This weekend, we lose an hour and turn back the clock.
I think a lot of us would like to turn back the clock to 2019. It’s been that kind of year.
But this morning, as we mark All Saints’ Day, I’d like to take a moment to turn back the clock even further — to another century, and another pandemic, and priest who made history.
His name is Father Michael McGivney. This weekend, he was beatified, becoming the first American parish priest to be declared “Blessed.”
“Blessed” is a word we hear a lot in this Sunday’s Gospel, the Beatitudes, which is the traditional reading for All Saints’ Day.
And it is a word that we now use to describe Father Michael McGivney.
In fact, “Blessed” is a word that he defined with his life. When we consider what it means to be blessed, or what it takes to be a saint, consider the life of Father McGivney.
Michael Joseph McGivney was born in 1852 in Waterbury, Connecticut, the son of Irish immigrants — the oldest of 13 children, six of whom died in infancy. His father was a molder in a Connecticut brass mill. Young Michael himself left school at 13 to work in the mill. At 16, he entered the seminary, but he had to leave after a short time to help care for his family after his father died. He eventually went back to his studies. He was ordained in Baltimore in 1877.
From his own experience, he knew how the death of a parent could impact a family, especially immigrants. Out of that grew his idea to find a way to care for those who had lost a husband, a father, a breadwinner. That idea became the Knights of Columbus. It started in a parish basement with a handful of people. Today it is the largest Catholic fraternal organization in the world.
But that’s not what made Michael McGivney “blessed.” What made him blessed was something more fundamental. In his heart, Father McGivney just wanted to be a devout Catholic, a faithful son of the Church, a good priest. He wanted to fulfill the two great commandments we heard in the Gospel last week: to love God and love our neighbor.
He wanted nothing less than to model himself on Jesus.
Following that call — the call to each of us — he impacted thousands, if not millions of lives.
A writer named Kevin Coyne noted a few years ago that Father McGivney left behind just 13 letters and a few quotes — no great works of scholarship, no monumental theological treatises, no “Summa” to be studied by future generations. He had no fancy Roman education. He was simply a good parish priest.
But that was more than enough.
He said Mass. He heard confessions. He taught schoolchildren. He anointed the sick and prayed for the dead. He visited men in jail. There is one account of him saying a High Mass in prison for a man named James Smith, just days before he was scheduled to be executed. In his homily, his voice breaking, Father McGivney asked prayers for Smith, and for everyone who would be present for the execution — including himself.
He was such an effective preacher that one of the regular visitors to his parish in Connecticut was an old blind man — a man who wasn’t even Catholic but who came to Mass just to hear him speak.
In 1889, 12 years after his ordination, a flu pandemic swept across the world. Father McGivney continued to minister to people however he could. Eventually, he caught the flu himself and developed pneumonia. He died in 1890. He was 38 years old.
The other day, Carl Anderson, the CEO of the Knights of Columbus, wrote about Father McGivney in USA TODAY. He spoke of the lessons he can teach us today, in a time of political rancor and division and uncertainty — a time of turmoil in the midst of a global pandemic:
“His keen insight,” he wrote, “was the need for fraternity. He recognized that when people come together … they focus on service to others. They strengthen one another and in doing so, they strengthen society itself.” He went on: “His vision applies to Americans of all beliefs. Not only can it meet the needs of those suffering in this time of pandemic, it can fill the void that millions of people feel in their own lives.”
It is the same message, he pointed out, that Pope Francis puts forth in his new encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti.”
Carl Anderson concludes:
“People can unite in common cause in many ways. Neighbors can come together to tackle the issues in their community. Friends can join forces to help right a social wrong. People can put aside their political and personal differences to come alongside the poor, the widowed, the orphaned, the suffering, the marginalized, the oppressed.”
That’s a message we need now, more than ever.
This Sunday, as we mark All Saints’ Day, we look to those who have gone before us “marked with the sign of faith.”
One of those, by the grace of God, is Father Michael McGivney.
When you think about it, he showed us something radical and countercultural. He showed us what it means to be poor in spirit. To be meek. To hunger and thirst for righteousness. To be merciful. To be clean of heart. To be a peacemaker.
He showed us, really, what it means to be a follower of Christ.
A few people have suggested Father McGivney should stand alongside St. John Vianney as a patron for parish priests.
I’d go further. Consider the remarkable work of his life. He is an advocate for the outcast. He spent his life caring for the immigrant, the widow, the orphan, the imprisoned.
He is a patron for anyone who needs hope in an age of despair; those seeking help when feeling helpless; all who want healing and reassurance during a time of plague.
He is a patron, really, for all of us.
As we gather around the table of the Lord in these challenging times and prepare to receive the Eucharist, let us remember Father McGivney.
Remember how he answered the call to discipleship. Remember how one man, from a humble background, who lived a short life and died not far from where we are worshipping today, showed what it means to be “blessed.” He shows us today how it is done.
May Father McGivney intercede on our behalf. May he inspire us with his love of God and love of neighbor.
And in the days ahead, during this critical moment in our history, with so much at stake, may this newest “blessed” from the United States bless the United States.
I think we can agree: right now, we need all the help we can get.
Blessed Michael McGivney, pray for us.
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