Vatican moves American, European Catholic giants closer to sainthood

Vatican moves American, European Catholic giants closer to sainthood

Pope Francis has approved a miracle attributed to the intercession of Father Michael McGivney, founder of the Knights of Columbus, clearing the way for his beatification. Father McGivney is pictured in an undated portrait. (Credit: CNS file photo.)

Pope Francis has advanced the cause of Venerable Father Michael McGivney, founder of the Knights of Columbus, and French hermit Blessed Charles de Faucauld along the path to sainthood.

ROME – On Wednesday, the Vatican announced that it was moving two towering Catholic figures from different corners of the world forward on the path toward sainthood, approving miracles for Venerable Father Michael McGivney, and Blessed Charles de Faucauld.

McGivney, founder of the colossal American charity organization the Knights of Columbus, will now become a “blessed,” meaning there is one more miracle required for his canonization to be green-lighted, whereas Faucauld, a French hermit, will formally be canonized as a saint.

Though they hail from different corners of the world, each is widely considered to have made mammoth contributions to the Catholic Church in terms of charity, Catholic-Muslim relations, evangelization, service to the poor.

Both are also timely spiritual aides as much of the world is reeling from the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. McGivney himself is believed to have died as the result of a coronavirus, while Foucauld, whose canonization was approved as large portions of the global population are isolated in quarantine, is widely known for his writings on silence and solitude on one’s journey toward God.

Speaking to Crux, Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, said the announcement of McGivney’s beatification is “an incredible moment” for the organization.

“The Church is affirming both Father McGivney’s heroic life and virtue and his miraculous intercession. Part of that heroic life and virtue, in fact, the most well-known part, was his founding of the Knights of Columbus,” he said, insisting that for those who have  been living out McGivney’s vision, “this moment had an incredible meaning and is a great affirmation of our work.”

Noting that McGivney’s beatification will happen as the world grapples with a modern coronavirus pandemic, Anderson said the man so often hailed as a model of the “Good Samaritan” could also be seen as “a pandemic patron.”

“He cared for the faith and wellbeing of those on the margins. He became a priest knowing that often meant an early death. Then he died of a pandemic similar to this one – possibly caused by a coronavirus. So I think the timing of his beatification is providential because his connection to the pandemic gives us someone to intercede for us, and because this connection also reminds us of the many other aspects of his life and ministry that remain important today,” Anderson said.

Born in Waterbury, Conn. on Aug. 12, 1852, McGivney is globally recognized as an example of charity, evangelization, and the promotion of laypeople in the American Catholic Church.

The son of Irish immigrants to the United States, McGivney from childhood had tasted the prejudice, social exclusion, and financial difficulties that so many other Catholic immigrant families were subjected to at the time.

Yet despite the poverty and anti-Catholic prejudice he endured, McGivney was known to be a man of deep faith and ken intelligence, graduating from school three years early and going to work as a spoon-maker in a brass factory to help provide extra income for his family.

In 1868, at age 16, McGivney left home and entered the seminary. Known for his intellect, personal virtue and concern for others, McGivney almost left the seminary to support his family when his father died in 1873. However, seeing the family’s need and McGivney’s profound desire to be a priest, his bishop provided the financial support allowing McGivney to complete his studies.

McGivney was ordained a priest in December 1877 by then-Archbishop James Gibbons and assigned as assistant pastor of St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, where he quickly gained a reputation for his wise counsel and was known for the role he played in numerous conversions to the Catholic Church.

He also worked hard to provide for the material needs of his parishioners and launched numerous activities for his community. He was especially known for his kind demeanor and pastoral zeal, often encouraging laypeople to take primary roles in parish initiatives.

He worked closely with the city’s leading Catholic men, holding frequent meetings in the basement of his parish to discuss the idea of a Catholic fraternal benefit society, the goal of which would be to help keep men in the Church, to financially assist families who had lost their breadwinner, and to promote the notion that one could be both a good Catholic and a good citizen.

In 1882, McGivney’s dream of establishing a fraternal society came to fruition when he founded the Knights of Columbus.

Primary goals for the organization were to be an antidote to secret anti-Catholic societies which at the time offered social and employment opportunities to men, often at the expense of their faith; to help keep families together when a breadwinner died with financial help through their insurance program; and supporting full American citizenship rights for Catholics.

Named after Christopher Columbus as a means of highlighting the deep Catholic roots in America, the Knights were formally granted a charter establishing them as a legal corporation March 29, which to this day is celebrated as “Founder’s Day.”

Focused on unity and charity, the Knights later added fraternity and patriotism to their list of core principles. After McGivney refused to be named the head of his new organization, a layman, James Mullen, a Civil War veteran, was elected to the position, while McGivney assumed the role of secretary.

Two years later, once things were solidly up and running, McGivney resigned from his position and became the organization’s chaplain.

After transferring to another parish, he fell ill during a pandemic in 1890, contracting pneumonia. He died Aug. 14 of that year, just two days after his 38th birthday. Recent scientific studies suggest that the pandemic which claimed McGivney’s life, similar to COVID-19, may have been also been caused by a coronavirus.

McGivney is buried at St. Mary’s church in New Haven, where he founded the Knights of Columbus, who now number over two million in North and Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia, and Europe. They lead countless charitable projects throughout the world, including support for persecuted Christians in the Middle East, food programs, the Special Olympics, and relief for impoverished countries struck by natural disasters.

McGivney’s sainthood cause was opened in the Archdiocese of Hartford in 1997. He was declared a Venerable Servant of God in 2008.

According to a press release from the Knights of Columbus, the miracle approved by the Vatican allowing for McGivney’s beatification involved an unborn child in the Unites States who in 2015 was cured of a life-threatening condition in utero after the family had prayed for healing through McGivney’s intercession.

A date has not yet been set for McGivney’s beatification Mass; however, the Knights have confirmed that the Mass will take place in Connecticut.

Charles de Foucauld, born in Strasbourg, France in September 1858, is also an apt spiritual figure to turn to in the times of the current coronavirus pandemic, having written several works on the virtue of silence and solitude during his time as a hermit.

Baptized into the Catholic Church just two days after his birth, Foucauld was orphaned at the age of six along with is younger sister and raised by his paternal grandfather. Known for his sharp mind, Foucauld lost his childhood faith as he grew, but continued to respect the Church.

He eventually enrolled at the Saint-Cyr Military Academy and opted to join the calvary. His grandfather had died shortly prior, leaving his entire inheritance to Foucauld, who quickly became something of a party animal.

However, during an 1880 assignment to Algeria, his perspective began to shift after having his first real contact with both Muslims and poverty. It wasn’t until a trip to Morocco in 1883, after he resigned from the army, that Foucauld began to contemplate his faith again after seeing the way Muslims lived out their own faith in the African nation.

Upon his return to France, Foucauld’s interest in Catholicism deepened, and with the guidance of a priest by the name of Father Huvelin, he returned to the Catholic faith, entering the Cistercian Trappist order in 1890.

He was then sent to Syria, where his search for a more radical idea of poverty and penance eventually prompted him to leave the Trappists to become a hermit, which he did in 1887. He lived in Nazareth, where he wrote some of his most prominent and celebrated meditations.

Foucauld was ordained a priest a few years later, in Viviers, France in 1901. He then settled in the Algerian Sahara with the goal of founding a new congregation, but no new members came out to join him. Instead, he befriended the local Berbers community – an indigenous ethnic group with ties to north and west Africa – and committed to studying their language and texts so he could better evangelize.

He was killed in his hermitage in 1916 by a group of bandits attempting to steal from him, and was quickly referred to as a “universal martyr.” His hidden yet hospitable spirituality have since become an inspiration for several religious congregations, associations and institutes.

Beatified in November 2005 by St. John Paul II, Foucauld will now be formally made a saint. The date for his canonization, which will likely take place in Rome along with several other candidates, has not yet been announced.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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