A Civil Holiday with a Catholic Twist

Let’s be clear from the start: Thanksgiving Day in the United States is a civil holiday, not a Catholic one. But it’s hard to deny the holiday’s religious themes and its profound resonance with Catholic faith and values.

President Abraham Lincoln, when declaring it a national holiday in 1863, spoke of it as a day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” Thanksgiving certainly holds a place in the hearts of Catholic families as large as in those of other Americans. And the values it celebrates — gratitude to God, freedom and dignity, unity among families and peoples — are Catholic to the core.

For these reasons, observing Thanksgiving among Catholic parish communities in the United States is both common and fitting. Let’s take a look at the ways some parishes across the nation do it.

Eucharist Means Thanksgiving

What could be more fitting than to celebrate the day called Thanksgiving with the sacrament that is called by the very same name? The very word Eucharist, after all, means thanksgiving. So it should come as no surprise that the most common way Catholic communities observe Thanksgiving is through the celebration of Mass.

Indeed, the U.S. edition of The Roman Missal includes propers for Thanksgiving Day, ideal for use at the day’s weekday Mass. They include a collect that acknowledges our gratitude to God “as we come before you on Thanksgiving Day” and a preface of the Eucharistic prayer that reminds us of “the great gift of freedom” we possess that calls us to protect “the truth that all have a fundamental dignity before you.” Used together with Lectionary readings for the ritual Mass “In Thanksgiving to God” (see nos. 943-947 in the Lectionary for Ritual Masses, Vol. IV), these prayers can put the day in a context of faith that is both beautiful and challenging for parishioners.

Some parishes go a few extra steps as they celebrate Thanksgiving in the context of Mass. At St. Paul’s Cathedral in Pittsburgh, the parish distributes a special Thanksgiving Day prayer card, along with a fresh apple, to all Massgoers. “We ask them to use the prayer as the blessing before their family Thanksgiving meal later that day, and to include the apple on the table for their holiday meal,” explained Father Kris Stubna, rector of the cathedral, in a recent interview with The Priest. “The apple is a concrete symbol of the bounty of the earth.”

At St. Columba Cathedral in Youngstown, Ohio, Thanksgiving Massgoers receive fresh loaves of bread prepared by a local bakery and blessed following the homily. “We use the Order for the Blessing of Food for Thanksgiving Day in the Book of Blessings,” the cathedral’s rector, Msgr. Peter Polando, told The Priest. “We send them home with this bread for their Thanksgiving meal. It’s a reminder of the connection we share, between the parish church and the church of the home.”

Come to the Feast

Food finds an important and meaningful place in other types of parish Thanksgiving practices as well. At St. Edward the Confessor Parish in Clifton Park, New York, the pastor, Father Pat Butler, invites those who are alone or who lack resources to a Thanksgiving dinner hosted by the parish.

“Our pastor makes sure that it is clear that all are invited. Friends, neighbors or relatives who are not parishioners or not Catholic are welcome, too. Then he along with the pastoral care director and a bunch of volunteers prepare a Thanksgiving meal in the parish hall kitchen and enjoy a big feast with a crowd right after Mass that morning,” the parish administrative assistant, Fran Rossi Szpylczyn, explained.

St. Paul’s Cathedral in Pittsburgh also offers a meal for more marginalized people. All clients of the parish’s food pantry are invited to a Thanksgiving meal that is held on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. “Thanksgiving is a time for family, for giving thanks for blessings received, but some people struggle with those things. This is a way of being present to them. Making the church community tangible,” Father Stubna said.

In other cases, parishes bring the feast to those who don’t have one. At the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Glenville, New York, parishioners prepare a homemade Thanksgiving meal for homebound people with no family of their own to join for the day. They deliver the meals and make sure to spend time visiting each person who receives one. The parish’s pastoral-care coordinator, Rachel Winters, who is also the lead cook for the meal, explained to The Priest: “I treasure having family and friends around at Thanksgiving, so the thought of not having that is so hard. That’s why I do it. We don’t want people in our community to have to experience that, if we can help it.”

Food Drives

Still another food-related activity that many parishes carry out for Thanksgiving is the food drive. Parishioners typically are asked to donate food items in the weeks leading up to the holiday, which are then distributed to families in need, enabling them to prepare generous Thanksgiving meals in their own homes.

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For example, Immaculate Conception in Glenville also distributes packaged goods as well as certificates for purchasing fresh and perishable foods at local grocery stores. Much of the food that is distributed has been donated by parishioners to the parish’s St. Vincent de Paul program. Then on Thanksgiving morning, at the weekday Mass, the presentation of gifts includes food products brought by members of the assembly that day, to begin restocking the St. Vincent de Paul pantry.

With Other Christian Communities

Finally, another common practice at Catholic parishes across the nation is participation in local ecumenical prayer services on Thanksgiving Day. Often a local ministerial association or an organization of clergy in the area organizes such events and members of their many flocks are invited to give thanks together.

St. Patrick’s Parish in Whitinsville, Massachusetts, for instance, participates enthusiastically in the local ecumenical service every year, along with participants from several other churches in the Northbridge/Whitinsville area. The location for the celebration rotates among the participating churches through the years. “There are a lot of churches in this little town,” Mary Contino, a parish ministry volunteer, explained, which maintain strong and active relationships with each other. The Thanksgiving ecumenical service reflects this cooperation, along with several other joint activities done throughout the year. Many of the local clergy attend the service, as do at least 150 people from various congregations.

With so much to celebrate, and so many truly Catholic principles baked into the celebration, it’s no wonder that so many American Catholic parishes find ways to join in.

Barry Hudock is the author of Struggle, Condemnation, Vindication: John Courtney Murray’s Journey toward Vatican II.