Blessed Michael McGivney: A light in the depth of the mines

The Knights of Columbus founder’s heroic vision to help 19th century Irish immigrants

In the late 1800s, it became common for many Catholic working men of different ages to dust off their dirty clothes after a hard day’s work at the mines or railroads and attend something more than a meeting – a brotherhood that had brought hope in their suffering, acceptance in rejection, and unity amid division.  

While few could get a glimpse of the hidden desires of the Irish and immigrant families that came to America in the 19th century, a young holy priest from a small town in Connecticut saw them clearly and responded heroically. His name: Father Michael McGivney; his response: The Knights of Columbus. 

The son of Irish immigrants, whose beatification took place Oct. 31, is considered by many a model priest with a penetrating vision and a burning desire to lead his flock to holiness, a view that anticipated the Second Vatican Council by nearly a century. The Knights of Columbus began as a small idea for his parishioners, but it quickly spread across the nation. Nearly a century and half later, its impact around the world and in our very own state of Colorado cannot be overlooked. 

“Father McGivney’s vision is still transforming people’s lives throughout the world… His vision in 1882 has expanded immensely, and today there’s more than two million men who belong to this organization around the world,” said Christopher Foley, Colorado State Deputy of the Knights of Columbus. “It’s kind of amazing to think about the fast growth [of the organization]. Originally Father McGivney had intended this program for his parish, but quickly other priests recognized the value of what he had created, and other councils started growing outside of the Connecticut area, [arriving in] Colorado in 1900.” 

To understand the Knights of Columbus and their founder, one must grasp the context and lives of Catholic immigrants of the time. 

“The social setting in Connecticut when he was growing up was outright hostile toward Catholics,” Foley said. 

Catholic immigrants were at the very bottom of the social ladder and faced constant discrimination for their lack of education, poverty and for the stigma of holding greater allegiance to the Pope than to the president. In people’s eyes, they couldn’t be both Catholic and American.  

Growing up in this environment and being the first of 13 children, McGivney left for seminary at the age of 16, but his father’s death would soon force him to return home to provide for his family. The time he spent working, however, left a deep mark in the young man that would later bear its fruit in his priestly ministry. 

“The experiences of being part of a big family and his work set him up to be a very compassionate and understanding man. They prepared him with a unique perspective that helped his priesthood,” Foley assured. “He knew the diversity of personalities and the demands on people’s time as they tried to achieve their goals.” 

From his first years as a priest, Father McGivney sought to make the church the center of community life for families. He organized outings for youth and baseball games. He also visited the imprisoned and was beloved by the guards. 

Such close contact with his parishioners helped him better understand the constant challenges they faced daily.  

One such difficulty came when the man of the family, who was often the sole provider, died, a common occurrence due to the nature of immigrants’ hard manual work. The family would lose everything, and unless the widow could prove that she had enough financial resources, the state would take her children and place them in institutional homes. Care for widows would thus become an essential part of the Knights of Columbus. 

Yet Father McGivney’s idea of founding a community of lay brothers had a lot to do with the popularity of numerous secret societies that were mainly anti-Catholic and would lure men from the faith. 

“Young and middle-aged Catholics were also looking for societies to belong to that gave them a common brotherhood,” Foley said. “Father McGivney built an organization that had the fraternal aspect, but without the discrimination and secrecy common in other societies.” 

When the young priest founded the Knights of Columbus in 1882, he envisioned a brotherhood that would lead its members to Christ and help them provide for their families spiritually and materially. He wanted to keep families Catholic. 

As explained in the documentary “Father McGivney: An American Blessed,” the organization “was named for Columbus, the most celebrated Catholic figure at the time, and one whose name would help make the case that Catholics could be good American citizens as well.” 

The four principles of the Knights thus became charity, unity, fraternity and later patriotism. 

Knights of Columbus hand out coats to the homeless in Lincoln Park in front of the Colorado Capitol building on November 20, 2019, in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

Father McGivney’s journey would end at the early age of 38, after a serious case of pneumonia during the pandemic of 1889 and 1890, but his legacy would endure, and the order would arrive in Colorado 18 years after its foundation. 

Founded in 1900, the Denver Council 539 is the oldest council in the western part of the country. Thanks to the fervent Knight John H. Reddin, the order quickly spread to Pueblo, Colorado Springs and to the Rockies, reaching Grand Junction, and then north to Fort Collins. 

“I couldn’t say what exactly led him to some of those places in Colorado, but I’m sure there were priests seeking him out wanting something to get their men active again in the Church and have an organization that was available to take care of survivors,” Foley said. 

Currently there are 150 active units in various parishes across the state. Just in 2019, the Colorado Knights raised and donated $2.2 million to charitable organizations and causes and volunteered a total of 725,000 hours of service to communities and Church activities. 

Caring for people at all stages of life, the Knights of Columbus have worked hard to defend the sanctity of life. They’ve been involved in numerous pro-life efforts and have provided 30 ultrasounds to different clinics to respect life before birth. For years, they have helped the elderly and families in difficult situations by providing food and winter coats. 

“When we go out and do these things, we’re serving the people, regardless of their nationality or religion or ethnicity – we’re doing it because that’s what God wants us to do,” Foley said. 

Pope Benedict XIV considered Father McGivney “a key figure in ‘the impressive growth of the Church in the United States.’” 

“I think people should know that Father McGivney has had a global impact. He was years ahead of his time in his thinking on how to satisfy the need that he saw in young men,” Foley concluded. “He gave to men, so that men could give back to others and to the Church.” 

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.