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    138th Supreme Convention Opening Mass Homily



    We are blessed to celebrate this Opening Mass for the 138th Supreme Convention of the Knights of Columbus on the Memorial of St. John Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests. What could be more fitting as we rejoice at the news that another great parish priest, Father Michael McGivney, a priest of the Archdiocese of Hartford and founder of the Knights of Columbus, will soon be beatified as a model of heroic virtue, as an inspiration to priests and faithful alike in striving for “the holiness without which we cannot see God” (Heb 12:14).

    The lives of St. John Vianney and Venerable Michael McGivney overlapped for a few years in the 19th century. Father McGivney was born in August of 1852 and St. John Vianney died in August of 1859. They both ministered to the faithful amid the turmoil and challenges of their own time and place.

    St. John Vianney is simply known as the Curé of Ars. “Curé” means pastor, as one who cares for or cures, and to that task he devoted his life in what was initially an almost Godless French village with a population of just 230 people. “There is little love for God in that parish,” the bishop had told him, “you will be the one to put it there.”

    The Curé of Ars took to heart the responsibility of a watchman described by Ezekiel in our First Reading. He knew that if he failed to speak the truth, he would share the fate spoken by God to the prophet: “Son of Man, if they die in their sins and you have not warned them, then you too are responsible for their deaths.”

    This can also be said to be the responsibility of a shepherd. In today’s Gospel, at the sight of the crowds, we are told that the heart of Jesus “was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd.”

    Filled with pastoral charity St. John Vianney recognized this state of affairs in the village of Ars and sought to be a good and watchful shepherd after the heart of Christ. He had been one as a small boy for his father’s flock, and he once said “I believe my vocation was to remain a shepherd all my life” (Saint Pierre, p. 18).

    The Curé of Ars embraced a grueling schedule and undertook to do penance as if to wrest from God the graces of conversion for his wayward parishioners. He practically lived in the parish church, and ate and slept hardly at all. Simple Catechism lessons for the girls in the orphanage he founded near the church soon became a daily presentation of the faith to crowds of people. He spent as many as 18 hours a day in the confessional, a freezer in the winter and an oven in the summer. And his sermons were an exercise of preaching the truth with love, calling people to repentance and faith.   

    Eventually, so great was his fame as a holy priest who had transformed Ars that even during his lifetime the small village was overrun with pilgrims from all of France and beyond. And now his heroic sanctity lives on, as evidenced by the great devotion of Catholics to the relic of his preserved heart, which has been made available for veneration under sponsorship of the Knights of Columbus.

    My brothers and sisters, there are many lessons to be learned from the life of the Curé of Ars, many historical elements of his life and times that can help us respond to the challenges of today.

    St. John Vianney was French, and perhaps France evokes for us great Catholic cathedrals like Notre Dame or Chartres, or the Marian apparitions of places like Lourdes or La Salette. However, the France of St. John Vianney’s life and ministry was a country raw with the French Revolution and the transformation it had wrought.

    There had been a brutal attempt to de-Christianize the country, although the overthrow of religion did not succeed totally or everywhere. There were pockets of resistance like that of St. John Vianney’s own family. Nevertheless, in France’s revolutionary heyday, churches had been closed,

    clergy banished or executed, religious monuments and symbols destroyed, religious teaching prohibited, the state and its institutions secularized, and all ancient religious traditions condemned. At one point a woman dressed as the goddess of reason was sacrilegiously enthroned on the main altar of Notre Dame Cathedral.

    And all this was done under the battle cry of the revolution: liberte, egalite, fraternite — liberty, equality and fraternity. In other words, Gospel values, but turned upside down on their heads.

    In one of his sermons St. John Vianney told his parishioners: “in a nation, state, family, or community where religion is despised or allowed to perish, there the process of disintegration will invariably occur.” By word and example, he offered to the people of Ars the truth about the God-given meaning of liberte, egalite, fraternite. And he did so by his fearless preaching of the Catholic faith, by his own example, and the gift of his priestly life.

    Not many years later, on these American shores, here in the state of Connecticut, the Venerable, soon to be Blessed, Father Michael J. McGivney, with a priestly heart modeled after the Curé of Ars, did the same. America was the place to cast off the yoke of poverty and oppression in Europe that had spawned the French revolution. Yet, as we read in Father McGivney’s biography, for the men of his time, “the adventures of their fathers were only a fading memory. In the new manner of manhood thrust upon them, the decisions of the day were no longer theirs….the unions, the political parties, and the rabble-rousers could not fill the void that so many millions of men discovered within themselves.” (p. 96f)

    Out of the depths of pastoral charity that every priest is called to, Father McGivney responded with firm conviction about the God-given meaning of liberty, equality and above all fraternity. In founding our fraternal order, he helped to save countless families from the indignity of destitution, and in doing that he also helped save them from the hopelessness that can lead to a loss of faith in God, in the church, and even in a nation.

    Charity, unity and fraternity were the watchwords of Father McGivney’s vision, strengthened by patriotism as well, and the rest is history, not only in the United States but wherever the Knights of Columbus has been established.

    My brothers and sisters, in many ways our world stands at a crossroads today, one that should give us pause. We are witnessing attempts to redefine “liberty, equality and fraternity” in revolutionary ways that demand the most careful discernment, a discernment enlightened by both faith and reason. Like the courageous watchmen and fearless shepherds that St. John Vianney and the Venerable Michael J. McGivney were in their day, we too need to be faithful to the truth about God and man that brings us together at this mass; namely, that only in Jesus Christ and his Gospel can people find the real freedom, equal dignity and fraternity for which we and all people have been created and redeemed. May St. John Vianney intercede for us, and Father Michael McGivney too, that in the words of our opening prayer “we may in charity win brothers and sisters for Christ and attain with them eternal glory.”


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