Parish Priest, by Brinkley & Fenster, tells the story of Fr.Michael McGivney (1852-1890), founder of the Knights of Columbus and the only American priest to be under consideration for sainthood. Fr. McGivney was stoic, angelic, and a "pure-hearted reformer" (pg. xiii).
Born in Waterbury, CT (fast becoming the "Most Catholic City in America") in 1852, Michael grew up in the Church. Next to his parents, his parish priest was the most significant figure in his life. A product of the Civil War, Michael expressed the desire to become a parish priest himself by the age of 12. His father was adamantly opposed. By 13, he was finished with school, as he was so bright; he was accelerated many times. Catholic Seminary took six years and was on par in its demands with requirements for a physician. But further, to pass the final very strict character test, one's calling had to be determined to truly come from God.
Michael passed early muster, and finally received the reluctant blessing of his father, heading off to St.-Hyacinthe in Quebec (the more "worldly" equivalent to American seminaries). From there, he moved to Our Lady of Angels in Niagara Falls, NY (September 1871). Accomplished in his seminary preparation, he moved in 1872 to Sainte-Marie in Montreal. Wishing to become a Jesuit by joining the Society of Jesus, Michael had to give up that dream when his father died in June of 1873. He went home to Waterbury to help support his family. His Bishop found him a scholarship with the Hartford Diocese, but not to become a Jesuit, as McGivney might end up disappearing into another community. So, St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore became Michael's next stop. It was there that he learned the humanity and piety that would guide his life. Michael was "ordained to the holy priesthood" in 1877. Pieced together by various historical accounts, Fr. McGivney was agreed upon to have three salient characteristics: overflowing good humor, a deep sense of piety, and orderliness.
Somewhat of a self-appointed Sociologist, Fr. McGivney was concerned with the alcohol problem that came between many men and their church attendance. By joining the Total Abstinence and Literary Society (TAL), Fr. Michael "intended to find out why so many of his young parishioners became drunks, while others managed to avoid it" (pg. 71).Fr. McGivney directed successful plays as fund-raisers — using females as female characters for the first time ever, thus demonstrating that he was progressive beyond his time. He inherited high debt along with his parish church which he was trying to single-handedly reduce in many creative ways.
In 1881, Fr. McGivney gauged interest in what would become the Knights of Columbus — a group of Catholic men who were "benevolent, fraternal, and soundly religious" (pg. 111). The idea began as the "Sons of Columbus," after the explorer, famous and adored (otherwise referred to as "The Christ Bearing Dove" — pg. 119). The organization would be inclusive of Catholics of all nationalities, and would promise loyalty to the U.S. (something of great importance to threatened non-Catholics). "Knights" were associated with ritual, and could act as a gel to hold men together. Special rites helped it to gain identity as a secret society, which stirred interest and increased potential membership numbers. Officially separate from the Church, they would still operate entirely "in line" with it (pg. 120). Now a master of law, business, and publicity, Fr. McGivney was a more worldly man than the one who graduated from seminary. Insurance (for sickness and death) was a main benefit of the K.C.s.
Chapter 10 unforgettably chronicles Fr. McGivney's preparation of an inmate (Chip Smith) on Death Row for the murder of a Police Chief. Becoming one of his flock, McGivney ministered to this man in a moving, selfless way — daily, at the end of his life. The picture of the priest is rounded out by the timeless account of this event and its surroundings. Other stories of his heroic work with impoverished children and with the sick and dying further enhance this mosaic of his life.
In the meantime, the Knights of Columbus were stagnant, and those involved were bickering over trivial details. If the K.C.s took off, they would be McGivney's "weapon against the threat of sudden poverty for families already bereaved" (pg. 140). The motto of the order was "Unity — Charity" (pg. 171). But herein lies the rub. By some authorities, the Knights of Columbus were considered a dangerous, secret society. The Catholic Church announced that no one can be part of a secret society and also be admitted to the "Sacraments of the Catholic Church" (pg. 180). Since its ends were calculated to be for good, however, the K.C.s were excluded from this ban. And since any priest could attend any of their meetings, Fr. McGivney disputed that the K.C.s were even indeed secret in nature. In reality, the Church had only the freedom to audit the order's spiritual and moral activities (pg. 184).
Priests in the 1800s (like today) were few and far between, and therefore overworked. They had little chance of even reaching age 50. In fitting with this image, Fr. Michael McGivney died two days after his August 12 birthday in 1890 -- at the age of 38. Viewed as an Apostle of Christ, the priest was best known for his unfailing faith in Catholicism, his abiding empathy, and his extraordinary kindness (pg. 202). The Knights of Columbus counted 6,000 upon the death of Fr. McGivney and were currently assisting 66 families with death benefits. In 1922, K.C. members numbered 800,000. Today, there are 1.7 million. Charitable giving surpassed the McGivney vision — for instance, in 2004 alone, it hit the 135 million mark.
In 1997, the canonization process of Fr. McGivney began. While he is being considered for sainthood, he can be called a "servant of God" (pg. 206). With one miracle, the person considered has God's approval and is beatified. They then become a "blessed servant of God" (pg. 207). With the second miracle verified, canonization is complete and sainthood is conferred. It is this reviewer's view that perhaps Fr. McGivney has earned the status of being considered as a Saint of Forgiveness, given his work with those the world had otherwise condemned.
A book basically pieced together by fragments of history, this is an amazing read. We are allowed to trace a lone priest's life on all levels, human, spiritual, and saintly, with a deep, clear meaning and grace that only such skilled authors can provide. This detailed work could be used in a variety of Religion, Sociology, and History courses at the university level, all with equal success.