The Venerable Servant of God Father Michael McGivney is best known for having founded the global lay fraternal Order of the Knights of Columbus. Looking ahead to his beatification, Baltimore Archbishop William Lori talks about his life and legacy.
By Vatican News
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The approval by Pope Francis of the promulgation of a decree recognizing a miracle attributed to the intercession of Venerable Michael McGivney puts the Connecticut priest one step further along the path to sainthood.
The parish priest from Connecticut is best known for having founded the Knights of Columbus in 1882. Today, with almost two million members around the world, the organization founded on the principles of charity, unity and fraternity continues to bring financial aid and assistance to members and their families, as well as the sick, disabled and needy.
Archbishop William E. Lori is the Supreme Chaplain of the Knights of Columbus as well as the Archbishop of Baltimore, where McGivney was ordained in 1877. He spoke with Christopher Wells about the soon-to-be Blessed American priest, who served his flock during the pandemic of 1890, before himself becoming ill and dying of pneumonia, and about how, nearly a century before the Second Vatican Council, his prescient vision empowered the laity to serve Church and neighbour in a new way.
Expressing his delight and joy for the news of Fr Michael McGivney’s beatification, Archbishop Lori said he, and most Knights across the world, have has been praying for many years for this to happen.
“I think it reveals the solid foundations of holiness upon which the Knights of Columbus has been built,” he said, and it holds up the life and example of a parish priest.
The life and times of Michael McGivney
The Archbishop tells the story of the soon-to-be Blessed starting with his childhood as part of a working-class immigrant family in Waterbury, Connecticut.
The premature death of his father meant he and his siblings had to work to help make ends meet; and because of this, he had to overcome many difficulties to pursue his vocation to join the priesthood because of this. However, during final phase of his formation he ended up in Baltimore in St. Mary's Seminary, which is the oldest in the United States.
The Archbishop reflected on the many places and people that he has in common with Fr McGivney, and said, “Every time I say Mass in my co-Cathedral (the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary), I look at the spot where I am pretty sure he was ordained priest, and I give thanks for his life and example.” Lori went on to say McGivney “became a stellar parish priest,” assigned to St. Mary's in New Haven, a newly-built church that was in tremendous debt with a pastor in ill health.
He said Father McGivney pretty much had to run the parish: “What he did was to ‘jump in with both feet’! He made friends easily, he was a natural leader, he liked sports, he loved plays and so he really engaged the parishioners and brought them into the orbit of his pastoral love and preached in ways that really touched their minds and hearts and souls, and brought the faith beyond the walls of the Church and into the community at a time when there was considerable anti-Catholic sentiment.”
Another trait he always manifested, Lori said, was his great love “for the poor, for the widow and for the orphan” and these qualities endeared him to his parishioners.
And then, he added, his own experience as a young boy who had lost his father, sharpened his sensitivity to what happens to families when the breadwinner dies, leading him to found the Knights of Columbus in a basement in St. Mary’s Church in New Haven.
From the beginning, Lori explained, “it was a fraternal organization based on the principles of Charity, Unity and Fraternity; a way for them to live their faith, to support one another being good husbands and fathers. And he also he founded an insurance company so the Knights of Columbus could provide for their families in the event of their death.”
The organization, Lori said, had to face many challenges and misunderstandings, but Fr. McGivney was determined in addition to being “a good, holy priest,” and it soon began to spread beyond New Haven.
Michael McGivney died at the young age of 38 whilst working as a pastor in Thomaston, Connecticut, where there was a pandemic that has many similarities to the Covid-19 crisis we are experiencing today.
During the pandemic, the Archbishop said, he ministered to the faithful with “the same love and the same generosity that he had shown throughout his whole priesthood,” and died “no doubt because of the way he expended himself for his people.”
“I like to say Fr McGivney was a Pope Francis priest before there was a Pope Francis, and I also like to think of him as the pastor of my soul,” he said.
Bringing life and faith together
Fr McGivney, Lori went on to say, was close to his people: “He knew them, loved them, understood them, but also challenged them to grow in faith”, exhibiting “a tremendous degree of what we call pastoral charity.”
“It was not a theoretical love, not merely an emotion, but it was a kind of love that is expressed in action,” he said, noting that McGivney was a practical priest who was able to show people how to live their faith, how to engage in it by bringing life and faith together: “And so that’s one of the most basic things.”
Pope Paul [VI], Lori recalled, used to say that one of the great challenges facing the Church is the divorce between faith and culture, and “Fr McGivney brought the two together, I would say brilliantly, in the brilliance of holiness.”
The role of the laity
Archbishop Lori went on to describe the enhancement of the role of the laity as an enormously significant legacy of Fr McGivney.
He could easily have been the Supreme Knight, Lori said; everyone admired him and would have made him their leader. But “Father McGivney insisted that the Knights of Columbus be lay led, long before the Second Vatican Council envisioned a greater role for the laity.”
Love for the poor and the marginalized
Thirdly, the Archbishop continued, Fr McGivney really loved the poor and the marginalized. He said that one of the traits of Pope Francis’ pontificate is his tireless call “to all of us, not just the clergy,” to have a heart for the poor and to overcome indifference.
“Fr McGivney really blazed the trail,” he said.
He recalled how McGivney befriended a man who had been condemned to die and accompanied him to the end of his life, saying that “these kinds of things, cause the years to melt away.”
“Father McGivney died in 1890,” but he said, but “as you read his life, it seems as though he could have been your parish priest, yesterday. I think that it’s hard to exaggerate the continuing impact of Father McGivney’s life on us and on the Church.”
Knights of Columbus true to the vision of their founder
Archbishop Lori concluded highlighting how the Knights of Columbus have remained true to the original vision of Father McGivney.
Noting that it has become the largest fraternal organization in the Church, and perhaps in the world, he said it is still dedicated to helping men and their families grow in faith and holiness.
“It is still living out the most important founding principle of the Knights: Charity. And it is a tremendous force for good in the life of the Church”, he said. “Whether it’s helping the Holy Father or the Holy See, whether it’s helping bishops in their dioceses, Christians in the Middle east, refugees, immigrants, rescuing the unborn, the Knights are there,” as well as in parishes, churches and local councils across the world.
“So Father McGivney, with great simplicity started something really big,” Archbishop Lori said, “And I’m so proud to say that under the leadership of the Supreme Knight, Carl Anderson, the Knights are living out Father McGivney’s beautiful, founding vision.”