On Aug. 12, 1852, Michael Joseph McGivney was born to just-off-the-boat Irish immigrants Mary Lynch and Patrick McGivney. The eldest of 13 children, he would see six of his siblings die in infancy. Through such struggles, the Catholic faith became the centerpiece of the McGivney family’s existence. Michael McGivney’s parents did not give in to the “hardship” of what even then was a shortage of priests. With others from their Railroad Hill neighborhood in Waterbury, they would walk the 20-some miles to New Haven to attend Mass, often leaving at 3 a.m. in order to arrive in time to assist at the mid-morning Mass. After sharing a simple lunch carried from home in their rucksacks, the group would set out for the long walk back to Waterbury. That is the spiritual character and fortitude of our ancestors in the faith, and it should give us pause when we think about our own dedication to the faith.
On Aug. 19, Michael was baptized. Our baptismal day is the day that Pope Francis says is for each of us our “rebirth as a child of God.” Just 38 years later, however, on Aug. 14, 1890, Father Michael J. McGivney would die due to complications from influenza.
In his brief life, however, Father McGivney accomplished great things for God, the church and even the world. In becoming a priest – despite setbacks in his studies and less-than-glowing endorsements from his seminary instructors – Father McGivney strived to be an alter Christus (another Christ). He wore himself out by giving his time completely to the people he was called to serve. His daily appointment book was crowded with baptisms, weddings and visits to orphanages, convents and the city prison. His nights were packed with sharing in the wholesome entertainments he planned for his parishioners to keep them out of bars and away from activities and organizations that would lead them away from the faith.
In founding the Knights of Columbus at St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Father McGivney laid the groundwork in the U.S. church for fruitful collaboration between the parish priest and the laity. Though commonplace now, such collaboration was practically unheard of in the 1880s. In fact, a brother priest of the then-Diocese of Hartford and a champion of Father McGivney’s efforts and vision said some priests called such collaboration “a viper that would one day sting the church.” In hindsight, only with utmost charity can one respond, “Hardly.”
The model of parish-based charitable and fraternal outreach envisioned by Father McGivney has resulted in the Knights of Columbus being found in countries he would have never imagined: Poland, Ukraine, Mexico and the Philippines, among others. His simple program of fraternal support for widows and orphans through life insurance has grown into a highly regarded and top-rated multi-billion-dollar operation. His efforts to inspire Catholic men and their families to help alleviate the material needs of the poor and destitute now sees Knights at the grassroots level raising and contributing upwards of $175 million to charity annually and volunteering a staggering 73 million hours of service each year.
Through the leadership of Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson and Supreme Chaplain Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, and through the support given to the Knights by our own Archbishop Blair and his brother bishops and priests, the Knights of Columbus is unafraid to take to the international and national stage to decry genocide in the Middle East and the infringement of religious liberties here at home; to stand up for traditional marriage and the sanctity of human life at all stages; to nurture vocations from within the family, what the Fathers of Vatican II hailed as “the domestic church”; and to build a civilization of love and mercy through their programs.
Did Father McGivney envision all this? Probably not. Is he proud of his brother Knights and families today and does he intercede for them from his place in eternity? Most certainly.
But it shouldn’t end there. If you are a Catholic man 18 years of age or older and reading this, please consider joining the Knights in your parish or community (kofc.org or ctstatecouncil.org). Everyone reading this should enroll right now in the Father McGivney Guild (fathermcgivney.org), the organization that oversees the efforts on behalf of Father McGivney’s cause for sainthood. And, most importantly, pray that God will inspire the priests of our archdiocese to serve the faithful in imitation of their brother priest, Father McGivney, and that many young men will see in him their own vocation to priesthood.