Yesterday, the Vatican announced
the approval of a miracle attributed to the intercession of the Venerable Servant of God Michael McGivney, more popularly known among North American Catholics as the founder of the Knights of Columbus.
The last couple of years have seen a bit of a boom in American saint making. Before the beatification of Blessed Stanley Rother in September 2017, no American-born man had yet risen to the distinction of Blessed in the Roman Catholic Church. But when Fr. McGivney is beatified, he will become the fourth American-born male Blessed (or fifth depending on when Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s beatification takes place!).
So who was Fr. Michael McGivney? And why is he important to the Church today, more than a hundred years after his death?
Michael J. McGivney was born on August 12, 1852, in Waterbury, Connecticut, to Irish immigrant parents, Patrick and Mary McGivney. Young Michael was a product of his time: he was the eldest of 13 children, seven of whom survived to adulthood; he grew up in a working class neighbourhood; he attended school until the age of 13, when he took advantage of the post-Civil War economic boom and started working in a brass factory in order to bring extra money into his family’s household.
At the age of 16, Michael left the factory to further his education. He traveled with a Waterbury priest to Saint-Hyacinth, Quebec, where he entered the Seminaire de Saint-Hyacinthe. After his time in Quebec, Michael went on to spend two years at Our Lady of Angels Seminary at the Niagara University in Niagara Falls, New York; then from there, on to Montreal for seminary classes at the Jesuit-run St. Mary’s College. Sadly, Michael did not initially complete his studies, as he returned home for his father’s funeral and, due to lack of funds, could not return to school. But then, at the behest of the Bishop of Hartford, Michael left home again, this time for St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore where he completed his studies and was later ordained in 1877 by Archbishop James Gibbons.
Life as a priest
Upon his ordination, Fr. McGivney served as an assistant pastor at St. Mary’s Parish in New Haven, Connecticut. As part of his duties, Fr. McGivney was involved with the pastoral care of the incarcerated inmates of the local jail. His duty extended into a deep loving care for them, best exemplified with his interactions with James Smith, a man convicted of first-degree murder who was awaiting his execution. Fr. McGivney visited him daily, offering Smith pastoral care and love, right up until the day of Smith’s execution. On that day, Smith stated that Fr. McGivney’s daily visits enabled him to “meet death without a tremor” and that Fr. McGivney should not fear for him.
In 1884, Fr. McGivney was named the pastor of St. Thomas Church in Thomaston, Connecticut, and tasked with infusing the parish with the spirit he had brought to St. Mary’s. Sadly, after serving as pastor for six years, Fr. McGivney passed away in 1890 during an influenza epidemic, likely due to complications stemming from tuberculosis and pneumonia. Today Fr. McGivney is enshrined at St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Connecticut.
Fr. McGivney was not just a man of deep empathy but also a man with deep compassion and a spirit for action. The legacy of this lives on in the Knights of Columbus
, a Catholic fraternal organization he established in 1882, whose purpose was to protect the faith of Catholics. This took the form of three pillars:
- The Knights would serve as an antidote to those secret societies that lured Catholic men away from their faith by offering financial benefits.
- The Order’s insurance program would help keep Catholic families together when a breadwinner died; this would also help prevent a loss of faith among widows and orphans forced to live in state institutions or with non-Catholic relatives or adoptive families.
- The Knights would champion the full rights of American citizenship for Catholics. This too would support the Church, since ensuring equal rights for Catholics would help limit the social or civil pressure on them to abandon their faith.
Fr. McGivney’s organization has expanded beyond the initial three pillars, and today the Knights are well known for their commitment to charity and community service. Since Fr. McGivney’s death, the Knights of Columbus have continued to grow and serve countless people. It is the largest Catholic fraternal benefit society in the world.
Cause for canonization
In 1997, Archbishop Daniel Cronin opened the cause for Fr. McGivney’s beatification and canonization, and in April 2008, Pope Benedict XVI elevated Fr. McGivney to Venerable.
For the next step in the process – beatification – the Vatican requires proof of a miracle attributed to the candidate’s intercession. On May 27, 2020, the Vatican formally announced the approval of a miracle involving the healing of an unborn child from a life-threatening condition.
The date for the beatification ceremony has not yet been announced.
Prayer for the canonization of Fr. McGivney
God, our Father, protector of the poor and defender of the widow and orphan, you called your priest, Father Michael J. McGivney, to be an apostle of Christian family life and to lead the young to the generous service of their neighbor. Through the example of his life and virtue may we follow your Son, Jesus Christ, more closely, fulfilling his commandment of charity and building up his Body which is the Church. Let the inspiration of your servant prompt us to greater confidence in your love so that we may continue his work of caring for the needy and the outcast. We humbly ask that you glorify your venerable servant Father Michael J. McGivney on earth according to the design of your holy will.
Through his intercession, grant the favor I now present (here make your request). Through Christ our Lord. Amen. (Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory be.)
Photo of Fr. Michael McGivney (Source: Wikimedia Commons)