IN FEBRUARY, I presented Pope Francis with an Italian translation of Parish Priest, the biography of Father Michael McGivney. Handing him the book, I commented that Father McGivney was “a Pope Francis priest before there was a Pope Francis.” With gratitude to our Holy Father, I would like to reflect a bit more on how Father McGivney, a late 19th-century priest, exemplified the themes of a 21st-century pontificate.
First, Pope Francis often speaks of a “culture of encounter.” He calls us not to be content with a superficial relationship with Christ, but rather to open our hearts to the Lord in prayer, to worship him in deepest faith, and to allow his words to penetrate and shape our lives. If we truly open our hearts to Jesus Christ, we will also open them to those around us, both in the Church and in broader society.
As a parish priest, Father McGivney did indeed foster a “culture of encounter.” From his own daily encounter with Christ in prayer, he drew the strength and wisdom to create a true community at St. Mary’s Parish in New Haven, Conn., and later at St. Thomas Parish in Thomaston. The plays, picnics and ball games he organized had a purpose: to bring his people together and help parishioners know and love one another. A hallmark of Father McGivney’s ministry was the personal attention he gave to his people. He knew the cares of their hearts and their spiritual needs. Likewise, the founding principles of charity, unity and fraternity that he chose for the Knights of Columbus speak of our solidarity with Christ and one another.
Father McGivney fostered in his parishioners a living faith, and he encouraged them to share this faith, even in the midst of hardships.
Father McGivney’s ministry also foreshadowed Pope Francis’ call to missionary discipleship. Inviting us to open our hearts to the Gospel, Pope Francis shows us how we are to become followers of the Lord who want to share with others the joy of the Gospel. We are to be joyful, committed evangelizers, convinced that Christ sheds light and hope on every aspect of our lives.
Long before the phrase “missionary discipleship” was commonly used, Father McGivney fostered in his parishioners a living faith, and he encouraged them to share this faith with others, even in the midst of hardships. He inspired and instructed through his preaching and teaching. He modeled what it means to be a joyful witness to Christ, demonstrating how faith and life intersect. And he created the Knights of Columbus to help men practice their faith and serve their families more robustly. This saintly priest understood that all of his people were called to holiness and that they were his co-workers in spreading the Gospel.
Yet another theme of Pope Francis’ ministry is accompaniment. The Holy Father encourages us not to be superficial in our relationships with others, but rather to be genuinely open to those around us. We must journey together; we must walk with one another, just as the risen Lord walked with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Along the way, we must come to know, love and walk with those who are poor and vulnerable.
Father McGivney accompanied his parishioners in their joys and sorrows. He had a special love for the marginalized, including a condemned man whom he accompanied to the gates of eternity. As a pastor engaged with his people, Father McGivney saw how families were impoverished when husbands and fathers died prematurely. He did not merely sympathize with such families; he founded the Order as a way for men to provide for their families in the event of death. He also founded it as an engine of charity — a charity that bears witness to the Gospel and accompanies people in their need.
Even this brief glimpse at Father McGivney’s ministry helps us see how he foreshadowed key themes of Pope Francis’ pontificate. As we reflect on our founder’s fruitful ministry, we rejoice in the news that this blessed parish priest may soon be beatified (see page 6). He is interceding for us, the family of the Knights of Columbus.
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