This Thanksgiving, take time to be grateful

I just started reading “Community and Growth” by Jean Vannier, the founder of the L’Arche communities. Doing so has reminded me of the importance of community and the fundamental virtue of gratitude. And that has reminded me of the importance of the Thanksgiving holiday. Though Thanksgiving is an American holiday with no specific denominational affiliation, there is something deeply religious about this great feast. 

We celebrate it in different ways, which speaks to America’s great diversity, but we are all giving thanks. We celebrate the fruits of the earth, the farmer, the family hands that prepared the food, and the family members whose recipes have been passed down from generation to generation. We open our homes to family members we may not normally see, to family with whom we may not get along, even to strangers. 

Thanksgiving is a time for guests who may someday become new sons and daughters in a family that, as it grows, welcomes more souls to the table. It is a time to celebrate the making of new memories for little ones, a time to get away from the business of life so as to focus on the business of play. Thanksgiving is often hard work, but it is a labor of love when done rightly.

In the run-up to Thanksgiving we may see, as in years past, articles pop up advising us on how to win a political argument against uncle so-and-so. Retailers will already be selling Christmas gifts, in fact some started doing that in early October. And of course there is Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, that pulls us away from family so that we can do that other essentially American thing: shop. These things distract from the whole purpose of Thanksgiving, which brings us back to the centrality of family and community and, consciously or not, brings us back to God.

Thanksgiving is not a holiday of the Catholic Church’s liturgical calendar, but it is a very religious holiday. I mean that taking the time to stop and celebrate the bond of family-life past, present and future is a deeply religious thing to do. It is a Catholic thing to do. And it does not revolve around an historic war victory or around a single figure of American history. It revolves around the universally accessible and much forgotten virtue of gratitude.

In Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical “Charity in Truth” we read that if we hope to build a better future, we need to foster gratitude, or what he refers to as “gratuitousness.”  This is the idea that the more grateful we are for the things in our lives, the better we are at building community and so advancing peace and justice. 

People often ask me, when I talk about Catholic Social Teaching, how it translates to everyday life for the mom and dad who are just trying to get their kids through this culture of cynicism. Pope Benedict’s answer is gratitude: for a nation that gives us the freedom to disagree with each other, for the business owner who works so hard to make sure that last ingredient for grandma’s pumpkin pie is available, for your children here with you and those in heaven, for your parents who we pray are looking down on you with joy, for a God who loves us so much he gives us himself in the Eucharist. 

Thanksgiving is an important holiday because it is the only time we as Americans, across every political spectrum and religious tradition, sit down and break bread and, hopefully, take time to be grateful. I pray you have a blessed Thanksgiving.

Deacon Omar Gutierrez is director of the Pontifical Society for the Propagation of the Faith in the Archdiocese of Omaha. Contact him at

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