freedom. Arriving March 25, 1634, Jesuit Father Andrew White celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving on St. Clement’s Island, the first Mass in the English colonies. (Remember the word Eucharist means "thanksgiving.") Also the Piscataway and Yoacomaco Indians befriended them. Interestingly, these tribes believed in one true God and offered a thanksgiving ritual of first fruits at harvest time. Afterward, the Maryland colonists continued to offer annual thanksgiving festivals.


The Spanish explorers also contributed to our understanding of this celebration. On the feast of St. Augustine, Aug. 28, 1565, Admiral Pedro Menendez de Aviles anchored his fleet off the coast of Florida.  Landing Sept. 8, the feast of the Nativity of Mary, they named the settlement “St. Augustine.”  In thanksgiving, Father Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales offered Mass in honor of our Blessed Mother. Shortly afterward, they founded the mission, Nombre de Dios (the Name of God), the first Catholic church in the United States.


Lastly, in 1598, Don Juan de Onate left Mexico with about 400 soldiers and family members to explore the north. They almost died of thirst as they crossed the Chihauhuan desert. They arrived at the Rio Grande River near El Paso April 21. Thankful for what they saw as a miraculous intervention, Father Alfonso Martinez offered a solemn Mass of Thanksgiving. They established New Mexico. The Spanish Catholics affirmed the importance of offering the Mass as the best way to thank God for his abundant blessings.


After the Revolutionary War, President George Washington declared Thursday, Nov. 26, 1789, "as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and single favors of Almighty God." He exhorted all people to "beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions, to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best."


Gradually, the celebration of Thanksgiving became an annual event. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln designated the last Thursday of November nationally "as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father." Finally in 1941, Congress legislated that Thanksgiving would be observed on the fourth Thursday of November and would be a federal holiday.


Therefore, we celebrate this great American tradition with faith. Attend Mass as a family, and give thanks and praise to God. At dinner time, turn off the football and the electronics, and fully enjoy the gift of family and friends. Reverently pray the grace at meals, and at some point, reflect on the many blessings the Lord has bestowed even in the most perilous and difficult times. Let us give thanks to the Lord, our God, for it is truly right and just.


Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Church in Potomac Falls and episcopal vicar for faith formation and director of the Office of Catechetics.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019