Father Michael McGivney, founder of the Knights of Columbus. (CNS file photo)

The Diligent Parish Priest

Father McGivney’s priesthood exemplified loyalty to the Church, patriotism, diligence and humility

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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 will be 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 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 United States 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, McGivney 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.

Three Insights

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 to 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, yet also 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.

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