Reading up on Catholicism and Thanksgiving brings a bounty of different stories from history connecting both. Here’s an internet roundup of what you knew (and didn’t know) about the two:
Catholic Recognition of Thanksgiving: Catholic recognition of the day by special religious features has only been of comparatively recent date. Historians of the day attempt to trace the origin of Governor Bradford's idea (1621) back to the old Hebrew Feast of the Tabernacles and through the ages to the ancient Greek Harvest Feast, Thesmophoria, the Roman Cerealia, and the English Harvest Home.(Catholic Encyclopedia)
Squanto was Catholic: As a result of the papal decree (“Sublimis Dei”), the Catholic Church in Spain was opposed to the mistreatment of Indians, and opposed to bringing them to Europe against their will. Of course, the Catholic ideal did not always prevent slave trade on the black market. At Malaga, Thomas Hunt managed to sell most of his captives, and was about to sell Squanto when two Spanish Jesuit priests intervened. The Spanish speaking priests seized Squanto who somehow convinced them to send him home. Not knowing where “home” was, the priests arranged for Squanto’s passage as a free man on a ship bound for London. It is likely that the Jesuits even baptized Squanto as a Catholic. It would have been a way to assure his status as a free man. (These Stone Walls)
The First Thanksgiving (Conquistador Style) : In April of 1541, Coronado, with a group of soldiers and some missionaries, left Albuquerque, New Mexico, headed northeast, and crossed a section of what is now northwest Texas (the Panhandle). In encountering some of the local Indians, the missionaries found that the natives were immediately open to receiving the Gospel of Jesus Christ. After a few weeks of instruction, members of the Jumano Indian tribe converted and received Baptism. The expedition then arrived in Palo Duro Canyon where, on May 29, Father Juan Padilla, O.F.M., offered the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. (Father Padilla would eventually become the very first martyr of the Faith in America when he was killed in 1542, in what is now Kansas.) A Thanksgiving feast followed the Mass. It consisted of game that had earlier been caught. The feast was celebrated in thanksgiving to God for His many blessings and for the recent converts. This event is the first actual Thanksgiving Day celebrated in the future United States. (Catholicism.org)
The Other First Thanksgiving Feast Claim: Another interesting bit of trivia is that the first American Thanksgiving was actually celebrated on September 8, 1565 in St. Augustine, Florida. The Native Americans and Spanish settlers held a feast and the Holy Mass was offered. (Canterbury Tales)
The Other First Thanksgiving Feast (Consecrated) : There was another Thanksgiving celebration which occurred years before the Pilgrims landed. In 1598, Catholic explorer Juan de Oñate led an expedition from Mexico City into New Mexico. In the name of the most Holy Trinity … I take possession of this whole land this April 30, 1598, in honor of Our Lord Jesus Christ, on this day of the Ascension of Our Lord ….”To the fanfare of trumpets and volleys of musket shots, Oñate signed and sealed the official act with a flourish, and the Holy Cross and the royal standard were both raised in the camp, completing the legal requirements of La Toma. With that, the kingdom of New Mexico came into being, at midday on April 30, 1598. The colonists went on to celebrate the first Thanksgiving with a grand feast of fish, “many cranes, ducks and geese.” The rest of the day passed with song, foot races, and other competitive games. In the evening, all enjoyed a play, written by one of Oñate’s captains, Marcos Farfan, which enacted happy scenes of the Franciscan missionaries entering the country, the Indians kneeling to receive them and asking to be received into the Holy Faith. (Tradition in Action)
The Calvinists & Catholics: So while Thanksgiving may celebrate the Calvinist Separatists who fled England, Catholics might remember the same unjust laws that granted the crown of martyrdom to Thomas More, John Fisher, Edmund Campion, et al. are the same injustices that led the Pilgrims to Plymouth (Canterbury Tales).
The Eucharist as Thanksgiving: The Greek word for Thanksgiving is ε?χαριστ?α or Eucharistia. Catholics should not only celebrate Thanksgiving with a deep sense of prayer, gratitude and joy, but the celebration this day should lead us to remember that our lives as Catholics are a constant act of thanksgiving, through our daily activities, all of which should give glory to God, especially through the celebration of the Eucharist, which, as the Catechism says, “The Eucharist is a sacrifice of thanksgiving to the Father, a blessing by which the church expresses her gratitude to God for all his benefits, for all that he has accomplished through creation, redemption and sanctification. Eucharist means first of all ‘thanksgiving.’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church).
In sum, though the Thanksgiving as we know it is not an official Catholic liturgical holiday, nevertheless, it is worthy of celebration, prayer, and reflection — and attendance at Holy Mass if you can!
This Thanksgiving let those of us who have much and those who have little gather at the welcoming table of the Lord. At this blessed feast, may rich and poor alike remember that we are called to serve on another and to walk together in God's gracious world. With thankful hearts we praise our God who like a loving parent denies us no good thing.
He lives with his lovely wife and eleven kids in northern Colorado.