A Blessed Parish Priest
How Father Michael McGivney, beatified in October, is a model for clergy
As a Fourth Degree Knight of Columbus, it is hard to contain the joy of witnessing our founder, Father Michael J. McGivney, attain another step toward sainthood. On Oct. 31, 2020, Father McGivney was beatified in his beloved New Haven, Connecticut, where he labored so tirelessly to help immigrants assimilate to American life while courageously and unabashedly living their Catholic Faith in the late 19th century.
Father McGivney will become only the fourth American born man to be declared “blessed,” an indication of both his heroic virtue and of his life of holiness. All who achieve such an honor are worthy of emulation and respect, but Father McGivney is especially significant for American Catholic priests as he was a loyal son of the Church, a true patriot and a diligent, humble parish priest.
Much as St. John Vianney is the patron of all parish priests, Father McGivney is arguably the model for an American priest due to his perseverance, prayer and adaptability to engage the culture while not compromising on the importance of our Catholic identity.
Rooted in Catholic Ethos
The world in which Father McGivney operated was not much different from our own. American society was largely suspicious of the Catholic Church and its clergy, Catholics found themselves questioned or even barred from upward mobility due to their beliefs, and the question of how to be a loyal Catholic and U.S. citizen was very real and prominent.
Recognizing the dilemma in which many Catholic immigrants found themselves, Father McGivney established an organization to instill pride, fraternity and unity during tumultuous times. Indubitably, Father McGivney had to wonder about the success of his endeavor when, as a 29-year-old priest, he convened the first Knights of Columbus chapter in 1881 at St. Mary’s Church in New Haven. However, he was a man of conviction and faith. He entrusted his cause to Our Lady and reminded men of the duty they had toward their families, their country and certainly their Catholic heritage.
The Knights became the answer to the secret societies of American culture, but also provided insurance, stability and support in a fledgling yet burgeoning American Catholic Church.
For American clergy, Father McGivney offers hope and insight for how we can engage the current culture amid a pandemic, social unrest and political turmoil, yet remain rooted in a Catholic ethos.
I envision three major insights that can be gleaned from Father McGivney’s life. First, he was able to recognize what was good and attractive in society and co-opt it for use in the Church. Much as people today look for belonging, Father McGivney recognized that the immigrants of his day desperately wanted to fit in and be identified as loyal members of American society. The social institutions of the late 1800s, while largely antithetical to the Faith, presented men with an opportunity to experience brotherhood, mutual assistance and the ability to protect and provide for their families. These are the same desires that men have today and, consequently, are looking to the culture to fulfill.
As priests, if we are able to create organizations, groups and faith communities that respond to these needs while making faith relevant and practical, then we have an opportunity to create a Catholic culture where true masculinity is embraced and lived and families are strengthened.
Second, Father McGivney represents a man with a strong priestly identity and what it means to be a diocesan parish priest. I have heard priests bemoan the lack of an identity that a parish priest often appears to have. Unlike religious orders, we have no founder, no rule to follow and often no distinct charism to hold up as the epitome of diocesan life.
Father McGivney’s life witnesses the possibility of diocesan priests rallying around being ambassadors of faith and culture. He demonstrated humble service and diligent teaching in response to the cultural challenges of his milieu. Much as Pope Francis has asked priests to “be shepherds with the odor of the sheep” (Holy Thursday 2013 homily), Father McGivney was a priest who did just that. He quietly responded to the needs of his flock in response to the threats around him. He met their basic needs while creating an identity that could be authentically Catholic, and he was admired and praised by American society as a model of virtue.
Finally, Father McGivney proclaims a model of holiness that is accessible to all priests. Not many of us will be called to physical martyrdom. However, all of us are called to die to ourselves and labor for the People of God. The universal call to holiness that Lumen Gentium promulgates was boldly displayed by a simple Connecticut priest who called other men to unity, fraternity, charity and patriotism. He did not shy away from culture; rather he helped the culture see the beauty of Catholicism. For this I am grateful, and for this he is worthy to be blessed.
FATHER MICHAEL ACKERMAN is the director of vocations for the Diocese of Pittsburgh and chaplain at Central Catholic High School and Oakland Catholic High School.
Blessed Michael McGivney’s inspiration to the universal call to holiness
Father Michael J. McGivney, who founded the Knights of Columbus in 1882, was beatified Oct. 31, 2020, during a Mass at St. Joseph Cathedral in Hartford, Connecticut.
In the apostolic letter read by the pope’s representative for the liturgy, Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, he announced Blessed Michael McGivney, “whose zeal for the proclamation of the Gospel and generous concern for the needs of his brothers and sisters made him an outstanding witness of Christian solidarity and fraternal assistance.” His feast day will be Aug. 13.
Our Sunday Visitor contributing editor Brian Fraga reported that during the homily, Cardinal Tobin said, “[Father McGivney] worked to keep families united in dignity and security.” He also cared for victims of an epidemic, which would claim McGivney’s life at the age of 38.
Born in 1852 to Irish immigrants in Waterbury, Connecticut, he was ordained to the priesthood in 1877 and served as a parish priest in what was then the Diocese of Hartford. While serving as pastor of St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Connecticut, Father McGivney and a group of Catholic men founded the Knights of Columbus with the mission to provide spiritual support for Catholic men and financial resources when a family lost its breadwinner.
Speaking at a press conference after the beatification Mass, Archbishop Leonard P. Blair of Hartford said, “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.”
“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.
During remarks by Carl Anderson, the supreme knight for the Knights of Columbus, he noted, “To this day, Father McGivney’s holiness of life and exemplary service continue to inspire priests across America and around the world, and his vision for an active and engaged laity serves as a witness to the power of spiritual brotherhood and charity.”
The Vatican had announced on May 27 a decree recognizing a miracle attributed to Father McGivney’s intercession. The miracle involved a Tennessee boy, Michael Schachle, who is now 5 years old and suffered from a fatal case of fetal hydrops. At the beatification Mass, the Schachle’s presented a first-class relic of Blessed Father McGivney.