American Thanksgiving: Catholic Devotion and Liturgy

Even for someone resoundingly in favor of American Thanksgiving and obscure local Mass propers, there is much to emphatically agree with in Michael P. Foley’s piece, Thanksgiving Day Mass: Thanks or No Thanks. We all understand that the holiday’s main purpose is to give thanks to Almighty God and, given the defects of the modern dedicated propers, yes, the most liturgically appropriate option left is certainly the Votive Mass of Thanksgiving in the Roman Missal. (Although it is worth noting the Mass Propers from the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, which I discussed on these pages last year.) But besides its primary theme, Thanksgiving is also overlaid with a number of secondary themes. Some of these, like the anti-Catholic Pilgrims and the pseudo-ecclesiastical recasting of the American founding, are hard to square with the liturgical action and best ignored. 

However, there are a number of other themes that are quite appropriate: the harvest, the bounty of nature, feasting and charity. Unfortunately, these do not feature prominently in the votive Mass that, almost by definition, has to provide for any kind of thanks, for any kind of event, at any time of year. 

It is in paraliturgical texts and devotions that we find the secondary Thanksgiving themes best utilized -- and here we bear in mind that popular piety, as the former Cardinal Ratzinger noted in Spirit of the Liturgy"is the soil without which the liturgy cannot thrive."

Foley provides an illuminating citation of devotions for the day from Bishop Camillus Paul Maes in 1913: Carroll’s Prayer for the Church and Civil Authorities, Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, and the Te Deum. There are other examples.

A program “for family and parish observance of Thanksgiving Day” that the National Catholic Rural Life Conference put together in the mid-20th century re-echoes some of these ideas. It called for attendance at Mass, private recitation of the propers from the Mass of Thanksgiving (apparently in cases where the votive could not be offered), and Archbishop Carroll’s prayer after Mass. The Rural Life devotional also picks up very strongly on the harvest theme with the recitation of Psalm 64:10-14: “Thou hast visited the earth and watered it, Thou hast greatly enriched it” etc. The priest and people then alternate recitation of the Benedicite or the Canticle of the Three Youths, a very appropriate thanksgiving for Creation from the Office of Lauds.

Mary Reed Newland, one of the mid-20th century mothers who helped bring the liturgy into the domestic Church, took yet another devotional approach to the holiday. In her book, The Year & Our Children (1956), she describes how her family typed out multiple copies of a long-form grace before and after meals that then came to serve as a special grace before Thanksgiving Dinner. Indeed, if we are to give thanks - gratia -- before each meal, then it is only natural for Americans to want to offer a gratia par excellence at American's greatest national feast.

American Catholics have long felt a need to integrate the holiday into their devotional and parish life and there are many options here that are worth investigating as the basis of new liturgical or paraliturgical texts. So while I agree with Mr. Foley's "no thanks" to the modern propers for the time being, I am nevertheless quite certain that a more liturgically appropriate solution could be devised that builds on these devotional elements to create a proper Mass of (American) Thanksgiving -- which, ironically, might be a good cause for us to break out the old votive Mass.

For examples of the devotions and paraliturgical prayers for the holiday, see the Thanksgiving devotional booklet published by Ancilla Press.

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