St. Mary’s Church New Haven
November 1, 2020
Today we are grateful to our Lord who in his mercy raises up holy priests to minister to his people, especially in times of adversity. Truly, this is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad.
We do not think much about it today, but during Blessed Michael McGivney’s life the Catholic Church regarded the United States as “mission” territory. This was the context of his ministry and of his great achievement in founding the Knights of Columbus.
We tend to think of missionaries working at the “peripheries” and removed from the larger community of believers. Today, it may be difficult to imagine the United States as a periphery. But in the 19th century, that was precisely the situation of Catholics in America.
St. John Paul II insisted there is a need for missionary activity not only “out there,” but also “inside” the Church. We see this reality in Blessed Michael McGivney’s ministry. In one sense his parish was at the periphery. In another sense, his parish church of St. Mary’s in New Haven, Connecticut was the center of a Catholic community.
Blessed Michael McGivney’s great achievement was to find a practical means to strengthen the center while extending its reach into the periphery.
By establishing the Knights of Columbus, Father McGivney sought to keep the men and families of his parish firm in their Catholic faith. He hoped to keep men from joining the secret societies, many of which were anti-Catholic, that were springing up throughout New England.
He also sought to keep the Catholic families entrusted to his care both Catholic and together by providing for the financial security of widows and orphans.
Today, with two million members worldwide and more than 10,000 active councils throughout the United States it may be difficult to appreciate how innovative and extraordinary was Father McGivney’s vision of a brotherhood of Catholic laymen based upon charity. The classic study of 19th century anti-Catholicism in the United States tells us that during the decade in which Father McGivney was born, religious Americans were convinced that Catholicism was “declining rapidly” in Europe and was attempting a desperate last stand in the United States.
But perhaps more importantly it states that, “The average Protestant American of the 1850’s had been trained from birth to hate Catholicism.” And while New England Protestants in the mid-1800’s no longer played the once popular game, “Break the Pope’s Neck,” many could still remember playing it as children.
Anti-Catholic prejudice appeared to decline as the Know-Nothings collapsed as a political force toward the end of the 1850’s and the country drifted toward civil war. But as the abolitionist movement gained ground, many compared the Catholic Church with slavery claiming that both institutions were “incompatible” with American democracy and both were “doomed to extinction.”
This confidence in Catholicism’s demise was soon replaced by new fears of Catholic power as waves of immigrants came to America during the post-Civil War Reconstruction era.
Those fears reached the top of American society.
In the most widely read speech of his presidency, Ulysses S. Grant predicted in 1875, that should there be a future civil war, the conflict would not be between North and South, but between Catholic and Protestant.
Michael McGivney and his fellow seminarians at St. Mary’s Seminary would certainly have been aware of the president’s attack on Catholics. Two years later, he would be ordained to the priesthood in the midst of the widely publicized trials and executions of the Molly Maguires in Pennsylvania.
Here too, Father McGivney would have been well aware of the plight of those Irish immigrant coal miners as well as the national campaign to vilify the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
But prejudice and violence were not the only evils confronting Catholics.
Historians regard the 1880’s and 1890’s as America’s “Gilded Age” and many Americans experienced economic opportunity and prosperity. But for others, it was a time of abject poverty and hardship. The publication in 1890 of Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives, shocked the nation with its photographs of the plight of immigrants and especially of their children in the slums of New York City.
Riis was one of the country’s pioneering journalists. But the appalling reality he uncovered was not “news” to the priests in America’s urban centers who confronted the realities of addiction, violence, poverty, dependency, corruption and crime on a daily basis.
Riis posed a question to every Christian in America: “How shall the love of God be understood by those who have been nurtured in sight only of the greed of man?”Father McGivney had given his answer eight years earlier. It was not one of anger or confrontation. Nor was it one of indifference or resignation.
His response was very different.
Father McGivney would not allow his parish to become a ghetto. Nor would his rectory be a cloister. He would not be a bystander to the great challenges of his day.
He was a parish priest who would be in the world, but not of it.
Whether we consider his efforts to revitalize the abstinence societies of New Haven, his ministry in the New Haven city jail or his founding of the Knights of Columbus, Father McGivney was determined that the social evils of his day would not overwhelm his parishioners.
He strove tirelessly to overcome evil with good by putting a Catholic ethics of charity at the center of their lives.
St. John Paul II tells us, “The missionary is a person of charity. In order to proclaim to all his brothers and sisters that they are loved by God and are capable of loving, he must show love toward all, giving his life for his neighbor.”
This is how Father McGivney lived his life as a parish priest. This is why today we call him blessed. And this is where we find his spiritual genius: he opened a practical path for millions of men to follow him in living this truth of Christian charity.
Blessed Michael McGivney called his brother Knights to live a life of charity according to the admonition of St. Paul: “love one another with a brotherly affection” and “do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:10,21).
In this way Blessed Michael McGivney anticipated by nearly a century the Second Vatican Council’s call for the laity to transform society by the light of the Gospel.
The evils of prejudice, poverty and violence are with us still. Thankfully, so is Father McGivney’s vision.
Father McGivney clearly understood the dilemma confronting each generation of immigrants: how to successfully integrate into and move up in American society while preserving the best of their heritage and identity.
This has been a particular challenge for religious minorities coming to America.
Father McGivney saw the Knights of Columbus as the way for the men of his parish to remain faithful Catholics while being good citizens.
Today, we see that Blessed Michael McGivney was a man of charity and his greatest charity was the gift of himself—a gift which continues to touch countless lives with greater effect each passing year.
Today, is truly a day of thanksgiving and we say with gratitude, the inspiration of the life and heroic virtue of our brother prompts us to greater confidence in the love of Christ—whose faithful priest he remains for all eternity.
 John Paul II, Encyclical Letter, Redemptoris Missio (1990).
 Ray Allen Billington, The Protestant Crusade: 1800-1860 (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1964, orig. ed. 1938), pp. 16, 262, 345.
 Richard White, The Republic For Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), pp. 315, 319-20.
 Ibid., pp. 312-14.
 Ibid., p. 696.
 Jacob A. Riis, How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York (New York: Dover, 1971, orig. ed. 1890), p. 2.
 John Paul II, Encyclical Redemptoris Missio, 1990, no. 90.
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