A portrait of of Blessed Michael McGivney, founder of the Knights of Columbus, is displayed during a prayer vigil at St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Conn., Oct. 30, 2020, the eve of his beatification. CNS photo/courtesy Knights of Columbus

Knights of Columbus founder a witness for the world

  • March 25, 2021

The story of Blessed Fr. Michael McGivney, founder of the Knights of Columbus, is being retold to ensure that Catholics everywhere know of the immigrant son who heralded the birth of a modern Catholic Church before a deadly pandemic took him in 1890 — two days after his 38th birthday.

In a pair of half-hour documentaries available online at frmcgivney.org, the Knights of Columbus are telling the story of a son of immigrants who ministered to despised and excluded Irish migrants, who embraced a multicultural Church by going to Montreal for a significant part of his education in French, who confronted an epidemic of substance abuse head on, who believed in the role and dignity of lay people at a time when many believed only priests could act on behalf of the Church and who understood his parish not as his job and his domain but as existing to serve the common life and faith of parishioners, who have a right and duty to run their own affairs.

The two short documentaries by Emmy Award-winning director David Naglieri are called Blessed Michael McGivney and A Witness For The World. They include significant participation by a number of Canadians, including Quebec Archbishop Cardinal Gérald Lacroix and half a dozen Canadian Knights of Columbus interviewed for the cameras.

Already subtitled in Spanish and Polish, the films will soon be available in French.

Pope Francis declared McGivney Blessed — one step shy of full sainthood — last October, after acceptance of the miraculous in-utero healing of a child with Down Syndrome, a boy who would be named Michael McGivney Schachle. The films are part of a campaign to encourage devotion to McGivney, back his cause for sainthood and renew Knights of Columbus membership, said Ontario State Deputy of the Knights David Peters.

“We are trying to encourage people (Knights) to be visible out there, so that people will join our ranks,” he said. “To serve, to give back to the Church, to give back for the many blessings with which we have been blessed through our lifetimes.”

Peters is frank about the problem faced by Canadian Knights. The average age of members is 67 and “many of the members are much older — 80-plus,” he said.

But Peters believes if people better understood McGivney and the laity-focused spirituality he encouraged and defined, plus the wide, international footprint of the Knights who are active in 16 countries, more and younger men would be attracted.

The Knights exist “to realize their full potential as men, as fathers, as friends and disciples,” he said. “We are a dedicated group of men. We try to live out our faith at home, at work, in our churches, in our parish and in our community.”

Knights of Columbus fundraising and volunteering have played a significant role in the Canadian Church, where there are more than 200,000 Knights from coast to coast. Canadian Knights helped fund Pope John Paul II’s 1984 visit to Canada and they put $1 million into the 2002 World Youth Day in Toronto. They put another $1 million up for the 49th International Eucharistic Congress in Quebec City in 2008. Then there’s the $1 million fund that helps fund the work of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

But the Knights’ vision of the Church extends far beyond the walls of their churches. They’ve been donating wheelchairs for disabled people in Mexico, Central America, South America and Haiti for years. They have helped finance the Special Olympics in Canada. They have been key supporters of the annual March for Life in Ottawa.

“We continue, OK, in (McGivney’s) vision as Catholic gentlemen,” said Peters.

There are two million Knights worldwide and in 2019 they contributed more than 77 million volunteer hours to their local communities. They also raised $235 million for charitable purposes.

As a young priest, McGivney set up the Knights as a mutual aid society among Irish immigrants. They were to care for the widows and orphans of their members who died, often working in difficult and dangerous, low-wage jobs and denied life insurance by a Protestant establishment that looked down on them.

Based in New Haven, Conn., the Knights developed a life insurance business today valued at nearly $145 billion in life insurance policies in force. The investment services arm has $33 billion in assets under management.

After McGivney’s death from tuberculosis, the Catholic men’s group expanded rapidly, establishing its first Canadian council in Montreal in 1897.

While celebration of McGivney’s beatification has been muted by COVID restrictions, the Michael McGivney Guild — which exists to spread devotion to the American blessed — now has over 177 million members worldwide.

“He’s definitely a saint in the eyes of so many,” said Daniel Torchia, a Knight whose company, Torchia Communications, is promoting the new documentaries.

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