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“A Path to Discipleship:” Supreme Knight reflects on Blessed Michael J. McGivney

World Youth Day JMJ 2011 Madrid

Jeffrey Bruno

John Burger - published on 10/29/20

Carl Anderson says beatification of K of C founder should spur interest in "life-changing brotherhood."

In his annual report delivered to the Supreme Convention of the Knights of Columbus this summer, Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson said that through the spiritual genius of Fr. Michael J. McGivney, the Knights of Columbus “became the way for Catholic men to transform friends into brothers — brothers who care for one another.”

As Anderson and the Knights prepared for this Saturday’s beatification of Fr. McGivney, the New Haven, Connecticut-based supreme knight took a few minutes to speak with Aleteia about the meaning of this milestone — for himself personally, for the Knights, and for society.

Photo Courtesy of Knights of Columbus

Anderson is the chief executive officer and chairman of the board of the world’s largest Catholic family fraternal service organization, which has nearly 2 million members. Before becoming supreme knight in 2000, he held a number of positions in public life and in the Church. He served as special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and acting director of the White House Office of Public Liaison. He was then a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

From 1983 to 1998, Anderson taught as a visiting professor of family law at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome. In 1988, he became the founding vice president and first dean of the Washington, D.C., session of this graduate school of theology now located at The Catholic University of America.

He is the author of the New York Times bestseller, A Civilization of Love: What Every Catholic Can Do To Transform The World, and a number of other books. At the Vatican, he has been a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life and the Pontifical Councils for the Laity and for the Family.

Tell us about how you’ve come to know Fr. McGivney over the years, as a Catholic, as a Knight and as Supreme Knight. What effect has devotion to him had on your life and that of your family?

My relationship with Fr. McGivney has grown more personal and more profound over the years, praying to him. He’s almost like a member of the family, I would say, at this point. And especially with the responsibility of leadership over the Knights of Columbus — in a way, his organization — I turn to him a lot, whether it’s in terms of making decisions or when we have to make some hard choices, for his intercession and think about what he would do.

He really does have a profound concern for family life, so, as we saw in the miracle with the Schachle baby, I would say Fr. McGivney is an important part of our prayer life here.

Also, as we look at what we’re doing with the renewal of parishes, the renewal of the priesthood in this country and looking forward to reopening so many of our parishes after this pandemic, there again, Fr. McGivney as a model parish priest certainly is inspiring. And he’s inspired so many of our priest-chaplains and priest-members, that that’s been very heartening as well.

Finally, the fact that Fr. McGivney died like so many Americans who have died during this pandemic, since he was a victim of a pandemic back in 1890 — the Russian Flu or the Asiatic Flu pandemic — so we’ve seen with a lot of heartache with our families suffering in the same way that he did. We have somebody we can turn to who really has a personal understanding of what this is like. 

So I think in all those ways he’s made a big difference in our life. 

What does it mean to the Knights of Columbus that he is now being beatified? 

For so many of our members, they have a very strong devotion to Fr. McGivney, and so it’s maybe like a big encouragement from heaven that this tremendous step has been taken. I think it’s also a validation of his call of the laity to live a life devoted to charity, unity and brotherhood. When you think about it, the great orders in the Catholic Church, whether we’re talking about Franciscans or Dominicans or Jesuits or Benedictines, we all know what that means: they’re men who’ve taken vows and they live their life according to them. But where’s the layman in all of this? Where’s the layman who’s got to work in the world; he’s got to be active in his parish; he’s got to support his family? Here’s Fr. McGivney, with a brotherhood for the layman in the world with a family and a path of discipleship around charity, unity and brotherhood. So that’s a tremendous advance, and I think it’s changed millions of lives of Catholic men in the U.S. and around the world, in Canada and Mexico, and other places.

So I think that’s been part of what this beatification is — a validation of this kind of path of discipleship. And I think also it will be an occasion for which maybe we do a gap analysis. The Church now is holding up Fr. McGivney as someone who can be imitated, should be imitated, and we measure our own life against his life of holiness, and maybe we’re encouraged to close the gap a little more.

We’re looking back at a man of the 19th century but it’s hard to escape the fact of how we’re living in a world in 2020 that is so full of division and so many other problems. What does his life and example of holiness have to say to our world — not just to Catholics?

Yeah, really. You know, you think there’s so much difference between the 19th century and us, but look, what were the problems he confronted? Poverty, crime, violence, division. And we look around today and we see all around us now — maybe the forms are different — but there was a great deal of prejudice against Irish and immigrants. Now there’s a great deal of prejudice against other immigrants. Violence: we see it in the streets, even this week. Certainly there was violence in the streets during his time as well. 

So what was the reaction? There could have been a number of reactions. It could have been “meet violence with violence.” It could have been “Let’s withdraw into a ghetto.” Fr. McGivney said “No, we’re not going to do either of those things. We’re going to overcome evil with good, with a sense of brotherhood, with a sense of charity. We’re not going to retreat. We’re going to move forward in this society, and the new Catholic immigrants coming are going to make a difference for good in this society.” 

I think the real temptation for any time of immgiration — and Fr. McGivney saw this too — many of the men of his parish were being tempted to, you know, “You want to get ahead? Okay, turn your back on your Catholicism. Join a secret society that’s not Catholic, or anti-Catholic. This is how you get ahead in American society. Abandon what makes you distinct, and kind of join the crowd.” Fr. McGivney said “No, we’re going to maintain our Catholic heritage, we’re going maintain our Catholic faith, and at the same time we’re going to be good American citizens. So you don’t have to give up your Catholicism as a good American.”

And I think that may be part of the temptation today, for so many immigrants coming into the country who are Catholic. They see maybe not a heavily Protestant society like in 19th century America, but they see an increasingly secular society. And they want to become good Americans, they want to become integrated into American society. So the question arises: you have to give up your Catholic traditions, your Catholic heritage, your Catholic identity to do that. The Knights of Columubs said No, you can do both. You should do both. Maybe that’s one of his more important points of his relevance today. 

We are celebrating the beatification. What are the prospects for canonization? Are any reported favors being considered as a possible miracle at this point? 

The process is a cautious, prudent one. We actually have to wait until he is beatified and then look for a second miracle. So if we got a miracle today, I don’t think it would count because we’d need it on Sunday, after the beatification.

But if you think back for a minute about the process, we opened the cause in 1997, and the first stage was to go through all the records, all the files, see if there is any reason why you shouldn’t proceed in this manner. We found Green light, Go ahead. 

The next stage was to set forward a brief — in Latin, it’s called a positio — which is the case for his life of holiness and heroic virtue. If that is accepted, then he’s given the title of Venerable Servant of God, which Fr. McGivney achieved.

Then the miracle for beatification is sort of Heaven’s validation that you’re moving in the right direction here. So that’s what we’ve achieved. That allows for a kind of limited devotion to Fr. McGivney in the liturgy, particularly in the Archdiocese of Hartford, but it could also be in other dioceses where the Knights of Columbus are active.

So it’s a gradual process. Once that occurs, if there’s a second miracle, the Church can make the conclusion that “Yes, this is a saintly life; this is a person whose life can be put forward to the universal Church to be imitated and for devotions. 

Why are we hopeful for that? Because the Knights of Columbus right now is in Canada, Mexico, the Philippines — we have close to half a million members in the Philippines. And in the last decade to 15 years, we’ve moved into Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, France, South Korea. Over and over again we hear from laymen, we hear from priests, “Fr. McGivney is really somebody who inspires us. His path of charity and unity is something very important in our lives.”

So we think that he does have that international, universal appeal, from what we can tell over the past history of the Knights of Columbus.

This beatification is surely a milestone in the history of the Knights and in your own career — you’ve been Supreme Knight for 20 years now — and you must be very happy about it. What are the prospects for the Order’s continued growth and development in the years ahead?

I think this puts us on a new level, really. And it should. That’s the purpose of beatifications and canonizations. It’s not done for the good of the saint: you can’t do better than being in heaven as it is. It’s done for our good. 

So my great hope is that the members of the Knights of Columbus will look to Fr. McGivney and say this is a path of discipleship that Catholic men will really find a life-changer. So join the Knights, start this path of discipleship and make a difference in the world, in a brotherhood devoted to charity and unity, and see how it strengthens your family, see how it strengthens your parish and your community. And I think the more men do that the more they’ll see this is really like one of the great orders previously. It’s really a way of making a difference.

Of course, in the pandemic, with social distancing and all the different lockdown restrictions, our council life has been a little bit restricted. But once we get over this I think the Knights are going to move forward in a more renewed way, a more profound way. Again, it’s a question of serving the Church and serving the community, and I think the Knights are up for even a greater role in doing that in the future. 

Knights of ColumbusMichael McGivney
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