Many Catholics may not know much about the Knights of Columbus beyond the color guard that marches at certain Masses and holiday parades. Or the pancake breakfasts. Some may think they are an ancient military order.
Still more don’t know the remarkable story of Fr. Michael Joseph McGivney, an American parish priest who founded the Knights in the late 19th century, and who was recently approved by Pope Francis for beatification, one step short of sainthood.
“To many we’re the guys with the feathery hats and Captain Crunch uniforms,” Rene Sepulveda, Orange County chapter president, said of the Knights with a laugh. “It goes a lot deeper.”
Founded in 1882 in the basement of a New Haven, Conn. parish, the Knights have flourished and grown into an international organization with 2 million members in more than 16,000 councils. Orange County alone has 70 councils.
Knight activities range from small local parish events, to international disaster relief, to advocacy for public policy efforts supported by the Church.
The Diocese of Orange recently recognized the Knights of Columbus and McGivney with a two-day celebration, Oct. 30-31.
At a special Mass, the Knights introduced 15 new members with a celebration, called an exemplification of charity, unity and fraternity. Members were joined and blessed by Bishop Kevin Vann.
The next day the bishop and Christ Cathedral played host to an event in the Arboretum that included a live-stream broadcast of the Mass for Beatification for Fr. McGivney from St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Hartford, Conn.
A REMARKABLE LIFE
Fr. Al Baca, director of Evangelization and Faith Formation for the Diocese of Orange, spoke to about 100-150 in attendance and shared some of Fr. McGivney’s life story.
“One of the things I talked about was what an inspiration it is that in such a short time he could do so much, something that lasted beyond his earthly life,” Baca said.
Fr. McGivney only lived to the age of 38, dying in 1890 from a flu epidemic that killed more than 1 million worldwide.
But in that time, the son of an Irish immigrant brass mill worker established a legacy that made him a towering figure in American Catholicism.
While an assistant minister at St. Mary’s Church, McGivney led a group of male parishioners in founding the Knights of Columbus, which is now the world’s largest Catholic fraternal organization.
Beyond his accomplishments, McGivney has a particular relevance in modern times. Seven of McGivney’s 12 younger siblings died before reaching adulthood, during a time when immigrant access to healthcare was limited, work was often hazardous and low-paying and racism was widespread.
The death of a head of household and primary wage earner in immigrant families could be particularly devastating and put enormous strain on widows and orphans. The Knights were created as a mutual aid and fraternal insurance organization. Knights of Columbus insurance continues to this day and carries more than $100 billion in life insurance policies.
“Today priests face similar situations with COVID and people dying,” Sepulveda said. “There are similar situations that are parallel in parish life.”
“Father McGivney was a noble pastor looking out for his flock,” said Jeffry Rice, a district deputy for Orange County and half-grand knight, who organized the October celebration in Orange County.
ON PATH TO SAINTHOOD
The Archdiocese of Hartford took up the cause for canonization for Fr. McGivney in 1997 with the assistance of the Fr. McGivney Guild, which now has 150,000 members.
He is the third priest born in the United States to be beatified, and the first to spend his whole priestly ministry in a U.S. parish, according to the McGivney Guild.
The pope’s apostolic letter read in part, McGivney’s “zeal for the proclamation of the Gospel and generous concern for the needs of his brothers and sisters made him an outstanding witness of Christian solidarity and fraternal assistance.”
McGivney was given the title Venerable Servant of God by Pope Benedict in 2008.
To be beatified and declared “blessed,” an approved miracle was attributed to Fr. McGivney.
In 2015, a Tennessee family prayed that Fr. McGivney intercede and be the miracle for their still unborn son, who was diagnosed with fetal hydrops with zero chance of living more than a few days or weeks. The boy, named Michael, although he has Down syndrome, is now five years old and healthy.
Typically, a second approved miracle is needed for canonization. There is no timetable if or when that may occur or be recognized.
KNIGHTS STILL FLOURISH
As an organization, the Knights of Columbus are spread far and wide.
“They’re one of the few men’s Christian groups that have flourished beyond the U.S.,” Fr. Baca said. “The work they do is so diverse. They search out needs and respond to them. At the parish level they are tremendously valuable. They are one of the first groups to respond and joyfully respond. I think one of their challenges is to make themselves better known and obvious.”
When created, the Knights of Columbus was a secret organization. Until this year, initiations were private and there was a lengthy process through the four basic levels: fraternity, unity, charity and patriotism. At the Orange County ceremony, families and the public could, following health protocols, attend the ceremony.
Sepulveda said the two-day observance in conjunction with McGivney’s beatification was especially meaningful.
“This really put things into perspective,” he said, “especially with who he was and what he did and the idea and ideals of the Knights.”