State Deputies Meeting
Knights of Columbus
Most Rev. William E. Lori, Supreme Chaplain
November 18, 2020
Dear brothers in the Lord, All of us continue to rejoice over the beatification of our founder, Blessed Father Michael Joseph McGivney. It was a watershed event in the history of the Church in the United States. Surely, it brought joy to the priests of the Archdiocese of Hartford to see one of their very own, a parish priest, beatified. And I daresay that every parish priest in the United States and far beyond recognized in Fr. McGivney a priest who became holy, not in spite of his busy priestly ministry, but in the midst of it.
Fr. McGivney’s beatification was momentous for us as Knights of Columbus. It confirmed the holiness of our visionary founder and the mission he bequeathed to us. It also shed new light on the principles he taught us – charity, unity, and fraternity – and charted for us a path for the ongoing renewal of our Order rooted in the holiness and example of our blessed founder. It is about this point that I wish to speak today.
Exemplifying Charity, Unity, and Fraternity
Over my fifteen years of service as Supreme Chaplain, I have spoken often about the principles of charity, unity, and fraternity. At various times, I have described them as Fr. McGivney’s ingenious way of summarizing for the Knights the very heart of the Gospel. I have spoken about the Trinitarian, Christological, Eucharistic, and Marian dimensions of the foundational principles of the Order, thus attempting to illustrate that these principles really are a kind of compendium of the Catholic faith which Fr. McGivney sought to instill and inculcate in his Knights, right from the start.
I wouldn’t take back a word of what I have said about these principles, yet, as I experienced the truth, beauty, and wonder of Fr. McGivney’s beatification, it stuck me that too often we speak of the principles abstractly, as if Fr. McGivney somehow pulled them from thin air and made them stick. The truth is much more wonderful than that. Fr. McGivney lived these principles; indeed, his life-experience embodied them – or to use language with which we Knights are most familiar, Blessed Michael McGivney exemplified these principles. Therefore, our founding principles are not at all an abstract summary of faith – useful and important as that is – but rather they are rooted in the person of our founder – rooted in his priestly life and holiness and exemplified over and over for our continued encouragement and edification. The corollary is simple and direct: Blessed Michael McGivney calls you and me, in the actual circumstances of our lives, to embody, to exemplify, to live the principles of charity, unity, and fraternity – to make them a part of ourselves, a part of who we are and how to conduct our lives.
With the premise of these remarks firmly in place, let me proceed to talk about how Blessed Michael McGivney exemplified the principles of charity, unity, and fraternity and why it is important for us to exemplify those same qualities in the world of today.
The Principle of Charity
The chief characteristic of Blessed Michael McGivney’s life was charity – not just “niceness” – but the theological virtue of charity. This virtue was infused in young Michael McGivney at his Baptism and it was tended and nurtured by his loving parents, Irish immigrants, who trusted God enough to have a very large family and who worked hard to support their family. There, in the give-and-take of family life, Michael McGivney learned to love God with all his mind, his heart, his body, and his soul. There, amid the sacrifices that his parents made for their family, he learned the art of self-giving love – and not surprisingly, heard the call to priesthood.
Fr. McGivney’s biographers describe his challenging path to the priesthood. Prior to entering the seminary, Michael McGivney worked in the same brass factory where his father worked – and the work was hard and dangerous. His seminary studies were interrupted because of the untimely death of his father. Thus, young Michael McGivney had to drop out of the seminary to support his family. Yet, the call to priesthood persisted and with the help of a scholarship procured for him by the then-bishop of Hartford, he finished his studies at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, the oldest seminary in the United States.
In the seminary, the future Fr. McGivney was formed to develop in his soul a tender love of Christ…not just a generic love… but rather to acquire in his own heart the same loving dispositions that overflowed from the heart of Christ, the High Priest, as he gave himself for our salvation on the Cross. Fr. McGivney, upon his ordination and assignment to St. Mary’s in New Haven, immediately translated the spirituality he acquired in the seminary into a warm and engaging pastoral charity for the people he was sent to serve. Fr. McGivney did not love his people generically but rather with the specificity of a shepherd who knew and loved his flock and called them individually and by name. He took the time to come to know his people, to know their needs, to appreciate the real-life situation his people were facing, whether it was the anti-Catholic prejudice of the late 19th century or the plight of widows and their children after the premature death of their husbands and fathers. He went to the sickbeds and deathbeds of his parishioners, and knew how to console them and their families. His pastoral charity reached its apex, some would argue, in the pastoral love which he poured out upon Chip Smith, an unfortunate man who had been condemned for killing a New Haven policeman in a bar. Imagine the astonishment of the prison guards as this young priest celebrated a High Mass, replete with beautiful church music, on behalf of a condemned prisoner, destined for the gallows. The chief characteristic of Father McGivney’s priesthood was indeed pastoral charity, built upon the foundations of the self-giving love he learned in his family and upon the spirituality he acquired during his years of seminary formation.
Thus, it was that he made charity the cornerstone of the Knights of Columbus. Fr. McGivney founded the Knights as an extension of his pastoral charity. He saw that Catholic men of the 19th century were attracted to secret societies where they could acquire status and companionship denied them by the larger society, but where, he also knew, that their faith and family life would be threatened. His solution was to start a Catholic men’s fraternal organization where, by contrast, the faith of the men of his parish would be strengthened, where they would be confirmed in their vocations as husbands and fathers, and where they could provide for the financial security of their families. Fr. McGivney taught his Knights, in spite of human weakness and rivalries, to love one another and to practice charity not only for themselves and their families, but to extend their charity to all those who are in need … the great legacy of charity that marks our beloved Order until this very day.
Dear brothers, we, like Blessed Michael McGivney, need to exemplify charity. In a divided world, where hateful speech dominates our means of communications, where killing and violence are glorified and celebrated, where the unborn, the frail elderly, the immigrant, and poor are left behind, each of us as Knights must be Knights of Charity – and together we must form a phalanx of charity in both church and society. Our love for others cannot be merely generic – O, yes, we love everyone – but it must be specific – directed at this family that lost everything in a fire – or this family that finds itself without employment – or these inner-city kids that need a warm winter coat. We must deliver our charity with the same warmth of Blessed Michael McGivney, demonstrating that, in an uncaring world, there are people who care and they are known as the Knights of Columbus!
The Principle of Unity
It is universally true that hate divides and that love unites. In our culture today, many people are filled with rage and hatred, so much so that they do not want to bring people together but they want to set people against one another – the rich against the poor, one race against another, liberals against conservatives. Many people, sadly enough, are making a fine living peddling hatred and division, not seeming to care that it is tearing our homelands and our world apart.
Fr. McGivney, by contrast, was a unifier. Because he was a man of consummate charity, he was also man of unity. Those of you who hail from large families know that a chief responsibility of a Mom and a Dad is to keep the family together and that the job is a lot harder than it appears to be in the sitcoms of the 1950’s! The future Fr. McGivney came from a large and bustling family which, by all accounts, was a united and devoted family. Everyone pitched in, everyone worked hard, times were tough, but the faith and family came first. I think Fr. McGivney became a unifier when, as a young man, he had to step in to support family when his father died prematurely.
Those who knew Fr. McGivney describe him as a somewhat retiring personality. In other words, he didn’t seek to make himself the center by being a loud politico or by being a back-slapper. Rather, from his absorption of the sentiments of the heart of Christ in the seminary, Fr. McGivney deepened his capacity to unify others from Christ who intimated to his closest disciples his oneness with the Father, and who invited them to share in that oneness… “Father and I are one…” said he. The quiet authority of holiness enabled Fr. McGivney to unite his parish around Christ. Yes, he organized all kinds of events that helped to build parish spirit and community. Yet, at the heart of all these activities was a priest whose deepest desire was not that he people should admire him, but that they should love Christ and make Christ the unifying heart and soul of St. Mary’s Parish. Fr. McGivney knew that only Christ fully understands the aspirations of our hearts and that only Christ, in the Holy Spirit, can construct out of those aspirations a mosaic of love, a unified picture of holiness and goodness fashioned from the individual members of his parish family.
In founding the Knights of Columbus, Fr. McGivney demonstrated his ability to unify. He understood that, as a very young priest without a lot of status in the clerical world, he was attempting something hitherto untried. In choosing twelve men who were known as leaders, he must have realized that they had strong opinions and personalities, and that keeping his fledgling organization together would not be easy. And it wasn’t! Fr. McGivney had to deal with some very challenging personalities not to mention a barrage of criticism even from his brother priests. How easily he could have thrown up his hands and said, “This will never work!” What you and I have to put together in our minds is this: Although Fr. McGivney was not self-assertive, he was interiorly strong and possessed what a fellow priest called “an indomitable will”. He used that will not to impose himself upon others but to bring them together – to bring his fellow Knights together, sometimes in spite of themselves. And in this he teaches us that unity – that is – being and becoming unifiers – is not for the faint of heart – unifying a council, a district, a state takes persistence, patience, perseverance, and self-sacrifice. Believe it or not, there are among us still some strong personalities!
One thing Fr. McGivney never did was to purchase unity at the expense of truth. He dealt with others with the highest integrity and was not afraid to warn others, especially the young, of moral dangers. At the end of the day, those who overly concerned about their popularity & standing will not unify but rather divide, for they make themselves the issue, rather than the dignity of others and the common good.
Next to charity, the greatest need in our Church and in our world is unity. Centrifugal forces seem to be tearing apart both Church and society. As Knights of Columbus, each of us must seek to be a unifier, not at the expense of the truth but rather because we are rooted in truth and love. We must have the same patience, perseverance, and determination of Blessed Michael McGivney in bringing unity to our Order at every level and in making our Order a force for unity in both the Church and the world. This is no easy task but we, as the world’s largest lay Catholic organization, are uniquely qualified to undertake and it is urgent that we should do so.
The Principle of Fraternity
As if on cue, just at the moment of Fr. McGivney’s beatification, Pope Francis issued his beautiful encyclical on fraternity, Fratelli Tutti. In this beautiful reflection, Pope Francis points out what Fr. McGivney so profoundly understood and put into practice, namely, that we human beings are bound together by a common humanity and that, in Christ, we are all brothers and sisters.
Again, I daresay that Fr. McGivney learned this fundamental lesson at home, in the family, where virtue and respect are acquired. Here he learned about the dignity and fragility of human life, here he learned to love and respect his parents and siblings and to relate to the larger world with love and respect. Working side by side with others in a brass factory taught young McGivney a lot about human nature, just as working in a quarry and a chemical factory taught young Wojtyla, the future St. John Paul II, a lot about human nature and human brotherhood.
So too, in the seminary, as he contemplated the Incarnation of Christ, young Michael McGivney came to understand how the Eternal Son of God entered human history so as to become our brother in Christ and to make of us the adopted children of our heavenly Father. Drawing upon the wisdom and love found only in the heart of Christ, Fr. McGivney entered the priesthood with a profound respect for his parishioners. He was their priest; he was in a position of authority that he never compromised; but he was also their brother in the Lord and thus he treated each parishioner with patience, love, and unending respect, no matter how weary he may have been. Thus, we find him ministering with great devotion to his parishioners and especially to the poorest and most vulnerable among them. We can truly say that Fr. McGivney left no one behind… no brother, no sister in Christ, no one who came into his purview.
Small wonder that he founded a robust fraternal organization where men could be strengthened in their brotherly relationship with Christ and support one another in living their faith and their vocations. Small wonder that Father McGivney saw and answered the need for the men of his times and the men of our time to have a support system, a fraternal support system in being and becoming the men God is calling us to be. Fr. McGivney’s principle of fraternity was not a mere abstract idea. He was in fact a brother to his fellow priests, a brother to parishioners in need, a brother to his fellow Knights of Columbus and he is now calling on us to strengthen our brotherhood in the world of today. This means making the Knights into the most robust fraternity that we can – a source of friendship, companionship, that unites us as men and that unites of families in faith and friendship, but also a fraternity that rightly perceives every person as a brother and sister and is willing to leave no one of them behind, including the unborn, the frail elderly, the immigrant, the poor. In this way, we witness to Christ who came to us in our poverty and vulnerability to be both our Savior and our brother.
As this important meeting proceeds, dear brother Knights, please consider the importance of the beatification of our founder. Our principles are not abstract but are personified in our founder and thus they must be personified in us and in our brother Knights. This is how we embark on a new and glorious chapter in the history of our Order, by taking to heart what Blessed Michael Joseph McGivney exemplified by his life as a parish priest and as our visionary founder. May we be men of charity, unity, and fraternity, confident that if we become the men God is calling us to be, we can change the world!
God bless you and keep you in his love! Vivat Jesus!