by Patrick B. McGuigan
Time marches on. I’m reflective as I honor anew Father Michael J. McGivney, the founder of the Knights of Columbus.
For me, the Christmas season lingers in memories as this challenging Year advances in America, in the world, and in the liturgical life of the Church. After what many American Catholics called “the Longest Lent,” we are hopeful, yet cautious, about the future. Surely that is an ordinary reaction.
On Jan. 1, we Catholics honored Mary, the Mother of Jesus. At Epiphany, we recalled the moment when Our Lord’s Kingship was manifested in the adoration of the Magi. Then, at the Baptism of the Lord in January, the Church remembered how the pure and sinless One insisted on the same Baptism required for the Salvation of we poor sinners.
In such days, contemplation of human dignity and awe over Divine purpose naturally blend in the minds of believers.
Then, came “ordinary time,” those weeks before what the Orthodox and Eastern rite Catholics call “the Great Lent,” a time of conscious repentance, of turning back to the One who made us.
At last came, even in Pandemic Time, Easter and the Sundays of Easter and the Feasts of spring – St. Catherine of Siena, and the Ascension of the Lord.
In the midst of this terrible virus, on Ascension Sunday many Catholics hereabouts attended Holy Mass for the first time since March.
Still to come is Pentecost, Holy Trinity, the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi), the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Then, it will be back to “Ordinary Time” in the Church Calendar.
But what is “ordinary?” In “Parish Priest,” the masterful biography of the life of Father Michael J. McGivney, what stands out is how “ordinary” the founder of the Knights of Columbus really was.
This gentle historical biography, by Douglas Brinkley and Julie M. Fenster, was published in 2006. It tells McGivney’s life story in simple, ordinary words that build to something … more.
Michael McGivney came from a large Irish Catholic family, a quite ordinary thing in Nineteenth Century America, and was animated by passionate devotion to the Holy Family.
After ordination, he was a devoted priest, most notably at St. Mary’s parish in New Haven, Connecticut. He gave ordinary sermons emphasizing core teachings of the Catholic faith. Few remembered him for soaring rhetoric or dramatic presentation. But as time passed, he drew lay people and brother priests alike toward him.
In the desperately poor immigrants who comprised his congregants, he saw needs for practical and direct support to uplift the health and welfare of widows and children of ordinary Catholic men, fellows who had a habit of working themselves to death. After years of gentle encouragement, he led a group of laymen to establish the Knights of Columbus.
McGivney served as the first Chaplain of the group, intended “to unite the men of our Faith …, that we may thereby gain strength to aid each other in time of sickness; to provide for decent burial, and to render pecuniary assistance to the families of deceased members.”
Although a man at peace with God and the Church, Father McGivney lived only to the age of 38. He died from apparent overwork – at the back end of an awful Pandemic some called the Russian Flu. It was the last such outbreak in the Nineteenth Century.
That “overwork” description was a very ordinary thing in McGivney’s time, when the shortage of priests was a near-crisis. Contemporary American Catholics, especially faithful priests, can understand.
What was not ordinary for New Haven in that time was the huge crowd, and the many Protestants, who came to his funeral.
From a tiny acorn McGivney placed in the soil of Connecticut — at an ordinary parish with ordinary debt and ordinary people — grew the largest fraternal organization in human history, with today 1.9 million members in the U.S., Canada, the Phillipines, Mexico, the Bahamas, the Virgin Islands, Guatemala, Saipan and Poland.
The Knights’ insurance program today has around $100 billion worth of policies in force providing, as that ordinary priest envisioned, “pecuniary assistance to the families of deceased members.”
My father was one of those deceased members. Bruce Frederick McGuigan joined his beloved wife, my mother Bonnie, in Heaven, at 9:59 a.m. on Thursday, February 19, 2009. He died in his room at Bellevue Center in Oklahoma City, where they had lived their last few years.
Over all the 54 years I knew him, my Dad rarely spoke simply of “God” – his normal reference in conversations at the dinner table or anywhere else was to “Almighty God.”
He was an ordinary guy, in many ways. As a young man, he studied for the priesthood for three years, and always had a tremendous appreciation for priests.
He maintained contact all his life with two seminary classmates who went on to become members of the Maryknoll order. They spent most of their lives serving the Catholic people of Taiwan. I was blessed to visit one of them on a trip to that beautiful island Republic years ago.
My Daddy had a finely tuned sense of justice, informed by faith. He attended Oklahoma City University law school in the same years I studied at McGuinness. He joined the only fraternity which, at that time, admitted people of all races and creeds.
He coached my third grade baseball team in the YMCA League (“The Orioles”) mostly boys from Bishop John Carroll School. Later, he was softball coach for my sister Bonnie Kathleen’s seventh grade softball squad.
He coached because no one else would, and it allowed us to field a team. He was an ordinary Dad who did those ordinary things that such men do.
At the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Oklahoma City, he was active in the Men’s Club, working at the Christmas Tree lot every year for decades, on the Parish Finance Board, and more. He and my mother were named Parishioners of the Year in 1997. As a boy, and briefly as a grown man, I was able to work with him at the old Christmas Tree Lot next to the church on N. Lake Street.
Daddy was a member of Knights of Columbus Oklahoma Council No. 1038 for as long as I can remember. The rites for his passage from this life were laced with Knights, and members of our parish.
Presiding at Dad’s evening prayer service and wake was Deacon Paul Lewis, Brother Knight and friend from Boy Scouting days. My sister Bonnie and my wife Pam led a Rosary for Dad.
Preparing his obituary, we came across a photo of Dad and I together at an “exemplification” for the Chief Justice Kane Assembly, Fourth Degree Knights. For his funeral Mass, Sir Knights formed an honor guard, as priest friends gathered to concelebrate.
Pastor (and K.C. council chaplain) Father Ed Weisenburger (now a Bishop) was joined by former pastor (and 1038 member) Father Tom Boyer, as well as Father Thanh Van Nguyen and Holy Angels’ pastor Mike Chapman.
Daddy’s grandchildren served as pallbearers, and friends Robert Sine and D.W. Hearn, both members of Council 1038 and fellow parishioners, were Eucharistic Ministers.
Bob Sine went ahead to heaven, some years after my father.
D.W. is now one of our cherished deacons at the Cathedral.
At Resurrection Cemetery after the Mass, a bagpiper named “Robert Bruce” played “Scotland the Brave” as the grandchildren carried Dad’s casket across the red soil to his place of rest beside Bonnie’s grave.
Two young sailors in dress whites – one black and female, the other Latino and male — afforded military honors for the departed U.S. Navy veteran.
When the young man knelt at my feet to present the flag of our nation, and began, “On behalf of the president of the United States and a grateful nation …” the tears flowed. For years, I wept every time I remembered.
After Father Ed’s final prayer graveside, the ’piper played one more tune: Amazing Grace, which has marked weddings, anniversaries and now funerals at McGuigan family gatherings since my childhood.
“When we’ve been there, 10,000 years, bright shining as the sun. We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we’d first begun.”
Daddy was an ordinary man, I guess.
Like Father McGivney.
In the 1980s, I witnessed a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. by Lech Walesa, the heroic anti-communist who eventually became president of his native land, Poland.
In response to a reporter’s question about personal heroes, he pointed to Pope John Paul II and other Polish patriots, but told the crowd of journalists that he considered “the real heroes” to be “the ordinary people.”
Walesa said he admired the simplicity and decency of those who work hard, pay their bills, raise good children, live as good neighbors, and do what is right when no one is looking.
What Walesa was really saying is that the ordinary becomes something else if it’s done over and over.
Virtues of service, unity, charity, fraternity and patriotism, in time, become extraordinary.
News came this week (late May 2020), that Father McGivney is now under consideration for canonization — recognizing formally what millions around the world already believe:
That he worships every day, at the throne of grace, in Heaven.
Blessed Michael McGivney, pray for us.
Make us ordinary men, like you.
NOTE: This is adapted from a tribute delivered at a 2009 dinner honoring the service of Oklahoma’s Catholic priests. The author, Pat McGuigan, founder of CapitolBeatOK (an online news service) and publisher of The City Sentinel newspaper is past Grand Knight for the Knights of Columbus Oklahoma Council No. 1038; and Past Faithful Navigator for the Chief Justice Matthew John Kane Assembly (fourth degree) Knights of Columbus based in Oklahoma City. (The Assembly, part of the patriotic order of the Knights, is named for a Roman Catholic who served on the state Supreme Court early in state history. His descendant, Matthew John Kane IV, now serves on same court.) This week, Pope Francis announced, from Rome, that a miracle has been attributed to McGivney’s intercession in Heaven, by which an unborn child was healed (in utero) of a life-threatening condition. The pope’s announcement paves the way for “beatification” of Father McGivney – the last step in the process of canonization. That is the Catholic Church’s formal recognition of what many among the faithful already believe: That McGivney resides, for all eternity, at the throne of Grace. In Heaven.