Just a few days ago the pastor and I were invited to attend a prayer service at the school being conducted by our First Graders. Half of them were dressed as pilgrims and the other half wore costumes depicting Native Americans; the service included a beautiful mixture of prayer and songs.
The whole scene, of course, was reminiscent of the historical event of the First Thanksgiving. In the year 1621 the pilgrims that had come over on the Mayflower just one year before gathered together with the Wampanoag people to celebrate and thank God for a bountiful harvest and for a brand new beginning in the New World.
We can sometimes have a nostalgic or romantic sense of that new beginning, but the reality of those first years for the pilgrims was not all about peace and tranquility. In many ways what the pilgrims encountered when they came to the New World was not so much tranquility as hostility.
The land was hostile to them; they had to learn new methods of farming and new ways of surviving in a foreign place. More to the point, not all the Native Americans were as welcoming and helpful as the Wampanoag peoples. As “politically incorrect” as it may sound, hostility and even violence were not uncommon.
But the pilgrims at Plymouth Colony and the other colonies made it through. They remained steadfast in their pursuit for a new way of life here in America, because they realized that nothing of value is gained without difficulty; nothing worthwhile in this life comes without sacrifice.
Isn’t that the same thing our own relatives experienced in the 19th and 20th century? Millions of pilgrims came here from Italy (especially those from the small Italian village of Itri, settling right here in Knightsville); they came from Ireland, and from all over Europe to start a whole new life in America.
They came seeking opportunities and a new way of life, but more often than not what they encountered was hostility. Italian immigrants were far from welcomed in this new land; neither was it uncommon to find signs in shop windows that read: Irish Need Not Apply. Pilgrims coming to America have always encountered challenges.
But what is the one thing that has remained constant through all those periods of hostility? What is the one thing in this country that made us different—from the beginning—and given us hope for a future beyond hostility?
The Christian faith.
On this Thanksgiving Day we thank God for our Christian faith and the way that it has molded our lives, perhaps in ways that we do not even fully appreciate. Today we thank God for that faith, and for the people who have gone before us and modeled it so well by their words and actions.
Just this past week I was on vacation and had the chance to visit the Shrine of the North American Martyrs in Auriesville, New York. It is a place that commemorates the faithfulness and the sacrifice offered by St. Isaac Jogues and several other Catholic saints who courageously proclaimed the Gospel to the Native Americans there. They eventually gave their lives in witness to Christ. In the face of hostility they responded with a sincere gift of themselves, even to the point of death.
Two hundred years later, when millions of people from Europe began to migrate here, an Italian nun named Mother Cabrini came over with them and established schools and hospitals for those who were not welcomed anywhere else. She became a citizen of this country, and eventually St. Francis Xavier Cabrini became the first American citizen to be canonized.
This is our heritage; this is what we give thanks to God for today. We are grateful to God for all that He has given us, but we are also mindful of the people who have gone before us and given us such a witness of faith by the way they lived the Gospel.
But we can ask ourselves this morning, in light of the heritage that we have been given and mindful of the many blessings we share: what is our response to the challenges and the difficulties that we find in our country today? How are we responding to the pilgrims of 2007, to the immigrants who have come here in our own time to find a new way of life and another chance in this land of opportunity? Are we able to look at them—even those that are here illegally—with the dignity and respect that is so central to our life and faith as Catholics?
This is a challenging issue for our time. There are many varying opinions about what to do with our borders; how to strengthen or change the immigration laws; what to do with those who are here illegally. But there is one opinion and one response not open to us as Christians: hostility.
In fact, the Church needs to be the place of sanctuary and welcome par excellence, because we are called to be the sign of welcome, hospitality and solidarity among all peoples. That is our heritage and our calling in Christ.
Our late Holy Father, Pope John Paul the Great, in his message on World Migration Day in 1995, said:
In the Church no one is a stranger, and the Church is not foreign to anyone, anywhere. As a sacrament of unity and thus a sign and a binding force for the whole human race, the Church is the place where illegal immigrants are also recognized and accepted as brothers and sisters.
Do we believe that? Does that challenge us to see things differently in the culture we live in?
Today we thank God for all that we have been given, and for the men and women of faith who have sacrificed so much and paved the way before us. May we also follow in their footsteps. May we see the world we live in, and especially the people around us, with the same vision of St. Isaac Jogues, St. Francis Xavier Cabrini, and countless others who gave all in gratitude to God so that others might live in the peace of Christ.