Founder of Knights of Columbus moves a step closer to sainthood

Sandra E. Garcia, The New York Times

Posted at May 29 2020 05:31 PM

A statue of Rev. Michael J. McGivney, who died in the flu pandemic of 1889-90, at St Mary's Church in New Haven, Conn., in March 2008. McGivney, who founded the Knights of Columbus, moved a step closer to sainthood when Pope Francis recognized a miracle attributed to him, the Vatican announced on May 28, 2020. Thomas McDonald, The New York Times

The American priest who founded the Knights of Columbus, the Roman Catholic fraternal organization, moved a step closer to sainthood Thursday when Pope Francis recognized a miracle attributed to him, the Vatican announced.

Pope Francis is crediting the healing of an unborn child with a life-threatening condition to the priest, the Rev. Michael J. McGivney, after the child’s family said they prayed to him, the Knights of Columbus said.

The step clears the way for McGivney to be beatified, or declared “blessed,” by the pope — the second-to-last step before a figure is canonized as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. An additional miracle must be accredited to McGivney before he is declared a saint.

“Father McGivney has inspired generations of Catholic men to roll up their sleeves and put their faith into action,” Carl A. Anderson, the leader of the Knights of Columbus, said in a statement. “Today, his spirit continues to shape the extraordinary charitable work of Knights as they continue to serve those on the margins of society as he served widows and orphans in the 1880s.”

The child of Irish immigrants, McGivney was ordained in Baltimore in 1877 and served a largely Irish American immigrant community. He was serving as a priest in Connecticut when he contracted the flu and died of pneumonia during the 1889-90 flu pandemic. (New research suggests that the pandemic was caused by a coronavirus not unlike the one responsible for the current pandemic.)

McGivney founded the Knights of Columbus, named in honor of Christopher Columbus, in 1882 to provide support and financial resources to Catholic men and families who were coping with the loss of their sole provider. There are chapters of the order in Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America, the Philippines, Guam, Saipan, Japan, Cuba and Poland.

The cause for McGivney’s sainthood was started by the Archdiocese of Hartford in Connecticut in 1997.

Eleven years later, in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI declared McGivney a Venerable Servant of God. That designation meant that the Congregation for the Causes of Saints at the Vatican had found after a long investigation that McGivney lived “a life of extraordinary and heroic virtue” and was worthy of imitation by the faithful.

While the beatification of McGivney is a significant step in the process of becoming a saint, it could take much longer for him to be canonized, said David Gibson, the director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University.

“That can take years, decades, centuries even,” Gibson said, adding that it took hundreds of years for Joan of Arc to be canonized. “It is the longest vetting process in the history of mankind, it is so in-depth.”

The process to become a saint has changed over the centuries, Gibson said. The process of declaring someone a saint was once a matter of popular devotion, but as the church became more bureaucratized, the Vatican took over canonizations.

“They wanted to bring some kind of routine, process and verifiability to the canonization process,” Gibson said.

While the path to sainthood might be long, Gibson said that the Knights of Columbus could help the cause.

“I think he has the wind at his back,” Gibson said, predicting it might take five to 10 years for McGivney to reach sainthood. “He has momentum and influential backers in the Knights of Columbus.”

Over the decades, the Knights of Columbus have left their mark on the United States. A campaign that the order started in 1951 persuaded President Dwight D. Eisenhower to sign a law that added the phrase “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. Currently, the order is working to secure housing, food and health care for displaced Christians in the Middle East.

A date for McGivney’s beatification has not been set, but the Knights of Columbus said it would take place in Connecticut.