At Thanksgiving, Catholics have something to chew on and something to cheer about. Contrary to popular belief, English Protestants in the Massachusetts Bay Colony weren’t the first Christians on the continent to hold a special repast as a way to celebrate God’s goodness and thank him for his blessings. Decades prior, Spanish Catholics had been there and done that in what we now know as Florida.
On Sept. 8, 1565, Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles, captain general of the Indies fleet under King Philip, stepped ashore with 1,200 colonists and soldiers to found St. Augustine, Fla.
According to Michael Gannon, a noted scholar of Florida history, it was the fleet chaplain, Father Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales, who first set foot in the sand. Thus honored, he welcomed the captain ashore.
The priest later recorded the moment. “I took a cross and went to meet him, singing Te Deum Laudamus [We Praise You God],” he wrote. “The General, followed by all … marched up to the cross, knelt, and kissed it. A large number of Indians watched these proceedings and imitated all that they saw done.”
The company celebrated a solemn Mass of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary on the Sept. 8 feast in thanksgiving for safe travels. The native Timucua Indians again watched intently, says Gannon.
Following the Mass, the Spaniards and Indians ate together. “It was clearly a thanksgiving feast,” says Gannon, “the likes of which would not be seen again for 56 years.”
Turkey was not on the menu. Analyzing the ship’s manifest, Gannon and a fellow Florida historian deduced the fare was likely cocido, a stew made from salted pork, garbanzo beans and garlic, served with ship’s bread and red wine.
“Very importantly,” Gannon concludes, “that first Thanksgiving began with a Mass, and Mass was celebrated before any effort was made to erect any other structure.”
This first Mass and first Thanksgiving on the North American continent mark the beginning of the parish of St. Augustine, our country’s oldest. And, as Gannon notes, the occasion launched “the permanent service of the Catholic Church in the United States.”
Every Head Shall Bow
Thanksgiving is a moveable feast for Marc and Lynn Connelly and their seven children in Spartanburg, S.C. With a son in priestly formation and daughters in college, they have a hard time getting everyone together at once.
Besides, says Lynn, civic holidays are well and good — they can provide the basis for wonderful family gatherings and customs — but they can’t hold a candle to the feast days and holy days on the Church’s liturgical calendar.
Take this Sunday’s solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King, for example. The Connellys commemorate it with confession, Mass and a family celebration highlighted by “King Cake.” This baker’s delight is topped with white icing and many crowns to remind all of Christ the King.
Mom and Dad explain to the four young boys at home how Christ is the perfect model to emulate in all areas of life. And during recent family discussions on the presidential election, the Connellys spoke to their kids about how Jesus is not just head of a country or even the world, but of all creation.
There was talk about how they, as citizens of a great country, owe respect to the political and governing system — but their first allegiance is to Christ. “If there is a moral discrepancy from what we have learned from Christ and his love and his standards,” says Lynn, “ultimately Christ is the King of our lives, and we have to choose Christ to model in our lives. We are ultimately responsible to Christ.
“That came up a lot during the campaigning, with the issue of abortion and how we have to model our decisions after Christ,” adds Lynn. “Hopefully, all our political leaders will someday emulate that perfect love.”
That was one major goal of Pope Pius XI in his 1925 encyclical Quas Primas for the feast of Christ the King, in which he instituted this solemnity for the universal Church because “his kingly dignity demands that the state should take account of the commandments of God and of Christian principles, both in making laws and in administering justice, and also in providing for the young a sound moral education.”
The feast was instituted largely to face down atheistic communism and socialism running rampant around the world, explains Father Greg Markey, pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Norwalk, Conn., and founder of the Gospel of Life Society. “It was to remind people that all leaders will have to give an answer to Christ the King, whether they recognize him or not,” he says.
Pius XI noted that when individuals and states rebel against Christ’s authority, the results are “discord … bitter enmities between nations … insatiable greed … immoderate selfishness, making men seek nothing but their own comfort and advantage … unity and stability of the family undermined … society in a word, shaken to its foundations and on the way to ruin.”
The Pope wanted the annual feast to show the world the remedy for these ills: the recognition of Christ’s authority and kingship.
this Sunday’s Gospel reading from Matthew 25 will remind Catholics that Jesus
“will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled
before him” at the final judgment.
“Thank God that he is the one who has the last word,” says Father Markey, pointing out that this feast closes the liturgical year. (The next year begins the following Sunday, with the start of Advent.) He notes that all are answerable to Christ the King — who, paradoxically, rules with perfect justice and perfect mercy at the same time.
“We may feel discouraged because of the election, but be confident,” adds Father Markey. “All these leaders promoting abortion and homosexual ‘marriage’ are going to be held accountable.”
Until then, this feast is about continuing the fight, he says, referring to Pius XI’s encyclical. “This whole feast was meant to encourage people in the face of terrible secular governments that had ignored God,” says the priest. “If we don’t fight, those kinds of leaders and rulers are only emboldened.”
On this feast, reminds Father Markey, we can do as Pius XI counseled: Consecrate ourselves and our families — and the world — to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Then, come Thanksgiving Day, we should be truly thankful, rejoicing in the knowledge that “all people suffering injustice can be confident that at the end all the wrongs will be righted.”
By remembering that the first Thanksgiving Day feast was an extension of the divine feast that preceded it — holy Communion — we can look forward to our eternal Thanksgiving banquet with Christ our King.
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen is
based in Trumbull, Connecticut.