By ALBERTO CAROSA
VATICAN CITY — A book about the founder of the world’s largest Catholic fraternity, the Knights of Columbus, has been published in Italian by Libreria Editrice Vaticana (LEV), and was presented June 25 at the Augustinian Patristic Institute, just across St. Peter’s Square in Rome. It is entitled Il Parroco: Padre Michael McGivney e il Cattolicesimo Americano (The Parish Priest: Father Michael McGivney and American Catholicism).
The original English version is available at the Knights of Columbus online bookstore: See www.kofc.org.
The book is the result of research of two historians, Douglas Brinkley and Julie M. Fenster, and tells the story of Fr. Michael McGivney. A priest of Connecticut who lived in the 19th century (1852-1890), McGivney is perhaps the most beloved parish priest in the history of the United States. The book also details his ongoing process of canonization.
“Too often,” the authors write in the preface, “the story focuses on the American Catholic Church hierarchy. . . . Over the years there have been great biographies written about famous bishops and cardinals. That is commendable, but the heart of Catholicism in the United States is embodied by the parish priests, who therefore become a regular part of the life of their parishioners. . . .
“It is the pastor that many of the 65 million Catholics in America are turning to in times of personal crisis or when poverty strikes a family. Their service is that of a human being who helps another. By writing on Fr. McGivney, we are embracing that big dark area, thus honoring all the parish priests.”
Among the attendees at the presentation were Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, Kevin Coyne, a professor at the School of Journalism at Columbia University in New York, and Don Giuseppe Costa, director of LEV.
This book, according to Anderson, also provides an excellent overview of the difficult 19th-century context with which Fr. McGivney — and Catholics in general — had to contend. It was against this backdrop of a culture sometimes generally — and sometimes specifically — hostile to the Catholic faith that this humble parish priest rose to do great things.
“That context meant real struggles for 19th-century immigrants trying to live out their faith, especially since giving up their faith could be the best way to get ahead financially,” the Supreme Knight said.
“This presented a serious temptation for Catholics at a time when they and their families lived on the slimmest of financial margins. So tenuous were their circumstances that the death of a breadwinner commonly had catastrophic repercussions.
“With the loss of income such a death entailed, families often found themselves forced by circumstances, or by the state, to split up. Mothers would often be separated from their children and siblings from each other, compounding the already tragic loss of the father.
“This book examines this historical context. A context not well known in the United States today, let alone beyond its borders. And in filling in that context, it makes clear that what Fr. McGivney did was truly remarkable.”
But all the more remarkable, said Anderson, is “that vision has not only remained relevant, but I would say that it has even increased in its relevance over time.”
Therefore, it was precisely in this context that “nearly a decade before Rerum Novarum formally launched the social doctrine of the Church, Fr. McGivney was founding a lay Catholic organization that would be dedicated to both the spiritual and temporal well-being of its members,” Anderson added.
“Fr. McGivney isn’t only a model for American priests, but for all priests as well.”
The association of the Knights of Columbus that McGivney had in mind, continued Anderson, “would provide charity to those on the margins of society. It would be united to the Church, and would have the goal not only of evangelizing its members, but of having its members evangelize society.
“It would be a Catholic fraternity, drawing men together to do good. And it would show clearly to those who doubted the proposition in 19th-century America, that Catholics could be excellent citizens.”
Fr. McGivney founded the Knights of Columbus in 1882, an organization that has helped to save countless families from poverty. At the end of the 19th century, discrimination against American Catholics was in fact widespread.
After a difficult start, the foundation of the Knights of Columbus has grown to become an international association with nearly two million members in 15,000 councils scattered throughout the U.S., Canada, Latin America, the Philippines, and Eastern Europe.
“Fr. McGivney’s vision had prepared the Knights of Columbus to fully embrace the reinvigoration of the role of the laity in life of the Church in the Second Vatican Council and in the subsequent pontificates of St. John Paul II, and Popes Benedict XVI and Francis,” Anderson also said.
“In fact, as Supreme Knight, I have seen, over the last decade and a half, just how well Fr. McGivney’s vision prepared us as an organization to respond to the call of each of those great Popes” by bringing about “dedication to families, and those on the margins of society,” thus being “committed to witnessing to our faith in the spirit of our founder.”
The Strong Right Arm
From another perspective, in the words of Kevin Coyne, Fr. McGivney “was not the kind of priest who believed his ministry ended with Sunday Mass. He organized amateur theatricals and church picnics, featuring horse races and baseball games. He visited prisoners, and prayed alongside one repentant murder all the way to the gallows.
“When one father in his parish died too young, seemingly ending the college dreams of his talented sons, Fr. McGivney made sure their education continued — and both went on to Yale Law School. One of them later went on to the seminary, too, and became a priest himself.”
To affirm their claim to be devoted citizens of America, the Knights were named after Columbus, “the Italian Catholic explorer who was celebrated as the discoverer of this nation even by its Protestant majority,” noted Coyne.
The object of this association, as Fr. McGivney himself wrote, “is to promote the principles of unity and charity, so that the members may gain strength to bestow charity on each other.”
More specifically, Coyne continued, “they were a brotherhood formed as a mutual benefit society to aid members and their families in the event of illness or death, and to serve a larger mission, too — to act as a charitable force in their communities, and to support their Church, something they did so well that they were later described, as the ‘strong right arm’ of the Church in America.
“It started slowly. It was a new way for Catholic laymen to find a place for themselves in a new world, and it raised suspicions in some quarters — including among some priests and bishops. But it kept growing, spreading out from Connecticut into the rest of New England, and then through the Northeastern United States, and finally across the country and overseas, too.”
Alas, Fr. McGivney did not live enough to see this exponential growth, Coyne pointed out. “Fr. McGivney only saw the raw beginnings of the order he founded. He died young, like many overworked priests of his era — of pneumonia, just two days past his 38th birthday.”
Thus this confirms the saying of the ancient Greek dramatist Menander that “he whom the gods love dies young,” a concept which was taken up in more recent times by the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) in one of his works.
And as Anderson remarked, it was “clear that God was working in the life of Fr. McGivney, and that his love of God and neighbor led him to be a man very much ahead of his time.”
For his part, the director of LEV, Don Giuseppe Costa, thanked the Knights, as well as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and many U.S. Catholic publishers, for the “great partnership” with LEV, which enables a deepened “knowledge of American Catholicism in its many experiences — perhaps little known in the Old Continent — in the fields of evangelization, hospitality, charity.
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(Alberto Carosa is a Rome-based Catholic journalist.)