Father Michael McGivney died 107 years ago. Retrieving his spirit and spirituality from the scant records of the past is not easy, nor is the task anywhere near complete. But witness accounts from the late 19th century provide an emerging spiritual profile and clues to his inner life and the fruit of his apostolic activity.
Michael McGivney was a man of his times—the son of Irish immigrant parents in a part of the country charged with anti-Catholic sentiment. He also knew the meaning of deprivation and poverty. The effects of alcoholism and domestic violence in the immigrant community were inescapable, and the young McGivney knew firsthand the disastrous consequences of poor working conditions and unfair labor practices upon families.
Such cultural conditions produced in him a heart sensitive to the sufferings and misery of others. As a youngster in a good Catholic home he discovered his strength came from the bonds of faith and love that knit his family together, prepared each of them for life in the world, and kept them close to the Church of Christ.
Early in his teens the desire to spend himself for others and draw them to Christ became a vocation to the priesthood. Though never physically robust, his sensitive nature and priestly heart led him to pour himself out, often beyond the limits of his health, in providing for the spiritual and material needs of those committed to his care.
The historical record of Father McGivney is slim but consistent. All witnesses describe him as priestly, before all else he was a priest, and he is always cited for his consistent concern for and availability to the young people of his parish. Though he carried out all of his sacramental and pastoral duties with care, and identified with his parishioners in their sufferings and struggles, it was betterment of young Catholics that so preoccupied Father McGivney throughout his entire life.
The founding of the Knights of Columbus when he was just 29-years-old is the great monument to his pastoral vision and concern. He was determined to form a brotherhood for young Catholic working and professional men that would support them in their faith, provide for the care of their families, especially those affected by their father's sudden or untimely death, and channel the charity of their time and service to the needs of the less fortunate and the works of the Church.
The phenomenal success and growth of the Knights of Columbus did not come without the price of exhausting research and preparations, delicate relationships between officers and members, skillful molding of the spirit and organization of the earliest members of the order and constancy in the face of the opposition and criticism that came from other priests.
Father McGivney the priest; Father McGivney the apostle to the young—these were expressions of his deep attachment to the eternal high priest, Jesus Christ. To speak of him as priestly, even in the most adverse of situations, is to say that he was always Christ-like. He signs one of his few extant letters, “In the Sacred Heart.” The source of his patience, his endurance, and his inexhaustible charity was the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Nineteenth-century Catholic piety was centered on the Sacred Heart and the McGivney family would have been no exception. All of the priestliness and charity of Michael McGivney found its source in Christ and was an attempt to draw others into that circle of love that exists between Christ and his Church. Michael McGivney was in love with Jesus Christ and his Church and spent his short life on earth finding new ways to express that love and to share it with others.
The few photographs we have of him suggest that Father McGivney was somewhat retiring in disposition. Some have seen in him a certain severity. But the record is clear that Father McGivney, God's servant and priest, was friendly and open, had a delightful sense of humor, and drew the young of the parish to himself with unfailing magnetism.
We have evidence of a broad range of his relationships and ministries. He had lots of priest friends and was devoted to visiting the sick and elderly in their homes. It was his work with the young, however, that was most noteworthy. As any priest, he wanted the men and women of his parish to be good Catholics, but he wanted them to enjoy life at the same time. He celebrated Mass for them and preached his sermons. He heard their confessions and lent a willing ear to their difficulties and struggles. He outdid himself, however, in preparing entertainment plays, fairs, any wholesome fun that would bring joy and a bit of diversion in a world where there was little leisure and even less money to provide an easier life.
One of the most famous of Father McGivney's spiritual friends was Chip Smith, an Irish lad condemned to death for the drunken murder of a policeman. The young curate at St. Mary's devoted himself to the spiritual welfare of young Smith, visiting him daily in the New Haven, Conn., jail, arranging a Mass to be celebrated there before his death, complete with choir to provide the music, and walked with him to the gallows. The priest and the condemned man embraced and Smith expressed his gratitude for the priestly guidance and support that made it possible for him to face death with courage and tranquillity. In the end it was the devoted priest who lifted the burden of sorrow from the young man's shoulders. Father McGivney was long afterwards affected by that encounter.
It was from his roles as priest and apostle to the young that Father McGivney came to be an apostle for Christian families. His convictions about the sanctity of family life and its importance for Church and society came from his own experience of what the loss of a parent can mean or the chaos that results when Christian ideals do not reign in the home.
His program for the formation of strong Christian families can be found in the fraternal order of the Knights of Columbus. A knight is a man of courage, duty, and honor. A Knight of Columbus is a Catholic, a man of faith, who accepts the responsibilities of his vocation with courage and honor. He depends upon God and his brother Knights to fulfill the duties of his state in life. He is called to be a better husband and father because he is a Knight of Columbus. For Father McGivney the Knights of Columbus were as much a program for spiritual formation as a benevolent society that cares for the widow and orphan. Membership in the Knights of Columbus is not meant to take a man from his home, but to prepare him to go to his family strengthened in his relationship with Jesus Christ and renewed in his resolve to spend himself for others as Christ did.
Father McGivney was priest and apostle and we pray that one day we will be able to add one more title—canonized saint.
Dominican Father O'Donnell, postulator for Father McGivney's sainthood cause, writes from the late priest's home parish, St. Mary's in New Haven, Conn.