From the very beginning of his priesthood, Father Michael J. McGivney faced many concerns and challenges. Chief among them was that many of the men of his parish, St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Conn., were nowhere to be seen.
In the biography Parish Priest: Father McGivney and American Catholicism, historians Douglas Brinkley and Julie Fenster write, “Every time he looked out over the pews … the ranks of the male parishioners were pathetically thin, except for the boys and the old men. St. Mary’s looked like a church in wartime.”
Blessed Michael McGivney wanted to find the lost sheep, and this desire guided his entire ministry. Today, more than 130 years after his death, his presence is bringing together Catholic men and their families 4,000 miles away from New Haven, thanks to his spiritual heirs in Poland.
On Feb. 21, Polish K of C leaders began a yearlong pilgrimage of Blessed Michael McGivney’s relics that will visit 200 sites throughout the country — including each its 146 councils.
Knights, their families and other pilgrims are gathering to attend Mass in the presence of his relics and entrust their intentions to him. The relic pilgrimage has also been an opportunity to promote works of mercy, especially charitable pro-life work, and to build devotion to an exemplary priest who offered himself completely in service to his flock.
“Father McGivney was a priest close to people, a priest who knew their problems,” said Poland State Deputy Krzysztof Zuba. “That is why so many Catholics, also in Poland, see him as a model priest who is concerned about parishioners’ troubles, who looks for solutions and offers them wise help.”
Father Wiesław Lenartowicz, associate state chaplain, likewise affirmed, “We are convinced that Father McGivney’s mission and the work of the Knights are a response to the challenges of the modern world — and an answer for priests and men who are seeking a path of deeper faith and service.”
Since the first K of C councils were chartered in Poland in January 2006, Polish Knights have specialized in organizing pilgrimages of relics and sacred images.
In 2012, an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the centerpiece of the Knights of Columbus Marian Prayer Program at the time, reached more than 250,000 people in Polish parishes. About five years later, Knights organized a pilgrimage of St. Albert Chmielowski’s relics to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Polish brother’s death. More recently, councils widely promoted the icon of Our Lady Help of Persecuted Christians to increase awareness of persecution in the Middle East. While each of these initiatives engaged tens of thousands of people, the current pilgrimage of Father McGivney’s relics is of particular importance to the Polish Knights.
“The phenomenon of a relic pilgrimage means that a saint or blessed comes to meet you,” explained State Advocate Stanisław Dziwiński, who is coordinating the national tour. “In this case, Father McGivney wants to visit and help people, just as he did in his lifetime.”
Each local council will host a first-class relic for approximately a week. During this time, the Knights with their chaplains organize prayers and other events, and set up an informational display to present their founder’s life and mission to fellow parishioners. The pilgrimage has also received national media coverage; the country’s largest TV station broadcast the K of C-produced documentary Father McGivney: An American Blessed in February, shortly after the relic tour began.
Thus far, only local parishes have hosted the relics, and pandemic restrictions have strictly limited the number of pilgrims at any given time. Nonetheless, thousands have already participated in the prayer services. Larger venues, such as the Divine Mercy Shrine in Kraków, are scheduled for later in the year.
“I watched the moments of personal veneration of the relics with great emotion,” Dziwiński said. “It wasn’t just the Knights who prayed there. I remember pregnant women; I also remember an elderly woman who had difficulty with moving, but she came up, and with her eyes fixed on the image of our founder, she prayed for a long time.”
Knights encourage the faithful to entrust their intentions to Father McGivney’s intercession and write down their prayer requests. In recent months, the Father Michael J. McGivney Guild has received hundreds of these requests from Poland, asking Father McGivney’s prayers for intentions such as healing from diseases, reconciliation in the family and the return of loved ones to faith.
“Catholics who learn about his life see him as someone who built a parish community in difficult times and helped parishioners find solutions to their problems,” explained Zuba. “He is a source of hope for all of us. To whom should we turn in times of difficulties? To someone who has the experience in overcoming them!”
Through the national relic tour, Knights in Poland also want to highlight Father McGivney’s close collaboration with the laity, emphasizing the unity between the laity and the clergy in carrying out the Church’s missionary work.
“The ongoing pilgrimage is a proof for priests that they’re not alone; they have an intercessor in heaven, and devoted men standing next to them,” said Zuba. “The pilgrimage is a chance to introduce Father McGivney to priests at a time when the Church and priesthood are under attack.”
The miracle that led to the beatification of Father McGivney — the healing of Michael “Mikey” Schachle in utero — was hailed as a “pro-life miracle.” In Poland, Mikey’s story acquired special meaning.
Last fall, just as Knights of Columbus around the world celebrated Father McGivney’s beatification, street protests were held in Poland demanding broader access to abortion. Knights and other Catholics in Poland embraced the miraculous healing of Mikey as sign of inspiration to act in defense of life.
“God confirmed [Father McGivney’s] sanctity with a miracle healing an unborn child from a terminal disease. Isn’t that a sign from God for the modern world?” asked Archbishop Wacław Depo of Częstochowa, Poland state chaplain, during his homily at a Mass of Thanksgiving in Jasna Góra Monastery, Nov. 8.
Andrzej Anasiak, past state deputy and representative of the Father Michael J. McGivney Guild in Poland, echoed these sentiments.
“A saint is often a sign for a generation — and we received a very strong sign,” he said. “In a world where the culture of death seems to dominate, we received confirmation from the Lord that every life is sacred and to God nothing is impossible.”
At the urging of Archbishop Depo, the Knights in Poland have taken the pilgrimage of Father McGivney’s relics as an opportunity to intensify their pro-life efforts. At each stage of the tour, councils are collecting diapers, clothes, towels, hygiene products and funds for pro-life initiatives. Knights direct the donations to Catholic organizations such hospices for children, orphanages or homes for single mothers, or to specific people and families in need.
Among the first beneficiaries was a home for women run by Caritas in the Archdiocese of Częstochowa. It currently houses 15 pregnant women or mothers with children, most of whom have experienced poverty or suffered violence and rejection.
“These gifts have definitely raised the standard of living of the women we care for in our center and were a source of great joy,” said Father Marek Bator, a member of Primate Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński Council 15672 and director of Caritas in Częstochowa. “Thanks to this initiative, these women see a different, new image of men and society, because someone has finally reached out to them with dignity and love.”
The enthusiastic participation of the faithful in the relic pilgrimage is a cause of joy for Knights in Poland, who believe that Blessed Michael McGivney’s witness transcends the Order and speaks to the needs of our time.
“Although Father McGivney lived in the 19th century in distant America, the pastoral problems he faced resemble the most current challenges Catholic parishes in Poland and other European countries are facing now,” wrote Archbishop Depo in a letter to Polish priests at the start of the relic tour. “Every priest who is wondering today how to renew his parish can look at the example and path laid out by Blessed Michael McGivney.”
As State Deputy Zuba has said, “By presenting the legacy of Father McGivney, we show living proof that a holy priest can change the world.”
TOMASZ ADAMSKI writes from Kraków, Poland, where he is a member of St. Brother Albert Chmielowski Council 15128.
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