By: Kathleen M. Carroll
What does the Thanksgiving holiday have to do with our Catholic faith? “Nothing at all,” some might say. It is a secular holiday with roots in the traditions of the very anti-Catholic Puritans. But it is a day that combines gratitude, food, and family —you can’t get much more Catholic than that.
Each issue carries an imprimatur
from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Reprinting prohibited
All people of faith have some element of praise and thanksgiving in their spiritual practice. Devout Jews recite the Amidah—a prayer that begins with God’s praises and concludes with thanksgiving—three times a day. Muslims pray five times a day to thank God. For Catholics, though, there is an even more intimate connection between our faith and gratitude.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the Eucharist as “the source and summit of
the Christian life” (CCC, 1324). The very
word Eucharist, though, is taken from the
Greek word meaning “thanksgiving.” The
Church requires us to attend Mass on
Sunday (or Saturday evening), so that we
can all together fulfill our Lord’s request:
“Do this in memory of me.” Our Liturgy
of the Word reminds us of the words of
Scripture—our story as a people. Our
Liturgy of the Eucharist reminds us that
we are a family in faith. And the best way
to celebrate a gathering of family is with a
The “correct” contents of the Thanksgiving
meal can be a source of comfort, but
also a cornucopia of contention. The
homey smells of turkey and pumpkin pie
wafting from the oven inspire nostalgia
and evoke charming memories of holidays
past. In some cases, however, the ingredients
of the “proper” meal have
become so ritualized in some families that
there is no room for error.
I have an in-law for whom dressing is
not dressing if it is not made with oysters.
My father had grown so attached to a
gaudy, colorful turkey platter that he
threatened to “cancel” Thanksgiving
altogether when it disappeared. And my
mother was so insistent that there be
cranberry sauce on the table (“and not
that fancy kind with the lumps in it, but
the old-fashioned kind from a can”), that
one year we watched the turkey grow cold
while one of my brothers went trekking
to find an open grocery store.
While this habit can tend to an unfortunate
extreme, it reminds us of what
we as Catholics know very well—ritual
and tradition are important. When we
come together at Mass, there might be a
surprise of coffee and doughnuts in the
school cafeteria afterward, but there will
be no surprises on the altar. There is a
warm comfort in knowing where everything
is, knowing what comes next,
knowing where we belong. All we love
about home and family is celebrated
when we gather around a table prepared
just so, just like always.
Ads contrary to Catholic teachings should be reported to our webmaster
. Include ad link.
At the same time, there are a few things
we’d prefer not to celebrate about home
and family. When it comes to bringing
the family together around the Thanksgiving
table, there’s always that one uncle
who tries to talk politics through a
mouthful of mashed potatoes. Someone
is always doing an “it really wasn’t even
funny the first time” impression of Henry
VIII with a turkey leg. And sooner or
later your cousin is going to have more
than her fair share of the “special occasion”
wine and start reminiscing about
family secrets better forgotten.
We can have the same experience as a
faith community. One parish might have
a tone-deaf music director. Another
might feature sermons so monotonous
that you find yourself making a remotecontrol
fast-forward gesture out of habit.
And sooner or later you’re going to sit
next to the old lady wearing at least ten
ounces of perfume or the young lady
wearing at most ten ounces of fabric.
Sometimes it might seem that
Thanksgiving and Mass resemble one another
most when we ask, “Do I have to
go?” Dressing up—and dressing the
kids—can be a challenge. Traditions can
devolve into empty ritual and we find
ourselves wondering if it is worth all the
With maturity we learn that there is
no Christianity without community. The
very nature of God, the Trinity, has relationship
at the heart of its mystery. If
we’re sincere in seeking God, we’re not
likely to find him in a burning bush or
on a storm-shrouded mountain. God is
always hiding where we don’t want to
look—behind the turkey leg, beyond the
cloying perfume, within the eyes of that
The old hymn that tells us “wherever two
or three are gathered in my name” comes
straight from Scripture. “For where two
or three are gathered in my name, I am
there among them” (Matthew 18:20).
Thanksgiving offers us an opportunity
to gather with loved ones far and
near. Most Americans share a home with
their nuclear families, a tremendous
change from ages past when many generations
shared a single roof. The holidays
remind us of the importance of those
loved ones we do not see every day.
Our Catholic faith encourages us to
be mindful, not only of our current family
and community, but also of the extended
family of faith we enjoy through
the communion of saints. Even those
who no longer can join us at our dinner
table still share with us at the Table of the
During the holidays, we are also encouraged to remember
those who cannot share our table due to infirmity, illness,
poverty, distance, or estrangement. Explore the
outreach programs your parish may sponsor and volunteer
to cook an extra turkey or deliver meals to the homebound.
Discover new forms of social media, which can allow you to
have face-to-face conversations with loved ones far away,
while a simple phone call or note can cheer older or less
tech-savvy friends and relatives. These easy ways to communicate
are an inviting way to reach out to those with whom
you have lost touch.
Gathered at the Table
Madeleine L’Engle imagines a scene that illustrates Christ’s
forgiveness in her story "Waiting for Judas":
There is an old legend that after his death Judas
found himself at the bottom of a deep and slimy
pit. For thousands of years he wept his repentance,
and when the tears were finally spent he looked up
and saw way, way up a tiny glimmer of light. After
he had contemplated it for another thousand years
or so, he began to try to climb up towards it. The
walls of the pit were dank and slimy, and he kept
slipping back down. Finally, after great effort, he
neared the top, and then he slipped and fell all the
way back down. It took him many years to recover,
all the time weeping bitter tears of grief and repentance,
and then he started to climb up again. After
many more falls and efforts and failures he reached
the top and dragged himself into an upper room
with twelve people seated around a table. “We’ve
been waiting for you, Judas,” Jesus said. “We
couldn’t begin till you came.”
No matter our failings, Jesus is ready to forgive us and welcome
us to his table. That is something for which we can
truly be thankful.
Put the Giving in Thanksgiving
by Ericka McCabe
Many people donate their money, food, and even time to local
food pantries and soup kitchens during the holidays, but some
people do this year round. On most Thursdays, you can find
Franciscan Father Hilarion Kistner helping out at Our Daily
Bread, a soup kitchen in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood.
It is a busy ministry, serving an average of 450 meals per day.
All the food served comes from donations, and all the volunteers
are united in a spirit of Christian service. Before each meal they gather with the kitchen staff for a quick prayer and a shared “Our
But Our Daily Bread is more than just a place to have a meal. For its many clients struggling with mental illness, the organization
provides activities two days a week, and offers access to social services, legal aid, job help, clothing, computers, and more.
An outreach program also distributes groceries.
Every guest is greeted with a friendly hello and a smile. That sense of family, welcome, and community makes this the most
popular soup kitchen in the Greater Cincinnati area. The food is served on real china with silverware, and fresh flowers often
grace the tables. Volunteers bus the tables for guests.
Fr. Hilarion is Franciscan Media’s Scripture expert and editor of Sunday Homily Helps. He has
volunteered at Our Daily Bread weekly for eight years. A friar for sixty-five years, he knew early in
life that he was called to the priesthood. While in the seminary he “fell in love with St. Francis,
and…wanted to be like him.” Which, Father humbly admits, “is hard.”
He began his work at Our Daily Bread in response to his province’s reminder that the friars
“are supposed to be people involved with the poor.” This focus on solidarity with the poor is a
central component of the Franciscan charism.
Fr. Hilarion sees his work as “an opportunity to serve Jesus.” Mother Teresa described those
she served as “Jesus in disguise.” This is an image that resonates with Fr. Hilarion. He says, “Every
human being contains the glory of God,” and he hopes to serve God by serving others. Ask any
volunteer, and you will hear the same—the experience of helping others is as transformative for
the giver as for the receiver. And as Christians, it is what we are called to do: to be Jesus’s hands on
earth. This call comes not just at the holidays; it is perpetual. Need knows no season.
Kathleen M. Carroll is managing editor of Catholic Update
Special Editions. She is the author of St. Francis: A Short Biography
and A Mary Christmas.
NEXT: Lent: A Simple Guide, by Kathleen M. Carroll