Three Priests, Three Feasts — St. Dominic, St. Maximilian Kolbe, Blessed Michael McGivney
August 2021 marks several significant anniversaries for Catholics in the lives of these great men.
This month, Catholics celebrate three milestone feasts of three remarkable priests whose accomplishments and spirituality inform and complement one another. August marks:
- the 800th anniversary of the death of St. Dominic Guzman,
- the first memorial of the United States’ newest blessed, Father Michael J. McGivney, and
- the 80th anniversary of the death of St. Maximilian Kolbe.
These men shared a spirit of renewal and radical innovation to read “the signs of their times” and found new ways to preach the Gospel.
St. Dominic was born into a Church torn apart by heresy and a corrupt clergy. Inspired by the devotion of his parents, he entered the canons regular and served his local bishop as a priest of the cathedral. In 1203, the bishop of Osma honored Dominic by asking him to accompany him on a mission serving the royal family.
On this journey, Father Dominic became acutely aware of the creeping cancer of heresy in the south of France. He witnessed the Catholic laity at the mercy of both priests and bishops who had fallen prey to Albigensian (or Cathar) dogmas. Without strong shepherds, the people were succumbing to ideas inimical to the Gospel — that physical life is evil and whatever concerns the body (food, drink,and even procreation) were contrary to the will of God.
With the encouragement of his bishop and inspired by the holy spirit, Dominic conceived and founded a new way of priestly living. He reasoned that the Cathars would respond only to priests wedded to poverty, living among them in the poorest areas, and offering first the witness of their own purity.
The Pope’s initial refusal to entertain creative ideas to solve the problem discouraged, but did not stifle, Dominic. With his bishop’s permission, he preached on, converting hundreds not only by his words but more profoundly by his own virtue and purity of life. In 1205, in Prouilhe, France, he established a small praedicatio, or living community, supported by the prayers of the first Dominican nuns — cloistered women converted from Albigensianism through Dominic’s preaching.
Dominic’s new, mendicant way of life attracted dozens of vocations and was approved by the Pope in 1216. By 1217, he was sending brothers to Paris, Spain and Bologna. His visionary spirit did not cloud his practical wisdom, and he provided for the Order after his death by establishing provinces and laws that would ensure its longevity. Dominic gave his life to the last drop — he returned to Bologna from preaching on foot in Lombardy and died on the feast of the Transfiguration, Aug. 6, 1221.
Blessed Michael McGivney
Dominic’s drive and vision re-echo in the life of Blessed Michael McGivney, whose first memorial will be celebrated Aug. 13. Born in Waterbury, Connecticut, to an Irish Immigrant family, 650 years after Dominic set out from the comfort of his bishop’s cathedral, Blessed Michael McGivney seems at first worlds away from medieval Europe. But the connections between the two men are striking.
The United States in the 19th century posed formidable obstacles to the flourishing of the Catholic faith. Anti-Catholic sentiment imbued American culture — Catholics were forbidden in some cases from congregating, joining professional societies or participating in public life.
After his ordination to the priesthood in 1877, Father McGivney witnessed Catholics leaving the faith out of discouragement and a lack of community. Societies such as the Freemasons were drawing Catholic men away from their parishes and families with promises of financial security and brotherly belonging. Rather than accepting the decline of the Church and managing its diminishment, Father McGivney used his innovation and energy to found the Knights of Columbus, a charitable organization that now numbers in the millions and donates more resources and man-hours to charity than any other fraternal charitable organization.
When Father McGivney was transferred from St. Mary’s parish in New Haven, Connecticut, the Archdiocese of Hartford entrusted its care to the Dominican Order, and it is likely that Father McGivney spent time living with the friars as he sought treatment for a debilitating virus in his last months. One of the Dominicans preached the eulogy for Father McGivney, and when the blessed’s tomb was opened in 1982 for transfer, his body was discovered clothed in two scapulars: the Brown Scapular of Carmel, and the White Scapular of St. Dominic.
St. Maximilian Kolbe
Blessed Michael died Aug. 14. St. Maximilian Kolbe, the third significant feast for this month, also died Aug. 14, the Vigil of the Assumption, in 1941. Known as “the Martyr of Love,” he was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Auschwitz in 1940. There he ministered to his fellow prisoners as both a priest and fellow victim.
When a young husband and father collapsed in despair after being sentenced to die in the starvation bunker, St. Maximilian offered his own life in exchange. The commandant accepted the trade, and St. Maximilian was locked underground with nine other men to await death. He lingered for two weeks and died by lethal injection.
Before his compelling martyrdom, however, St. Maximilian had faced a world hostile to the Catholic faith. In order to enter the seminary in Lviv, Ukraine, he had to be smuggled illegally over the border from Poland. Like Blessed Michael, he witnessed the destructive influence of the Freemasons on both the laity and hierarchy and resolved to offer an alternative for Catholics.
He joined, reimagined and reinvigorated the Militia Immaculata, an organization of special devotion to the Blessed Mother. As part of his efforts, he created a monthly magazine that grew to a circulation of 1 million, a radio station to spread preaching, and a new form of consecration to Mary. His zeal took him as far as Japan, where he founded a new monastery of Franciscans devoted to the Immaculata.
As with St. Dominic and Blessed Michael, his efforts bore great fruit: His monastery in Poland exploded with vocations, growing from just 18 friars to 650 by the time World War II broke out.
With equanimity and unshakeable joy, each of these three priests faced the challenges of their times, brought their suffering to God, and through grace used their natural gifts to forge new paths.
Each had a special care for the laity: Dominic’s Order is a family including priests, nuns and the lay Dominicans; the Knights of Columbus builds up Catholic men as fathers and husbands; St. Maximilian’s Consecration to Mary grounds millions of lay faithful in the heart of the Mother of God. Each of them gave their lives for Christ, driving themselves to exhaustion and even martyrdom at the service of the Church.
May we, like them, respond to the needs of our time with devotion, ingenuity and joy in the cross.
- st. dominic
- st. Maximilian kolbe
- blessed Michael McGivney
- father michael mcgivney
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