On fire for the faith, Father McGivney was also approachable and trusted by the powerful and lowly alike. His ability to mourn with those in sorrow and bring joy and support to those in need of encouragement marked his priestly ministry. To him, faith was a gift to be treasured by every Catholic, and there were no human boundaries that could not be overcome by the love and care of a good and gracious God. Despite the anti-Catholic sentiments of the time, Father McGivney wanted to see Catholics keep the faith and thrive. He often stepped outside the church walls to become an advocate for parishioners in court to keep their families together; he engaged cordially with those of other Christian faiths, even a prominent New Haven minister; and he staged plays and fairs for all comers.
It can well be said that Father McGivney was a man ahead of his time, anticipating by nearly a century the Second Vatican Council’s “universal call to holiness” for laypeople as well as clergy, and embodying the opening words of the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes:
The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts
Protector of Catholic Families
A man of practical thought and action, Father McGivney knew that the pursuit of holiness did not consist in an aloof attitude or separation from people and their problems. As a parish priest, his primary concern was for the welfare — both spiritual and temporal — of the largely Irish-American and immigrant Catholic population that teemed into New Haven, where he began his ministry at St. Mary’s Church in 1878.
Catholics then were especially vulnerable. It was a time when many employers had a policy of “Irish Need Not Apply.” Immigrants often had to take the most dangerous positions in the mines, on the railroads, and in the factories. Accidents, disease and overwork led too often to the family’s breadwinner suffering an early death, leaving his wife and children destitute, with no social safety nets.
His Solution: The Knights of Columbus
Father McGivney had lived through hard times himself as the eldest of 13 children, six of whom died young. After finishing elementary school, he joined his father in the factory for three years, and this experience formed in him a deep solidarity with working men and their families. He also knew personally the effects of the death of a breadwinner. His own father died in 1873 and young Michael had to leave seminary to tend to the family before returning to his studies.
These experiences — viewed through the lens of faith — formed the man who went on to form the Knights of Columbus as an answer to the many problems his people faced. A little more than four years after being assigned as an assistant priest to St. Mary’s, he gathered a handful of men in the church basement to establish a new fraternal association dedicated to helping men and their families with spiritual and temporal needs.
Charity, Unity and Fraternity
The Order was formed as a fraternal benefit society, but Father McGivney and the men he gathered saw a “higher calling,” that was expressed in the Order’s three main principles of charity, unity and fraternity. Father McGivney saw them as three legs of a stool, each one dependent on the other, and each one critical to helping the Catholic men of Connecticut keep the faith while supporting also their personal, civic and social needs.
Charity — The greatest of all virtues is charity or love, writes St. Paul. But the modern mind has distorted these words; charity is more than giving to the needy, and love is more than romance. What these words really mean is this — to will the good of the other person for his or her own sake, even if that means suffering for me. This is the charity, the love, that Jesus had for us on the cross, and we are to approach every person with this same love and charity.
Jesus gave us a new commandment: “Love one another, as I have loved you” (Jn 13:34). This new love in Christ inspires Knights to reach out through a myriad of organized programs to help those in need next door, across town, across the country and around the world
Unity — None of us is as good alone as all of us are together. United in the Catholic faith, Knights support one another in times of joy and grief and at every moment in between. They form a network of men and their families dedicated to building their homes as domestic churches of faith and love, and they work in union with priests to support parishes in the mission of faith formation and evangelization. In the words of one of Father McGivney’s contemporaries: “Unity of purpose, unity of action and unity of faith complete a trinity which makes the Knights of Columbus a mighty agent for good, an upholder of order, a protective force in society.”
Fraternity — Networks of Knights provide men with something that is too often lacking in today’s fragmented society — authentic fraternal fellowship lived out in councils, parishes, online, and in common faith and worthy projects. Working together, we know the truth of the biblical statement: “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Prov 27:17). Early in the Order’s history, Knights were told to exemplify “the Golden Rule, which is the essence of Fraternity.”
Father McGivney’s vision for his Knights has made a difference in millions of lives and brought hope and healing to countless others. More than 130 years after his death, his vision remains our mission.
Next: PRACTICAL VISION