Little could he have known that what he started four years after ordination with 24 laymen in the St. Mary's basement would, like a mustard seed, grow into a tree encompassing 1.9 million men in 17 countries, donating 75 million volunteer hours and $185 million annually to charity.
It was strangely fitting that the October 31 beatification of Father Michael McGivney, a parish priest of the then Diocese of Hartford and founder of the Knights of Columbus, was marked by COVID-19 restrictions, because Blessed Michael died during the coronavirus pandemic in 1890, which took one million lives. He joined a list of eleven American saints and five American beati raised to the altars.
I was privileged to be able to spend several hours praying before his relics on the day the Church solemnly substituted his beloved title "Father" with the celestial designation "Blessed." He is interred within St. Mary's Church in New Haven, where he spent the first seven of his 13 years as a priest, serving as a parochial vicar and where he founded the Knights in 1882.
I was at St. Mary's because I had been asked to preach at a young-adult vigil on Blessed Michael McGivney and the Call to Holiness. It was a fitting theme for All Hallows' Eve and Father McGivney was an apt guide.
I was moved -- as a diocesan priest and a Knight of Columbus -- to be in the sanctuary in which Blessed Michael brought Jesus Christ from heaven to earth, where he prayed for his people, led his people in adoration, celebrated so many baptisms and First Communions, heard countless confessions, prepared the young for the Pentecost of Confirmation, joined couples' hands in marriage, and presided at funerals.
It was particularly poignant to climb the pulpit, where, with what his parishioners remember as a "soft, pleasant voice" and "perfect diction," he shared Jesus' words of eternal life and helped people, including many initially non-Catholics who would come to hear him preach, to embrace the truth that sets us free.
I had a chance to speak about his extraordinary deeds of charity for the sick, widows, orphans and those on death row. He founded the Knights of Columbus as a means to institutionalize his pastoral solicitude for families that had lost a breadwinner as well as to form the men of his parish to keep and transmit the faith. Little could he have known that what he started four years after ordination with 24 laymen in the St. Mary's basement would, like a mustard seed, grow into a tree encompassing 1.9 million men in 17 countries, donating 75 million volunteer hours and $185 million annually to charity.
Just like the abiding patrimony of a dad or mom is in his or her kids and grandkids and the greatest legacy of the founder of a religious order is his or her spiritual sons or daughters, so Blessed Michael's greatest fruits are in the quality of men found in the Knights. I would like to focus on two.
The first is Daniel Schachle, whose son was healed in utero through the intercession of Blessed Michael in the miracle that led to the beatification. When Daniel and his wife Michelle -- then parents of 12 children and five more who had died before birth -- were informed after an ultrasound that their son had Down Syndrome, they received the news as a blessing. Later, however, their doctor discovered that he had fetal hydrops, which in most cases is fatal. The doctor suggested there was no hope and that if they terminated the life of their child, it would not "really" be abortion since the child was going to die anyway.
Daniel, who not only is a Knight but works for the Knights in Nashville, instead turned with faith and hope to Father McGivney, promising that if he prayed for their son, they would name Michael, even though they had already settled on a family name. After asking their family members and friends to pray through Father McGivney's intercession, they went on a pilgrimage they had won to Rome, Fatima, and Spain, perseveringly praying for a miracle. When they returned, they were told, to the amazement of doctors, that their child would live. Mikey was born on May 15, 133 years to the day on which Father McGivney chartered the first Council of the Knights of Columbus.
The night before the beatification, Daniel gave a testimony at St. Mary's Church about the miracle. His words conveyed the type of ordinary heroic faith found and formed in so many Knights of Columbus.
Mikey, he said, "was born to a Knights of Columbus family ... that had a long-standing devotion to Father McGivney. We had even named our home school 'Father McGivney Academy' over a decade ago. We've worked together as a family on Tootsie Roll drives, Special Olympics, food drives, other KOC charity events, and caring for widows and orphans."
Turning to the miracle, he said, "We are so humbled by this extra grace from heaven. We didn't deserve it. We just kept trying to do what we thought God would want."
Then he got to the heart of the loving, holy generosity with which he and Michelle have lived their marriage.
"I have wondered since this happened," he said, "what if we had decided to tell God that we thought we needed to stop at 2, 4, 8 or even 10 children? We certainly had friends and even clergy along the way who suggested as much. But we can't imagine life without Mikey and now God is working through his story to bless the whole Church."
The other example is Andrew Walther.
The main prayer intention I brought to Father McGivney's tomb on Halloween was for Andrew, a 45-year-old friend of mine who had been vice president for communications and strategic planning for the Knights before being appointed president and chief operating officer of EWTN News in June. Andrew and I had worked together closely in support of the persecuted Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere and on other projects to strengthen the Church.
Andrew had been diagnosed in July with an aggressive leukemia. Within two weeks, in circumstances that seemed miraculous, he had recovered. The week before the beatification, however, the leukemia returned, and his situation was grave. I knelt at Blessed Michael's tomb beseeching another miracle. Many others at St. Mary's that night were doing the same.
The miracle for which we were asking didn't come. God came for Andrew on All Saints Day. I returned to St. Mary's the following Saturday to preside at his funeral in the presence of his wife Maureen, their four young children and many grieving family and friends.
Andrew was a true Knight. He made those around him better, bolder, wiser, and humbler. He cared for those falling through the cracks, especially Christians persecuted in far off lands. His work for and among these heroic believers made him even more intrepid both with regard to the causes for which he was fighting as well as to the holy grit with which he waged the battle against leukemia.
He was chivalrous to the last, refusing to let his life be taken from him, but like Christ, freely laying it down for God and others (Jn 10:18). He was a living example of St. Paul's valedictory as he fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith -- in a way that taught those who knew him how to fight better, run with greater urgency, and keep the faith, like him, by trying to preserve and proclaim it.
Many have remarked that we are experiencing today a crisis of manliness and especially an undermining of spiritual fatherhood. In Daniel Schachle and Andrew Walther, we see how the Knights of Columbus are forming valiant men, true sons of Father McGivney, to respond to that need.
- Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See's Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations.