Parish Priest: Father Michael McGivney and American Catholicism

Authors: Douglas Brinkley and Julie M. Fenster
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Publication Date: 2006

Parish Priest book cover

“His life, however, was not described by great occasions or grand gestures. His was the humility of moments, and the power beheld in the lightest of touches” (202). These lines at the end of this great book describe the life of Father Michael McGivney but may make some wonder why there is a biography of him. McGivney is the founder of the Knights of Columbus, a group for men in the Catholic Church which today numbers nearly 2 million men. But the authors don’t focus so much on that aspect as they use McGivney as an example of American Catholicism in the 19th century. More importantly, they give us insight in the role of the parish priest.

They bring alive the Connecticut atmosphere and connect it with the overall status of priests at the time to give a sense of what life would be like for these servants of God. While it makes no claims to be an overview of all American Catholicism during that time period, the book shows what it was like in the established East Coast and, surprisingly, recognizes the demands that parish priests face today.

McGivney becomes a priest after some of the more violent actions toward Catholics have subsided in the U.S., but prejudice against him because of his faith is something he shares with all his parishioners. In addition, we see how the Irish Catholics supplement the shortage of priests by importing priests from their homeland. McGivney is American born and goes through an educational process similar to today when a diocese directs their future priests to certain seminaries. It is this mix of Irish priests trying to connect with a more diverse parish that pushes McGivney from a quiet priest to one determined to meet people where they live. Before this priests were expected to spend most of their time on church grounds, but McGivney and others realize they need to reach out to people.

Father McGivney
Father McGivney (not looking as friendly as everyone says he was!)

Right out of seminary he is put into a church with an ailing head priest and a mountain of debt, which he works at reducing but will never fully succeed at doing. The ailing priest is not an old priest, just another worn-out priest. The authors note that over a 12-year span the Hartford diocese had 83 priests. During the same time, 70 priests died, creating an 85% turnover rate. Why? While priests were exposed to more disease than most, they were also greatly overworked and had little, if any, time off. The authors note that most priests knew they would not live to be 50 years old, but to be fair we have to realize the average lifespan at that time was around 42 years. McGivney had just turned 38 when he died. Yet in the midst of all that, McGivney started yet another project with the Knights of Columbus.

Men’s groups were very popular during this time and many of them contributed funds in an early version of life insurance for widows and children. McGivney saw that many Catholic men were becoming more involved in these groups than the church, so he created the Knights as a way to offer a group that followed Catholic teaching yet created the same benefits for its members. In this, he was more successful than he would ever realize. Here I would like the authors to spend more time on this history because what is presented is so negative it is a surprise the Knights survived. Clearly, we are missing something.

Steps to Sainthood infographic

There is now an official process underway for McGivney to be considered for sainthood. Since the book was published in 2006, Pope Benedict XVI declared McGivney “Venerable” in 2008. Catholics may now seek his intercession in prayers and if a miracle is attributed to him, he moves on to be called “Blessed.” This can be a long process, but if it occurs he would be the first American-born parish priest to be canonized.

Whether he is canonized or not (and the book takes no stand on that) McGivney is a priest worth reading about and this book is an excellent look into his life and American Catholicism in the late 19th century. If you are interested, you can visit the Knights of Columbus site to learn more about the group McGivney founded.

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