The founder of the largest Catholic men’s organization in the world, started in the U.S. but now active worldwide, was the theme of a book presentation in Vatican City.
The book “Il Parroco: Padre McGivney and American Catholicism” (Parish Priest: Father McGivney and American Catholicism) by Douglas Brinkley and Julie Fenster, tells of how the priest from the Protestant town of New Haven, Connecticut, home to Yale University, helped struggling 19th-century Catholic families in the face of discrimination and social challenges, and, in 1882, founded America’s largest Catholic men’s organization, the Knights of Columbus.
The launching of the book’s Italian edition took place at Rome’s Patristic Institute Augustinianum and was organized by Libreria Editrice Vaticana (LEV). It was held Tuesday night in Vatican City.
Among those speaking were the Knights of Columbus Supreme Knight, Dr. Carl Anderson, and Professor Kevin Coyne of Columbia University’s School of Journalism, in New York, who also is the author of a forthcoming book on the Knights of Columbus.
Anderson spoke to ZENIT about the Parish of St. Mary’s in New Haven, where the order was born, and gave some historical background. He said that “McGivney was no ordinary priest, he accomplished no ordinary feat, and lived in no ordinary time,” because “this Catholic priest rose to great things” against the “backdrop of a culture that often was hostile to the Catholic faith.”
Not only did he help 19th-century immigrants trying to live out their faith, but McGivney’s vision has increased in relevance today, he said, as he founded, even before Rerum Novarum launched the Social Doctrine of the Church, a “lay Catholic organization that would be dedicated to both the spiritual and temporal well being of its members, and would provide charity to those on the margins of society.”
Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis have all lauded the contributions of McGivney. To illustrate, he noted that when Pope Benedict spoke in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York during his 2008 visit, he said that, “Fr. McGivney not only was an ‘examplary American priest,’ but also a model to all priests.’”
Likewise, Anderson noted that Benedict’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II promoted the efforts of the Knights as he stressed the role of the laity. For instance, John Paul II said that “the renewal of the Church, wouldn’t be possible without the active presence of the laity,” and therefore, the laity is “largely responsible for the future of the Church.”
Lastly, Pope Francis also has helped realize McGivney’s dream, as he has helped lead the Church ahead. Francis’ efforts in the realms of “charity, evangelization, and protection of families,” as well as his emphasis on “fraternity” resonate deeply with the Knights, whose some 1.8 million members reach out globally with charitable initiatives.
Helping each other
Professor Coyne shared with ZENIT that, “When Father McGivney started the Knights of Columbus in 1882, America was a predominantly Protestant nation that, in many places and many ways, openly discriminated against Catholics. The Catholic Church itself in America had nothing like the power and prestige it had in Europe.”
He noted, however, that “Father McGivney’s idea was to enlist laymen more directly in the cause — a fraternal society that would help Catholics take care of each other, do works of charity for others, and advance the Church in the United States.”
Despite its “slow start,” he said it eventually spread across the nation, and into other nations, too. “The Catholic Church needed that extra help in America, and that’s what Father McGivney should be remembered for — coming up with a way to provide that help. For the rest of the world, his message is the power of the laity to help do the work of the Church,” Coyne stressed.
In closing, the participants explored the legacy of Fr. McGivney, and noted that despite the Protestant resistance in New Haven, the day that Fr. McGivney died, his funeral drew more people than for anyone else in the town’s history.