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Let us give thanks with grateful hearts

Archbishop Wenski's column for the November 2021 edition of the Florida Catholic

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Last year — out of an abundance of caution because of the pandemic — many of us were forced to forgo the usual large gathering of family and friends for the Thanksgiving feast. (That may have been a blessing in disguise given the raw emotions in the aftermath of last November’s elections.) This year perhaps will see us traveling again and once again gathering with a large group of relatives and friends to eat turkey and all the fixings.

This holiday, as children learn in school, has its origins in those Protestant Pilgrims who immigrated from England in the early 17th century and landed at Plymouth Rock seeking religious freedom in a New World. Having survived a difficult year, they decided to give thanks with a meal shared with some of the original inhabitants of what we know now as Massachusetts. That Thanksgiving is the subject of many a school play with kids dressed up as Pilgrims or Indians.

But there was another Thanksgiving celebrated even before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. And while I do not want to discount the significance of the origins of this very American holiday, we Catholics do well to remember that the very, very first Thanksgiving celebration in what is now the United States took place near St. Augustine, Florida. Not in 1621 but in 1565 — on September 8th when the Spanish explorer, Pedro Menendez de Aviles, and his companions attended Mass followed by a meal with the natives. That Thanksgiving Mass and meal was the first communal act of religion and thanksgiving in the first permanent European settlement in North America.

Not many Catholics can claim that our ancestors came over on the Mayflower.  The Pilgrims were Congregationalists from England. However, there are quite a few Catholics here in South Florida who could possibly claim that some of their distant relations were with the Spaniard, Pedro Menendez de Aviles, in St. Augustine in 1565.

But what’s important today is not who were the first ones to come up with the idea of celebrating Thanksgiving, or where it was first celebrated. What is important is that we celebrate it — and that we do so with grateful hearts. Thanksgiving — and the possibility of being thankful — comes when we recognize that everything we have, everything we are, we have received freely from others and ultimately from God himself. The many blessings we have received should be seen not as an entitlement but as gifts from God. And what we have received freely we should share freely with others.

On Thanksgiving Day, most of us will sit down to a sumptuous feast prepared from the great bounty of American agriculture. Let us be grateful to the farmers, and the truckers, and the grocers who make it all possible. And let us be especially grateful to the more than two million farm workers — most of whom bear Hispanic surnames like the majority of Catholics in this archdiocese. They pick fruits and vegetables in Florida and California; they harvest apples in the Pacific Northwest and parts of New England, and peaches and tobacco in the southern states; and they work in poultry, dairy, or on livestock farms in the Midwest and parts of the Southwest and the deep South. Half of them are undocumented and all of them work long hours in the most dangerous of occupations, exposed to pesticides and the elements and unforgiving machinery. And during the pandemic they were among the “essential workers” that saw us through these past months.

As we give God thanks for the freedoms and opportunities that we enjoy in this country — a country that has often been described “as a nation with the soul of a church,” we pray that we will become a more just and fraternal nation, a nation where human life is protected from the moment of conception till natural death, a nation where marriage is once again promoted as a union between one man and one woman, a nation where the family is honored and the dignity of the poor, and even the undocumented, is respected.

We, Catholics, do well to remember that “Eucharist” means “thanksgiving.” The Mass is the perfect “Thanksgiving meal” for we are united with Christ in his sacrificial gift of Himself. It is that gift of Jesus to the Father, shared with us in the communion of His Body and Blood, that makes possible our reconciliation with God and with one another. And so, in the Thanksgiving Meal that is the Sacrifice of the Mass we give God thanks for the gift of our salvation, the gift of faith, the gift of knowing that we are loved by a merciful and compassionate God.

God, of course, has no need of our praise, yet our desire to thank him is itself his gift to us. And, while our prayers of thanksgiving add nothing to God’s greatness, they do make us grow in grace.

A Happy and Healthy Thanksgiving to all!

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