“Eucharist means first of all ‘thanksgiving,’” the Catechism (1360) tells us. “The Eucharist is a sacrifice of thanksgiving to the Father, a blessing by which the Church expresses her gratitude to God for all his benefits, for all that he has accomplished through creation, redemption and sanctification” (1360).
Therefore, as we look ahead to the special day when Americans of all faiths and national origins give thanks for God’s many blessings, three American saints — two U.S.-born — serve as examples to give thanks every day, with a special devotion to the Church’s heavenly food — the Eucharist and Blessed Sacrament.
The Catechism adds, “We must … consider the Eucharist as: thanksgiving and praise to the Father. … Through Christ, the Church can offer the sacrifice of praise in thanksgiving for all that God has made good, beautiful and just in creation and in humanity” (1358-1359).
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, of New York and the first native-born U.S. saint, was constantly thankful that the Eucharist brought her to the Catholic Church. Raised in the Episcopal Church, she first visited a Catholic church in Italy, while staying with devout Italian friends, the Filicchi family, after her husband died of tuberculosis.
While watching the faithful from the Filicchis’ window, she contemplated, “When they [people who received the Eucharist] carry the Blessed Sacrament under my window, while I feel the full loneliness and sadness of my case [while discerning the truth of Catholicism], I cannot stop the tears at the thought. … The other day, in a moment of excessive distress, I fell on my knees without thinking when the Blessed Sacrament passed by, and cried out in an agony to God to bless me, if he was really there, that my soul desired only him.”
Back in New York, looking at St. Peter Catholic Church from her Protestant one, she longed so much for the Eucharist that she converted in 1805.
“Our Lord himself I saw in this venerable Sacrament,” she wrote. “I felt as if my chains fell, as those of St. Peter at the touch of the Divine messenger. My God, what new scenes for my soul!”
And of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, she said, “How sweet the presence of Jesus to the longing, harassed soul! It is instant peace and balm to every wound.”
The Soul of Elizabeth Seton reveals that she said, “Every morning at Communion, living in the very wounds of our dearest Lord, seeing only his representatives and receiving their benediction continually,” brought her great joy.
Mother Seton, who founded the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s, the first community for religious women established in the United States, began the Catholic parochial school system in the U.S. and established the first Catholic orphanage in the country, was mystified when people ignored Eucharistic thanksgiving. She said:
“There is a mystery, the greatest of all mysteries — not that my adored Lord is in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar; his word has said it, and what so simple as to take that word which is truth itself? — but that souls of his own creation, whom he gave his life to save, who are endowed with his choicest gifts in all things else, should remain blind, insensible and deprived of that light without which every other blessing is unavailing!”
St. Katharine Drexel of Philadelphia, the second native-born American saint, also founded a religious congregation, one whose name reflects this same sense of thanksgiving — the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.
Her life reflected a constant thankfulness for the Eucharist. In one writing, she reflected, “My sweetest joy is to be in the presence of Jesus in the Holy Sacrament. I beg that, when obliged to withdraw in body, I may leave my heart before the Holy Sacrament. How I would miss Our Lord if he were to be away from me by his presence in the Blessed Sacrament!”
Katharine wanted to share this love for the Eucharist through her order’s mission, as sisters set out to bring education and help to American Indians, black Americans and inner-city people living in poverty.
In a homily on her feast day in 2004, Cardinal Justin Rigali, archbishop emeritus of Philadelphia, said, “St. Katharine’s profound words indicate her Eucharistic spirituality and apostolic inspiration: ‘Ours is the spirit of the Eucharist — the total gift of self.’”
And her Vatican biography observes she had a “Eucharistic perspective on the unity of all peoples.” If Thanksgiving Day brings unity to families, friends and others, Katharine Drexel believed the Eucharist — true thanksgiving — can bring this to people every day.
“I adore you, my Eucharistic God,” she once wrote. “The rays are the rays of your love for me, for each individual soul. … I return you thanksgiving through Mary, through St. Joseph, through all the apostles, martyrs, virgins and sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in heaven. And, lastly, I thank you through the sacred Host on all the altars throughout the world.”
St. John Nepomucene Neumann, the first male U.S. saint, was born in Bohemia and eventually became the fourth bishop of Philadelphia. He was the first to organize a Catholic diocesan school system. With his strong Eucharistic emphasis, he introduced Forty Hours (Eucharistic) devotion, which had its beginnings in 16th-century Europe, to his diocese in 1853, despite resistance from his own clergy. Thus, he inspired Eucharistic devotion throughout the U.S.
“How much I love you, O my Jesus! I wish to love you with my whole heart; yet I do not love you enough,” St. John Neumann wrote. “My lack of devotion and my negligence still haunt me. I have one desire, that of being near you in the Blessed Sacrament. You are the sweet bridegroom of my soul. My Jesus, my love, my all, gladly would I endure hunger, thirst, heat and cold to remain always with you in the Blessed Sacrament.”