What does a priest who lived more than a century ago have to do with the Year of Faith, which began October 11? The answer lies in the prophetic vision and practical pastoral action of Father Michael McGivney, who not only founded the Knights of Columbus, but also engaged in civic activity and ecumenical outreach.
In fact, it can be said that Father McGivney, who died in 1890 at age 38, anticipated the Second Vatican Council by empowering laymen to take leadership roles in the Church and in the steady steps he took to bring the Catholic message beyond parish precincts.
The Year of Faith, proclaimed by Pope Benedict XVI as a time of renewal, reflection and New Evangelization, began on the 50th anniversary of the opening of Vatican II and on the 20th anniversary of the promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. At the Vatican this month, bishops from around the world, along with priests, religious and lay experts (including Supreme Knight Carl Anderson), are taking part in a historic Synod on the New Evangelization, to develop and discover ways to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a world wracked with doubt and relativism. They do so with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and the assurance that the timeless questions about God and the meaning of life still echo in the hearts of men. One purpose of the synod is to place the eternal verities preserved by the Church into a language and manner of communication that will reach the hearts of today’s men and women who are immersed in a secular culture.
In this great and noble pursuit, the life and legacy of Father McGivney has a definite place. The most enduring work of this humble parish priest is the continuing growth and vitality of the Knights of Columbus, which he founded in 1882 with a handful of men in the basement of St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Conn. From this small beginning, the Order has grown to more than 1.8 million members in some 15,000 councils spread through all 50 U.S. states, Canada, Mexico, the Philippines, the Caribbean and Poland. It is a worldwide Catholic family fraternal organization based on three main principles – charity, unity and fraternity – which has grown not only in numbers but also in charitable reach. Last year, Knights donated more than $158 million to charitable causes and volunteered more than 70 million hours. This is a great public legacy that has immediate and lasting effects throughout the Church and the world.
But more hidden examples of Father McGivney’s vision can be gleaned from his biography, Parish Priest: Father Michael McGivney and American Catholicism, published in 2006 by HarperCollins. As a young priest at St. Mary’s, he stepped off parish grounds to appear in a New Haven court room – not a friendly place in those days of Know-Nothing anti-Catholicism – in order to oversee the placement of an orphan, the son of a parish family whose father had died. Father McGivney also brought the daughter of a prominent Protestant minister into the Catholic fold, and later broke with protocol by visiting and comforting her parents after the young lady suffered an untimely death.
But in my mind, one of the most noteworthy achievements of Father McGivney was what he did not do. In founding the Knights of Columbus, he insisted that the chief officer – Supreme Knight – must be a layman, even though he easily could have used his clerical rank and reputation to seize the reins of the organization. Not only that, after a short time as the no. 2 officer, he stepped aside to become Supreme Chaplain, overseeing only the spiritual and moral development of the Order. Then two years after the founding, while the future of the Knights was still uncertain, he obediently followed the decision of his bishop to become pastor of a parish 30 miles from New Haven, a great distance in the days of horse and buggy. Father McGivney trusted laymen to lead in his absence.
In this trust of the laity we see the true spirit of Vatican II, which we celebrate throughout this Year of Faith. Let priests and laymen together look to Father McGivney for his goodness and his guidance.