Each March, the Church joyfully celebrates the liturgical feast of St. Joseph, husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Ten days later is the anniversary of the founding of the Knights of Columbus. Knights celebrate March 29 as Founder’s Day, in honor of the Order’s blessed founder, Father Michael J. McGivney, who bore “Joseph” as his middle name. As we approach these two celebrations, we may ask what the life and spirituality of these great fathers — St. Joseph and Father McGivney — have to say to Knights today.
Joseph of Nazareth was “a just man” (Mt 1:19). Betrothed to the daughter of Joachim and Anne, he had a plan for his life when the wonders of the world — and the heavens — suddenly began to open up before him.
An angel confronted him in a dream, altering everything: “‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus’” (Mt 1:20-21).
Michael J. McGivney also had a plan of his own: At one point, his heart was set on becoming a Jesuit. Yet when his father vetoed the notion, Michael obeyed, pursuing instead a vocation to diocesan priesthood. Even after his father died in 1873, while Michael was in the seminary, the young man did not divert from his father’s wishes — which paved the way for his founding the Knights of Columbus.
Pope Francis explained in a December 2013 Angelus address that St. Joseph “was following a good plan for his life, but God was reserving another plan for him, a greater mission.” And, the pope added, “Joseph was a man who always listened to the voice of God; he was deeply sensitive to his secret will; he was a man attentive to the messages that came to him from the depths of his heart and from on high.”
What is striking is that Joseph was attuned to the promptings of the Holy Spirit even in his sleep! As slumber gave way to waking, Joseph’s ambitions shifted in favor of divine providence. The famous “silence” of St. Joseph (the Gospels record not a single word he spoke) itself bespeaks the contemplative and compassionate demeanor of Christ’s adoptive father. A similar silence surrounds the life of Father McGivney; of his writings, a mere 13 letters exist. And what seemed a source of embarrassment to a seminary rector may in fact be one of the singular glories of this servant of God. In his final evaluation before ordination to the priesthood, the rector wrote, “Mr. McGivney is exceedingly sensitive, usque ad lacrymas [even unto tears].”
What else but such tenderheartedness could make these two souls so submissive before the will of heaven? St. Joseph and Father McGivney exemplify how life becomes happier when lived surrendered to God’s surprises. Their virtuous example encourages us to hope that we, too, might have their spirit of abandonment. Joseph “was ready to make himself available to the news that, in a such a bewildering way, was being presented to him,” Pope Francis continued. “His full interior availability to the will of God challenges us and shows us the way.”
When Joseph awoke, he took Mary “into his home” (Mt 1:24). His response is key to the success of everything in life.
From the time young Michael McGivney enrolled in the Sodality of the Blessed Virgin in 1868, the Queen of Heaven commanded his heart as well. He was ordained just three days before Christmas in 1877, and his first parish assignment was to St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Conn., where he later founded the Knights. Among the facts preserved about his priestly life, it is remarkable that a newspaper reported that, on Oct. 7, 1883, Father McGivney preached a sermon on “the divine maternity of the Virgin Mary, urging Catholics to seek the power which she exercises at the throne of grace.”
Both St. Joseph and Father McGivney model for us how to love Mary, especially amid life’s trials and heartaches.
Blessed John Henry Newman observed that Joseph is called “Holy Joseph, because no other saint but he lived in such and so long intimacy and familiarity with the source of all holiness, Jesus God Incarnate, and Mary, the holiest of creatures.”
Citing Pope Leo XIII’s 1889 encyclical on St. Joseph, published a year before Father McGivney’s death, St. John Paul II went even further: “Since marriage is the highest degree of association and friendship, it follows that God, by giving Joseph to the Virgin, did not give him to her only as a companion for life. … He also gave Joseph to Mary in order that he might share, through the marriage pact, in her own sublime greatness” (Redemptoris Custos, 20).
The more we devote ourselves to the Holy Family, the more the graces of that intimacy and familiarity become our own.
For a second time, the docile St. Joseph immediately obeyed the command of an angel when he fled to Egypt with Mary and the child Jesus to escape the slaughter of the innocents (Mt 2:13-15).
Joseph’s heroic zeal for Jesus’ safety stirred again when traveling home from the Passover feast in Jerusalem and learning the boy was lost (Lk 2:41-52). St. Bernadine of Siena, one of the earliest promoters of devotion to St. Joseph, commented, “This is the only place where we read that the Blessed Virgin called St. Joseph the father of Jesus. And she did so because his sorrow at the loss of the Child showed the fatherly love he had for him.”
One of the most compelling stories about Father McGivney also concerns his rescuing a youth in peril. The father of 19-year-old Alfred Downes had died unexpectedly, leaving his mother a widow and his family with no source of income. In such cases, the probate court imposed its right to assign the fatherless children to public institutions. In effect, this consigned children to a life sentence of loneliness and sorrow — unless a guardian for them was found.
But there were conditions: The guardian needed to be someone of good character acceptable to the court; someone who would take full responsibility for the actions of the ward; and someone who would put up a bond in excess of $1,000.
On Feb. 6, 1882, the judge asked the court if anyone was present to act as guardian for Alfred Downes. Father Michael McGivney rose to his feet, accepting the responsibility. That very same evening, more than 60 young men assembled in the basement of St. Mary’s Church, where Father McGivney appointed a committee to draft a constitution and bylaws of the new Order he was founding.
What Pope Benedict XVI stated about St. Joseph in a 2009 reflection could be said equally of Father McGivney: He lived “his fatherhood fully and completely.”
Joseph was a carpenter. Michael Joseph was the son of an iron molder who worked in a forge; he himself had labored in a spoon factory. St. John XXIII counseled, “Think of the condition of the workers before Christianity! And yet Christ did not impart to us [his lessons] from one of the famous teaching centers that flourished in the great cities. … He chose a poor family as the first classroom for his teaching mission; he himself undertook manual labor.”
St. Joseph is venerated as the patron of the universal Church. St. Bernardine of Siena taught us why: “Power is given to some of the saints to help in particular necessities, but to St. Joseph power is given to help in all necessities. We are certain of this: for as on earth Jesus Christ was pleased to be subject to St. Joseph, so in heaven he does all that the saint asks.”
For this reason, St. Teresa of Ávila, of whom St. Joseph was a favorite, implored, “If anyone has not got a guide to teach him how to pray, let him take this glorious saint as his master and he will not go astray.”
The illustrious history of the Knights of Columbus testifies that the Order has been blessed with its own holy guide. Before he became pope, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio wrote a summary of the virtues of St. Joseph in which we can see Father McGivney as well: “Accept the mission from God, let yourself be led by God, embrace the hardship and danger in order to save the Savior.”
And like St. Joseph, Father McGivney shone above all else in his paternity. A month after the death of the Order’s venerable founder, the Knights of Columbus Board of Directors, led by Supreme Knight John J. Phelan, adopted a resolution “in memoriam.” It stated in part: “He was our Father. We shall miss and mourn him as a child its parent. … For the seed of Charity, Unity, and Brotherly Love by him sown among us, let our thanksgiving rise.”
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of Columbia and has been lightly edited for this republication.
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