Father Michael McGivney, the young parish priest who founded the Knights of Columbus in 1882,…
Blessed Michael McGivney inspires the universal call to holiness
Blessed Michael McGivney died 130 years ago. Ordained just 12 years after the Civil War ended, the humble parish priest ministered in an era before telephones and electric light bulbs.
But in the 21st century, Blessed McGivney’s life still speaks to the roughly two million men worldwide who are members of the Knights of Columbus, the fraternal order of Catholic men that he founded in 1882 in the basement of St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Connecticut.
“I hope there are men who understand that Father McGivney is really proposing a brotherhood, a life of charity and unity,” Carl Anderson, the supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus, told reporters after the Oct. 31 Mass at St. Joseph Cathedral in Hartford, where Father McGivney was beatified.
Anderson and Church leaders who participated in the Mass said Father McGivney, in the holiness of his life, has important lessons to teach the faithful in a time of division and polarization, in and outside the Church. They hope his example and elevation to the ranks of the blessed can remind all about the universal call to holiness and help spark a spiritual renewal.
A priest for our time
“In recognizing the holiness of Father Michael McGivney, there are timely signs of God’s providential care that can speak in a personal way to each one of us, especially at this moment in our history,” said Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey.
Cardinal Tobin, who served as the papal representative for the beatification Mass, emphasized in his homily how Blessed McGivney did not see his ministry as limited to parish registration rolls. He visited people in jails and hospitals, and fostered respectful relationships with other Christian communities and civil authorities.
“He was a bridge-builder who shunned walls,” Cardinal Tobin said.
Born in 1852, Michael McGivney was the oldest of 13 children whose working-class parents were Irish immigrants in Waterbury, Connecticut. He began seminary studies in 1868, but returned home to help raise his siblings after their father died in June 1873. He later resumed his studies and was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Hartford in 1877.
Appointed the parochial vicar of St. Mary’s Church, where he would serve until 1884, and later as pastor of St. Thomas Church in Thomaston, Connecticut, Father McGivney ministered primarily to an Irish-American and immigrant community in a time of deep anti-Catholic bigotry.
“It’s remarkable that even in the 19th century, in which Father McGivney lived, so many of the basic human sufferings and the challenges that we have are the same,” Archbishop Leonard P. Blair of Hartford said in a press conference after the beatification Mass.
“Just as in (our) day, there were many people who were poor and in need that he had to minister to,” said Archbishop Blair, who added that Catholics in 2020 and those of the 19th century share many of the same spiritual needs and common challenges to leading a holy life.
“When you have someone locally who walked our streets and towns, and who lived a life of charity, faith and hope to such a degree, that’s certainly an inspiration to all of our priests, but really for everyone, that we can rub shoulders with holiness, and that we’re called to holiness ourselves,” Archbishop Blair said.
On March 29, 1882, the 29-year-old Father McGivney and two dozen leading Catholic men founded the Knights of Columbus to provide spiritual support for Catholic men and financial resources for families that suffered the loss of their breadwinner.
“He founded the Knights in his 20s as a parochial vicar to meet the needs of his flock. We need similar pastoral creativity between priests and lay people to meet the challenges of 2020 and beyond,” said Father Roger Landry, a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations.
Father Landry, who spoke about Father McGivney and the universal call to holiness during an Oct. 31 young adult prayer vigil at St. Mary’s in New Haven, told Our Sunday Visitor that Father McGivney models the virtues of St. Joseph in the Christian and priestly life.
“His beatification, therefore, is not just a celebration of a spiritual father who has left such an important legacy,” Father Landry said. “It’s also a call to conversion for all of us to take Christ’s call to faith, charity, unity and fraternity as seriously as Father McGivney and the first 24 Knights with him did.”
Way of discipleship
On Aug. 4 — a month and a half after the Vatican announced that Pope Francis had approved the decree recognizing a miracle attributed to Father McGivney’s intercession — the Knights of Columbus announced that its museum in New Haven will be converted to the Blessed Michael McGivney Pilgrimage Center.
“We think encouraging people to better understand this idea of charity and unity, for men and their families to have a sense of brotherhood and view charity as a central part of their Christian lives, we think that’s more important than bringing in art exhibits,” said Anderson, the supreme knight.
Noting that anywhere from 200 to 250 new Knights of Columbus councils are established every year, Anderson said he hopes Blessed McGivney’s beatification will inspire additional members and more councils to join the fraternal order, which now has about 16,000 parish-based councils.
“‘It’s a pretty big deal for us,” Anderson said of the beatification. “Really now, what the Church is saying is, ‘Your founder led a holy life, a saintly life. His principles are your principles, and his way of discipleship is your way of discipleship.'”
Father McGivney is the third U.S.-born priest to be beatified, after Blesseds Stanley Rother and Solanus Casey, both of whom were beatified in 2017. The miracle that paved the way for Father McGivney’s beatification involved the healing of Michael Schachle, a Tennessee boy, now 5 years old, from a fatal case of fetal hydrops in utero.
Daniel Schachle, the boy’s father who attended the beatification Mass with young Michael and most of his siblings, told reporters that he hopes people following the beatification will take away “the really deep pro-life message here, especially in this time in our culture.”
Schachle, who is himself a fourth-degree Knight of Columbus and a past grand knight of his local council, also said he hoped that Father McGivney’s beatification would strengthen Catholic men in their masculinity.
“Men need to have that masculine call, to step up, to be the good fathers, good husbands and protectors that we’re supposed to be,” Schachle said. “Part of the problem we see in our society is because men aren’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing in their families and their communities.
“I think that’s what inspired Father McGivney to inspire men to step up,” Schachle said.
In “a time of suffering and division,” Cardinal Tobin said in his homily, it is providential that the Catholic faithful can now glimpse Blessed McGivney’s face “among the cloud of witnesses that surround us and urge us on.”
Said Cardinal Tobin, “In Blessed Michael we are reminded that life is not transactional, but a gift to be shared. We appreciate that true worship, right fasting, is always centered on a right relationship with God and others, particularly those on the margins of society. And Christian unity is more than a simple adherence to a common belief. We accept that like him, God calls each one of us in our own day, and our own way, to be vessels of mercy, and so enter into our heavenly inheritance.”
Brian Fraga is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.