Remarks of Supreme Knight Carl Anderson

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Remarks of Supreme Knight Carl Anderson
Book launch of il Parroco (Parish Priest)
Augustinianum, Rome
June 25, 2014

Your Eminences and Excellencies, Reverend Monsignors and Fathers, Members of the Diplomatic Corps, Ladies and Gentlemen:

First, allow me to express my gratitude to Father Costa and LEV for the publication of the Italian translation of the book Parish Priest and to each of you for being here with us today.

Written by Douglas Brinkley, one of the foremost American historians of our era, Parish Priest offers great insight into the life of Father Michael McGivney – the saintly priest who founded the Knights of Columbus.

For the vast majority of the world’s one billion Catholics, the parish is the place where in the concrete reality of their daily lives, they meet the Lord who loves them. And we might say that in this encounter the person who daily presents the Lord is the parish priest. So what may seem to be the ordinary work of the parish, is in fact not ordinary at all in the lives of the parish community. And the priestly ministry of Father McGivney is a brilliant example of this. His ministry to the convicted murderer, Chip Smith, and his care and guardianship for the orphaned Alfred Downes as well as his practice of taking the monetary gifts he received at Christmas and donating them back to the parish to help retire the church’s debt show this idea of a parish priest’s role very clearly. We see this too in his day to day activities for the parish as well, in his organizing of plays, picnics and sporting events for his parishioners, as he accompanied them in a real way on their daily journey of faith.

We do not have an extensive record of tributes given to Father McGivney during his lifetime, but we see glimpses of his impact in the recording of how many parishioners wept at the conclusion of his final Mass at St. Mary’s, in the fact that at his death his funeral attracted the largest crowd in the history of the city, and that his funeral card quoted the book of Widom: “Being made perfect in a short space, he fulfilled a long time; for his soul pleased God, therefore He hastened to bring him out of the midst of iniquity.” And this is why the Knights would later say: “He was our father.”

Father McGivney epitomized what Cardinal Bergoglio once spoke of; a priest who rolled up the sleeves of his cassock in the service of his people.

The book also provides an excellent overview of the difficult 19th century context with which he – and Catholics in general – had to contend. It was against this backdrop of a culture generally hostile to the Catholic Faith that this humble parish priest rose to do great things.

That context meant real struggles for 19th century Catholic immigrants trying to live out their faith, especially since giving up their faith could be the best way to get ahead financially. 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. These 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 Father McGivney did was truly remarkable. He confronted the spiritual and temporal needs of his parishioners in a visionary way. He did this in a way that empowered his parishioners to deepen their faith, witness to it publicly; support their Church and their neighbors; unite in a fraternal fellowship focused on doing good; and protect the financial stability of their families in case of an untimely death.

That vision not only remains relevant, but I would say that it has increased in relevance over time. Father McGivney was a man very much ahead of his time.

Nearly a decade before Rerum Novarum formallylaunched the Social Doctrine of the Church, Father McGivney founded a lay Catholic organization dedicated to both the spiritual and temporal well being of working families. It 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.

Father McGivney’s vision prepared the Knights of Columbus to fully embrace the role of the laity in the life of the Church proposed by the Second Vatican Council.

Today, the world is focused on the example of Pope Francis, who has provided a powerful personal witness to charity and love of neighbor. He has called the laity “protagonists in the work of evangelization and human promotion.” He has called on Catholics to go out to the margins of society. He has said that the Church’s charitable outreach must profess Christ and should not simply be the action of an NGO. And in his message for the World Day of Peace this year, he noted that “without fraternity, it is impossible to build a just society and a solid and lasting peace.”

Having been imbued with a spirit of Christian charity and fraternity as key principles of our Order from our earliest days under the guidance of Father McGivney, Pope Francis’ words resonate in a particular way with Knights of Columbus. Dedicated to families and to those on the margins of society for more than 130 years, our Holy Father’s words find fertile ground in the hearts of the Knights and are an inspiration to us and an invitation to embrace even more fully the reasons Father McGivney had for our founding this organization.

In a similar way, our members were drawn to – and spurred on by – the writings on charity of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. His two encyclicals on charity spoke directly to the hearts of Knights everywhere. Pope Benedict wrote in Deus Caritas Est: “The Church can never be exempted from practicing charity as an organized activity of believers, and on the other hand, there will never be a situation where the charity of each individual Christian is unnecessary, because in addition to justice man needs, and will always need, love.” For those who are Knights of Columbus, understanding this permanent need for charity hasn’t dampened their enthusiasm. On the contrary, it has spurred them to set new records in their charitable giving each year for more than a decade.

And in his teaching on the importance of the family, Pope Benedict’s words also found a ready home with our membership, the spiritual sons of Father McGivney. Pope Benedict said of the family: “The new evangelization depends largely on the Domestic Church.” And he added: “The new evangelization is inseparable from the Christian family. The family is indeed the way of the Church because it is the “human space” of our encounter with Christ.”

We recall the words of Pope Benedict regarding Father McGivney during his visit to New York, when he called him an “exemplary American priest” and lauded his vision and zeal in establishing the Knights of Columbus. And I would add that in reading this book, it will be clear that Father McGivney isn’t only a model for American priests, but for all priests as well.

Pope Benedict’s predecessor, too, said much to inspire those formed in the school of Father McGivney. One need look no further than St. John Paul’s words concerning the role of the laity in Ecclesia in America where he said: “The renewal of the Church in America will not be possible without the active presence of the laity. Therefore, they are largely responsible for the future of the Church.” Those words had a special meaning to us as a lay organization – founded as such by Father McGivney at a time when the idea of having a lay organization of its kind was a concept completely outside the usual scope of Catholic organizations.

John Paul in that same document spoke of a continent united in its faith, and an organization that had spread throughout the hemisphere within three decades of its founding took heed.
When he spoke in Ecclesia in Europa of “a charity that evangelizes” – it was as if that phrase, coined by John Paul helped us understand even better Father McGivney’s emphasis on the unity of charity and witness.

As Pope Francis has said, St. John Paul was “the pope of the family,” and our members rallied to his call for the family. He described in this way in Ecclesia in America: “In order to be a true ‘domestic church’ the Christian family needs to be a setting in which parents hand down the faith, since they are ‘for their children, by word and example, the first heralds of the faith.’” Father McGivney founded the Knights of Columbus to protect the faith of his parishioners, and to help families keep their faith, in part, by enabling them to stay together. As heirs to his vision and legacy, such exhortations from St. John Paul II served to highlight for us the importance of that mission.

We at the Knights of Columbus have been very blessed. First to have a founder with a vision that has not only survived for more than 130 years, but has grown in relevance. Second, we are blessed to have had popes in recent years who so clearly led the Church forward in the areas of charity, evangelization, and the protection of families. Each of these popes has not only inspired the Church, but has further encouraged the Knights of Columbus in our ongoing mission – a mission that continues to unfold with renewed insight into the inspiration, the importance and the implications of Father McGivney’s dream.

Because of Father McGivney’s inspiration in the areas of charity, of the family and because of the model for unity and cooperation between laity and clergy he forged, Father McGivney is important not only in America, but here in Europe and throughout the world as well. The Italian translation of this book will now bring Father McGivney’s inspiration to an even wider audience, and we are very grateful to LEV for this new edition of Parish Priest.