Thanksgiving is obviously a secular holiday, commemorating the good fortune the Puritans found in the New World, a good fortune that we Americans share to this day.
But the Thanksgiving legend has so many religious, and Catholic, overtones.
The first Thanksgiving feast shared by the Puritans and the Wampanoag tribe was arranged by Squanto, a Native American who had been catechized by Spanish Dominican Friars. Squanto had been captured by an English party led by Capt. John Smith, which planned to sell him into slavery. The Dominicans rescued him, instructed him in the Catholic faith, and helped him get to England so he could return to his people.
Squanto helped the Puritans survive by teaching them to hunt, fish and grow corn and then tried to help the Wampanoag tribe build a peaceful relationship with the Puritans, one that sadly did not survive.
The thanksgiving feast between the Wampanoag tribe and the Puritans wasn’t the first celebration of thanksgiving on American shores. More than 50 years before the Puritans established the Plymouth Colony in present day Massachusetts, a group of Spanish colonists celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving and had a feast with members of the Timucuan tribe near present-day St. Augustine, Florida.
In 1598, another group of Spaniards celebrated their successful crossing of the desert in northern Mexico and southern Texas with a Mass and a feast with the indigenous people of the area along the Rio Grande.
When those Spanish priests stopped to celebrate a Mass of thanksgiving, it was a most Catholic thing to do. It is part of our faith as Catholics to give thanks to God for the many blessings he has bestowed on us. Most importantly, we give thanks for the gift of his son, Jesus Christ, who sacrificed himself for the forgiveness of our sins. In our Catholic view of the world, that gift is the most powerful of all of God’s gifts.
As Catholics, we celebrate Thanksgiving every time we go to Mass. The very word eucharist comes from the Greek word for thanksgiving and is a reminder that as followers of Christ we have so very much to be thankful for. We are thankful for his love and his mercy. We are thankful for the Catholic faith that has been passed on to us by the Communion of Saints. In our gratitude, we find peace and joy.
Our experience as Catholics shows the path to a fulfilling and joyful life. To be happy, be grateful. But we can’t stop there. We are called to share our gratitude and our blessings with others. That is the lesson of the Thanksgiving feast.
So, for this Thanksgiving and every day that will follow, we should look beyond our immediate family to share our blessings. Be the face and hands and feet of Christ to all you encounter. Share the mercy and love God has showered upon us. Gather not only around the dinner table but at the altar where we celebrate the eucharistic thanksgiving.
When we do that, we will infuse this secular holiday with the Catholic faith.
While the Catechism technically permits the death penalty, it, and the bishops, foresee its use as rare if ever. If capital punishment is foresworn in all cases, a criminal often lives to commit another atrocity. Is society not left helpless?
There are many complexities in discussing the death penalty, because there is some tension between the traditional doctrine regarding it, and the modern pastoral setting.
Unlike abortion, capital punishment is not an intrinsic moral evil for a couple of reasons. Firstly, in certain settings, the use of the death penalty has served the common good; ensuring that dangerous criminals are no longer able to cause harm. In punishing grave offenders, others can be deterred from capital crimes too. Secondly, Scripture does not forbid the practice. Even in the New Testament, St. Paul speaks to the State’s right to punish grave offenders in this way, and even indicates that, in so doing, it acts as a minister of God's justice on the wrong‐doer. (see Rom 13:4).
The Church cannot simply overrule scripture and declare intrinsically evil, what God permits in certain circumstances. However, that Scripture permits the death penalty in certain circumstances, does not mean that it is always wise or prudent to promote such punishment.
In the modern pastoral setting, recent Popes, and the bishops of the world, have taught that recourse to the death penalty should be rare if ever. A significant part of this prudential judgment is rooted in concern for what Pope John Paul called the “culture of death.”
The culture of death is a mindset wherein the death or nonexistence of human beings is increasingly proposed as a solution to problems. Abortion, euthanasia, and quick recourse warfare or other violent means, along with the antilife mentality of contraception, are widely promoted in our culture as a way to solve problems. The Church stands foursquare against such thinking.
And even though the death penalty has received reluctant approval in the past, the current pastoral setting seems to require that the Church stand consistently against yet another way wherein death is proposed as a solution to the regrettable problem of crime.
The criminal assault that many have experienced is regrettable. More needs to be done to keep serious and threatening offenders off our streets. However, given the wider pastoral setting, it is the consensus of recent Popes and the world's bishops that standing against all facets of the culture of death is an important pastoral posture to maintain, even if our tradition does permit the death penalty in very rare circumstances.
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