Archbishop Lori’s Homily: Blessed Michael McGivney: Model Parish Priest

Blessed Michael McGivney: Model Parish Priest
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
December 11, 2022


A newspaper clipping survives that describes the sermon which a Dominican priest delivered at Father McGivney’s funeral Mass. It says that “Father Higgins’ remarks occupied about forty minutes… … and many were moved to tears.” If I were to speak for forty minutes this afternoon there would not be tears but desperation.

So, in the space of this talk, dear friends, I will simply offer an introduction to Blessed Michael McGivney’s life as a priest. As you know, Father McGivney lived in the second half of the 19th century. He was a parish priest in New Haven, CT and founder of the Knights of Columbus. Three years ago, he was beatified by Pope Francis and many are praying earnestly that he will soon be canonized. If so, he would be the first parish priest in the United States to be declared a saint. In these days when the priests are often the object of so much criticism, what a joy it would be if, in God’s Providence, that were to happen.

Formation for the Priesthood

Every day every priest thinks about his formation for the priesthood. That is why Father McGivney’s journey to the priesthood resonates. Michael McGivney came to the priesthood from an Irish immigrant family that made its way to these United States in hope of a better life. Life was not easy for such families. Many toiled in factories and most lived with at least a measure of social opprobrium. The future Fr. McGivney, not unlike St. John Paul II, learned on the way to priesthood what it is like to labor in difficult if not downright dangerous conditions, thus giving him firsthand experience of what his future parishioners had to endure. Yet immigrant families, such as the McGivney’s, persevered, not for themselves but for those who would come after them. From such families new generations of priests were called. Indeed, I stand before you today as the grandson of an immigrant.

By most standards, Father McGivney’s path to the priesthood was complicated. It was interrupted by the death of his father. It was carried out partially in Canada and partially in the United States. He was formed for the priesthood by seminary faculties drawn from the ranks of the diocesan priesthood, the Vincentians, the Jesuits, and the Sulpicians. This alone must have broadened his vision of the Church and priestly ministry. The future Father McGivney completed his formation for the priesthood here in Baltimore, at St. Mary’s Seminary, then located on Paca Street … and if you go to St. Mary’s Spiritual Center on Paca Street, you can visit the chapel where Michael McGivney prayed as a seminarian. He excelled in his studies but even more, he excelled in piety and friendship. When priests and seminarians read about his years in the seminary, those of us who are priest would like to imagine that Michael McGivney would have been not only our classmate and our teammate, but indeed our friend.

He was ordained a priest here in the Basilica Cathedral of the Assumption, by then-Archbishop James Gibbons, just days before Christmas in 1877 . . . so I always feel close to Fr. McGivney. He was ordained into a growing Church that manifestly welcomed newcomers. Archbishop Gibbons believed that Divine Providence would see to it that the Church in America would experience even greater growth in years to come. He was right, of course, and Father McGivney proved to be an extraordinary instrument of Divine Providence in seeing to the growth of the Church in this country and beyond.

First Years as a Priest

Almost every priest remembers his first assignment vividly; I am no exception. One’s final year in the seminary and one’s first year as a priest are vastly different. How true that must have been when Fr. McGivney arrived at St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, CT., in 1878, to begin his first priestly assignment. The pastor of St. Mary’s, Fr. Murphy, at the young age of 32, was seriously ill. He had built a beautiful church but it was buried in debt and that took its toll on him. Within six months of ordination, Fr. McGivney was, in effect, serving as pastor.

Stories survive about his ability to relate to young people; he was skilled as a catechist for younger children and made a deep impression on teenagers and young adults. Today everyone talks a lot about the importance youth ministry. Fr. McGivney, as usual, didn’t theorize. He simply did it and did it well. While the texts of his sermons cannot be found, we know he was a good homilist. A blind man, a beggar, who was not a Catholic, used to come to St. Mary’s every Sunday to hear “that voice” – By all accounts Fr. McGivney’s was a soft-spoken voice with perfect diction. “That voice” filled St. Mary’s Sunday after Sunday with the living word of God. And it also fell to Fr. McGivney as a young priest to do many other things such as organizing the parish picnic, and this he did, replete with a baseball game and something for everyone, it seems. Like many parish priests today, Father McGivney shouldered a lot of responsibility in his first years as a priest and did so gracefully and effectively.

I like to think that Fr. McGivney’s priesthood models the teaching of recent Popes. St. John Paul II said that the priest’s personality must be a bridge to Christ, and indeed Fr. McGivney’s unassuming, lighthearted, yet determined character attracted many to the Catholic faith and to St. Mary’s Church. When Pope Francis tells priests to acquire “the smell of the sheep” and “to bring the Gospel to the margins of society” – I think of Fr. McGivney. He loved the priesthood deeply and lived it for others, including widows, orphans, and outcasts. He attended the trial of Chip Smith who was convicted, visited him in prison almost daily, offered Mass for him before he died, and accompanied him to the gallows. As a contemporary, Edward Downes said of Fr. McGivney, “He was a man of the people.” And in this age when we speak so much about evangelization, Fr. McGivney went out into the community and brought many to St. Mary’s Parish, transforming it from the smallest parish in New Haven to one of the largest. Above all, this young priest “read the signs of the times” in seeing the need for a fraternal organization of men, led by the men themselves, that would strengthen their faith and provide for the financial security of their families.

The Knights

Thus, in 1882, Father McGivney founded the Knights of Columbus. With only 12 men in the basement of St. Mary’s Church, he laid the foundation for what would become the largest lay organization in the Catholic Church today – number more than 2 million members. He founded it to be a mutual support society (life insurance company) for families that were left in dire financial straits due to the premature death of the breadwinner – a common occurrence back then. But he also founded it to help the men of his parish to embrace their faith and to live their vocation as husbands and fathers.

At the heart of this enterprise were three principles – charity, unity, and fraternity, and later, a fourth was added, namely, patriotism. Fr. McGivney did not invent the principles of the Order, charity, unity, and fraternity – Rather, he drew them from the heart of the Gospel he knew so well. They serve as a summary of the Gospels, the Good News in brief, if you will, a basis for understanding who God is, who Jesus is, the role of Mary, what it means to belong to the Church and share in its mission of faith, worship, and service. These principles sum up the way of life that flows from encountering the Lord and embracing our faith.

Today I’d like to take that observation a step further. Fr. McGivney did not merely have a knack for synthesizing the Gospel, that is, for reducing it to three or four principles. No, he lived the Order’s principles before he taught them to the founding members of the Knights of Columbus. These men would not have committed to the principle of charity had they not seen in Fr. McGivney a man of tireless pastoral charity, who reflected God’s love through acts of personal generosity and compassion. They would not have committed to the principle of unity had they not seen how Fr. McGivney unified St. Mary’s Parish and how he served as a source of unity in the wider community of New Haven. Nor would they have committed to the principle of fraternity had they not seen how Fr. McGivney was not only the father but also the brother to his parishioners and indeed to anyone in need. What St. John Chrysostom said in the 5th century was true of Fr. McGivney in the 19th: “Martyrs, he said, “die only once for Jesus Christ while the pastor must die daily for his flock.”


The psalmist tells us that 70 is the sum of our years or 80 if we are strong. Fr. McGivney lived a mere 38 years and served as a priest for only 13. Yet what good and lasting fruit his priestly ministry has borne – the good and lasting fruit of discipleship so evident in the Knights of Columbus, nearly 2 million strong, united in a brotherhood of charity that evangelizes.

At the end of his life, in 1890, Fr. McGivney was deeply influencing the 5,000 Knights who belonged to some fifty-one councils in Connecticut and Rhode Island. Today, some 132 years later, his influence has grown exponentially. Not only does his example shape an Order of nearly 2 million men and their families, his prayers inspire us and drive the mission of the Order forward.

For my part, as chaplain, Fr. McGivney is my parish priest, the parish priest of my soul. Every morning I pray to him and I pray that he be canonized, as I hope you will. Every day I load his plate with all kinds of intentions – some are personal, some pertain to the Order, and some to my ministry in Baltimore. How earnestly we should pray for him to be raised to the dignity of the altars. With what confidence should we make our own the sentiments of Knights of Columbus Board of Directors at the time of Father McGivney’s death: “For the seeds of Charity, Unity, and Brotherly Love, by him sown among us, let our thanksgiving rise. In our prosperity let us ask God to reward him with eternal happiness for his labors and his devotion to our cause…” Vivat Jesus!

Archbishop William E. Lori

Archbishop William E. Lori was installed as the 16th Archbishop of Baltimore May 16, 2012.

Prior to his appointment to Baltimore, Archbishop Lori served as Bishop of the Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn., from 2001 to 2012 and as Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Washington from 1995 to 2001.

A native of Louisville, Ky., Archbishop Lori holds a bachelor's degree from the Seminary of St. Pius X in Erlanger, Ky., a master's degree from Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg and a doctorate in sacred theology from The Catholic University of America. He was ordained to the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Washington in 1977.

In addition to his responsibilities in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Archbishop Lori serves as Supreme Chaplain of the Knights of Columbus and is the former chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty.