Thank you, Worthy Supreme Knight! Even though I am a “Johnny-come-lately” to this particular meeting, this is one of my favorite Knights of Columbus meetings – when you come together as brother bishops and priests who serve the Order as State Chaplains for a time of priestly fraternity and to deep our understanding of what it means for us to walk in the footsteps of Fr. McGivney. And then to gather with our State Deputies, their wives and families, to discuss how we can work together more and more closely in order to grow the Order in every way – to increase membership but also to grow in strength as we live out the mission of the Knights of Columbus.
Brother chaplains, I understand you had a great session yesterday with our Worthy Supreme Knight – and you had a chance to discuss with the leader of our Order all kinds of things, including the very practical questions you face in working with Council chaplains in your respective jurisdictions as well as some of the challenges that face us in the political landscape in the various countries represented here. Are we not blessed to have such a great leader as our Worthy Supreme Knight?
And my warmest greetings to our State Deputies together with the Officers and Board Members of the Order. When you come together, you represent how our fellow Knights are living the principles of the Order – charity, fraternity, unity, and patriotism – You come with stories of brother knights and their families who put those principles into action in their parishes and communities, … men who are not just practical Catholics but really good Catholics who are really trying to live their faith on a daily basis and who find a lot of help in doing so because they members of the Order. We need to deal with the problems and challenges that we face – but we also need to hear stories of success – success the way the Gospel defines success – namely, fidelity to the truth and a holiness characterized by self-giving love. As you share those real-life stories with one another, that is one of the ways you will leave here more determined than ever to increase the membership in the Order …
II. The New Evangelization
During these days you will hear a lot about the New Evangelization and a lot about increasing the membership of the Order. I think the two things go together.
Fr. McGivney probably never used the words “new evangelization” but I think that’s exactly what he did. He was a priest who was deeply in love with Jesus Christ and he showed his love for Christ in the way he served as a parish priest. He sized up the actual situation of the people he was sent to serve. He sized up the culture of his day – marked by the influx of immigrants, many of whom were Catholics, the march of progress because of the industrial revolution, an America which was a place of opportunity yet flawed in the way some of its citizens were treated, including the new immigrants especially from Southern Europe, the poor and needy, the widow and the orphan, and, of course, Catholics and Catholicism were thought to be un-American.
Fr. McGivney accurately understood the context in which he was preaching the Gospel and knew that his efforts to bring people to Christ and to make them truly a part of the Body of Christ, the Church, wouldn’t succeed if he didn’t find a way to help people see how the Gospel and the Church’s sacraments were related to their everyday lives, to their joys and hopes but also to their sorrows and difficulties. And Fr. McGivney also knew he couldn’t do it alone. He needed helpers, he needed a strong right arm, and so he turned to the laity and formed a partnership with them, and that partnership we continue in our beloved Order, the Knights of Columbus.
Fr. McGivney didn’t invent a new Gospel for his people but he took the one Gospel that Jesus gave us all and brought it to his people in new and engaging ways mainly by giving fathers and breadwinners a means by which they could take ownership of their Catholic and put it into practice by a charity which springs from the Gospel – by giving them a means to help one another in time of trouble but also reaching out generously to the community all around them. It’s fair to say that, thanks to Fr. McGivney, the position of the Church in New Haven and beyond improved – it’s fair to say his ministry and the work of the pioneer Knights really helped to win for the Church a measure of acceptance that otherwise would not have happened.
III. More Than a Slogan
Somewhere in the Gospel Jesus tells us to go forth and bear fruit that will last. In his short life and ministry, Fr. McGivney did just that. We are still the beneficiaries of a ministry that lasted maybe 12 years yet continues to affect the lives of over 1.8 million men and their families and many more people who don’t know who Fr. McGivney was.
When we hear the words, “the New Evangelization” we might be tempted to think about it as a slogan or a new program or a gimmick that the Church is trying out in order to stem our losses and turn them around. I don’t think so. I don’t think any advertising agency or political campaign would ever use a word as long as “evangelization”! That should tell us something. This isn’t a gimmick or just a program that comes and goes. It’s what we do as Catholics. It’s who we are. It’s why the Church exists: to bring Christ to people and to bring people to Christ.
In our time together we’ll be talking about ways in which the Order will be living out the Year of Faith and I would encourage you, brother Chaplains and State Deputies, to take these suggestions seriously and to implement them back home as vigorously as you can. But this morning I want to back up and make another point. It’s not about evangelization as a program. It’s about the one thing we need for our evangelizing efforts to succeed. It’s called holiness.
IV. Universal Call to Holiness
As we study the life of Fr. McGivney, we can admire all the innovate things he did – including learning the insurance business and giving a formula for life insurance that has truly stood the test of time – for that alone he should be canonized!
But if we just admire what he did, we might miss something more important: who he was, the kind of person he was, the kind of priest he was. He was a man of prayer and holiness. Like most of you, dear brother priests, I was told in the seminary over and over again that every good priest must be on the road to holiness, that he has to pray each day, not just in public but in private, confess his sins, engage in penance, read the Scriptures prayerfully, grow in virtue, in a word, to live the Gospel that we hope to proclaim. But what made that lesson sink in for me was the example of priests who actually did those things and really grew in holiness. I have been blessed with many such priests in my life. I saw it in Bishop Curlin who was my vocation director when I was a seminarian. For a few summers, I lived in his rectory in downtown Washington, and I could see for myself how seriously he took the spiritual life but I could also see how that didn’t make him glum but joyful and generous – a really great preacher and a lover of the poor and the sick. I saw it in my seminary rector – the future Archbp. Harry Flynn. We knew he prayed because we’d see him in the chapel every day making a holy hour. And we knew he was holy because he put up with all of us – and when he’d preach or go out in public it was easy to see how people were attracted to him – because he was the genuine article.
We’ve spoken a few times in our gathering already about a charity that evangelizes; I guess I’d like to put in a word about a holiness that evangelizes. There’s something about being in touch with the Savior that enables all of us, even those of us who aren’t natural born stars, to radiate a truth and goodness that attracts others. If we’re the genuine article, then people will seek us out. I say this, brother priests, not because you don’t know it but because we’ve recently discovered that the Knights of Columbus is way for us to grow in priestly fraternity, in unity, in charity – Somehow I feel Fr. McGivney is reaching out to us all and calling us to become the priests that the Church needs in our day, in our time, in our place, – And in the process of following Fr. McGivney, we are called to attract to the Church those who are on the edge or over the edge, and to ignite the flame of faith in those who stick with the Church through thick and thin.
And I’m not forgetting our great State Deputies. On the back wall of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the I.C. in Washington, there is a huge marble relief – it’s about the last thing you see as you exit. If you look up there you’ll see the Holy Spirit’s radiating the glory of God (which is nothing other than His self-giving love) first and foremost on Mary, then saints of every age in the Church’s life. You will see Blessed John Paul II and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta but also many men and women who look like our contemporaries, who look like us. All of us are called to holiness, all of us are called to share God’s life and love.
The Order offers us excellent guidance for increasing membership and gives us at these meetings the opportunity to brainstorm, and to share what works well and what could be working better in the various jurisdictions that you represent. You have been urged to work hard on developing and implementing a strategic plan for each of your jurisdictions to increase membership and I join the Worthy Supreme Knight in urging you to do so. Yet, for any of it to work well, and in the spirit of Father McGivney and in the spirit of the New Evangelization, what is most needed from us as leaders of the Order is holiness. This means that we have internalized in faith that love of God which knows no bounds and which is expressed both in the charitable works of the Order and in the conduct of our personal lives.
In a time when so many people are so busy and in a time when so many have fallen prey to a culture that is hardened to God’s truth and love, there are a lot of people searching for something more, including a lot of husbands and fathers, who may be our neighbors, friends, fellow workers, erstwhile parishioners. What is going to attract them to the Order? Surely the works of the Order! Surely its tremendous charity! No doubt the spirit of volunteerism is a great plus, because our culture still values the notion of “giving back” by helping those in need. But we need to dig deeper.
What ultimately attracts a man to join the Knights of Columbus is that he perceives in us a critical difference, that something other, which we call holiness. That is what injects the spirit of Fr. McGivney and the New Evangelization in all that we say and do – when we take our own lives of faith seriously. That is why I am urging you really to take advantage of the Year of Faith and the programs which the Order has developed to observe the Year of Faith. There is a relationship between taking seriously our lives of faith and prayer and attracting men to join the Knights of Columbus. There is a relationship between practicing the New Evangelization, rooted in the four principles of the Order, and growth in membership in the Order.
If that is what is most important in our lives, then our motive for inviting new men into the Order will be one of Fr. McGivney’s prime motives for establishing the Order: to help men take ownership of their faith. As we look at the charitable works of the Order, we rightly ask: who won’t be served if we fail to invite and recruit new members? But as we look at the charitable works of the Order as a charity that evangelizes, we should also ask: who will be left behind in their lives of faith because we failed to recruit, to invite, to open new councils? We need to be Knights of Columbus missionaries, not just leaders of the Order.
V. A Partnership
To do this, we need to recognize that we need each other. That’s why State Chaplains and State Deputies are brought together each year. What an important meeting for our Order!
Fr. McGivney understood that clergy and laity need to work together, to form a partnership that is based on the Gospel, on growth in holiness. We priests are here to be at the service of the Gospel and while we priests are on the road to holiness with you, we are also here to be at the service of holiness, your holiess, and that of all our brother Knights.
This is the bond of fraternity and the source of our unity: our hearts are set in one direction, namely, towards Christ the Redeemer. This is why I hope you will continue to welcome the tireless efforts of Fr. Grace to support state and local chaplains and that you will encourage each council to implement the Year of Faith Council Action plan that is before you.
I want to offer a work of sincere thanks for the support I experience in my ministry as priest and bishop from you. When you offer words of encouragement, maybe regard the bishops’ efforts to defend religious liberty or a word of appreciation for the priesthood and your chaplains, you don’t know how much that means to me and to all of us.
My prayer is that the Lord will truly bless our Order in this Year of Faith that we may grow in numbers and in holiness, by embracing the faith professed, the faith celebrated, the faith lived, the faith prayed – to the glory of God, the good of our Order, and the salvation of souls.