A new Italian edition of a book about the life of Father Michael McGivney tells the story of his extraordinary life as a parish priest, the inspiration that led him to found the Knights of Columbus, and the chronicle of his ongoing canonization process.
“In reading this book, it will be clear that Father McGivney isn't only a model for American priests, but for all priests as well,” Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, stressed at a June 25 presentation in Rome.
The Italian edition of “Parish Priest,” by Douglas Brinkley and Julie M. Fenster, has been published by Vatican Publishing House.
The book provides a portrait of the situation of the American Catholicism in the mid-nineteenth century.
In that period, the United States was still considered a land of mission. The dioceses were few in number and the bishops were under the jurisdiction of the Congregation for the Propagation for the Faith, which supervised missionary lands.
The Catholic community was a minority in New Haven, Conn., where Fr. McGivney served as a parish priest. American Catholics at the time were building the social structures that would later cause them to become one of the most important Catholic communities in the world.
“Waves of Irish immigrants swelled the Catholic population in northeastern cities like New Haven, and waves of anti-Catholic sentiment greeted them,” said Kevin Coyne, professor at the Columbia University School of Journalism, who is currently writing a book on the history of the Knights of Columbus.
Fr. McGivney had expressed the wish to become a priest when he was 13, but it took him three years to convince his father. After having worked for three years in a factory, his father gave finally his consent. The young man joined a Jesuit seminary in Canada.
One year later, his father died. McGivney’s family would not have been able to afford the expense for another year of seminary, except that his local bishop paid the rest of his education. The future priest moved from the Jesuit seminary to “a seminary where he would become the kind of parish priest the diocese needed,” recounted Coyne.
“And that’s exactly what he became,” Coyne stressed. “He was not the kind of priest who believed his ministry ended with Sunday Mass.”
Anderson echoed Coyne, saying that “as the book makes clear, the Venerable Servant of God Father Michael McGivney was no ordinary priest – he accomplished no ordinary feat, and he lived in no ordinary time.”
“Nearly a decade before ‘Rerum Novarum’ formally launched the social doctrine of the Church, Father McGivney was founding a lay Catholic organization that would be dedicated to both the spiritual and temporal well-being of its members,” he added, referring to the landmark encyclical of Pope Leo XIII.
Fr. McGivney founded the Knight of Columbus in 1882. The organization saved numerous families from poverty and endured difficult times in the face of anti-Catholic discrimination. No wonder that the first Catholic candidate to the presidency of the United States, Al Smith, was a knight. And no wonder that the first Catholic president of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was a knight as well.
“Father McGivney’s vision had prepared the Knights of Columbus to fully embrace the reinvigoration of the role of the laity in life of the Church in the Second Vatican Council and in the subsequent pontificates of St. John Paul II, and Popes Benedict XVI and Francis,” Anderson said.
The Supreme Knight noted that Fr. McGivney is important not only in America, but in Europe and throughout the world. He cited the priest’s inspiration “in the areas of charity, of the family and in the model for unity and cooperation between laity and clergy he forged.”
Fr. Giuseppe Costa, director of the Vatican Publishing House, praised the book “Parish Priest.” He said it “deepens the knowledge of American Catholicism in its numerous experiences, still not very well known in the Old Continent, in the fields of evangelization, of hospitality and charity.”
As the title of the book suggests, the strength of Fr. McGivney was in parish work.
In the preface of the book, the authors stressed that “too often American Catholic history focuses on the Church hierarchy.”
“Over the years, grand biographies have been written about famous bishops and cardinals. That’s fine, but the heart of Catholicism in the United States lies with the parish priests, who become so much a part of their parishioners’ regular lives,” Brinkley and Fenster said.
“It’s the parish priest to whom many of America’s 65 million Catholics turn in times of personal crisis or if poverty strikes a family. They serve on the level of human helping another,” the authors wrote.
Fr. McGivney’s process of canonization was begun in 1997 by Archbishop Daniel A. Cronin of Hartford.
The results of the diocesan process were formally presented to the Congregation of the Causes of Saints in 2000, thus starting the Roman phase of the cause for canonization.
If the process recognizes a miracle attributed to the intercession of Fr. McGivney, he will be proclaimed a blessed, a process called beatification. If a second miracle is recognized, Fr. McGivney will be proclaimed a saint.
He would be the first U.S.-born parish priest to be proclaimed a saint. Even now Catholics around the world include Fr. McGivney in their prayers and contemplation.