Catholics in America – Knights of Columbus founder Father Michael J. McGivney


St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Conn., is not far from Sacred Heart and Fairfield universities where I teach. Today staffed by the Dominicans, the church maintains a close relationship with the Knights of Columbus. It was in St. Mary’s basement in 1882 that the Knights’ founder Father Michael J. McGivney met with some other local men to form what was to become the largest fraternal Catholic association of men in the world. Father McGivney is today laid to rest in the church and parishioners pray daily for his cause of canonization.

The self-governing, lay order was founded to offer financial aid, social support and charitable benefits and services to local Catholics in various kinds of need or impoverishment.  Columbus was chosen as a moniker and patron to emphasize the patriotic and optimistic role of the faithful hoping to secure or defend the American Dream.

Since believers were dissuaded from joining secular secret societies by the church hierarchy, the Knights served as a Catholic alternative to these associations as an organization fortifying charity, unity, fraternity and patriotism in line with the principles of the faith. The message was incredibly well received, as today nearly 2 million Knights continue the work started by the humble young parish priest, who would die before his 40th birthday.

While the Knights donate incredible sums of money to charity and worthy causes each year, the order as a whole embodies the realization that wage-earning labor is a legitimate part of human life, but not its sole end.

Philosopher Josef Pieper’s superb little book “Leisure: The Basis of Culture” argues that social and relaxed fellowship, in which contemplative reflection and celebration are present — themes which are such a part of the Knights’ council membership — is really the building block of all authentic cultural development. He claims such realities are the human person’s “affirmation of the universe and his experiencing the world in an aspect other than its everyday one.”

In short, leisurely and intentional openness is the space in which the divine and the human can most intimately interact with one another.  In fact, Pieper translates the familiar Hebrew of psalm 46 as “Have leisure and know that I am God.” The Greek word for leisure, skole, is where we get our word “school,” for historically the life of the mind was a privileged luxury afforded to those not mired in the affairs of the world or trying to eke out a subsistence living. (Try convincing most undergrads of that).

Father McGivney’s Knights are overtly counter-cultural in this regard. They certainly do not eschew labor, but the many that I know, to a man, realize that there is more to full and genuine living than their day jobs. The voluntary “work” for the order, composed of time and energy, which they dedicate to others through their councils, fundraisers and collections, is in fact the antithesis of the utilitarian culture so instilled in us by consumer capitalism.

The Knights do not “live to work,” with evenings and weekends merely the small breathers between all-pervading vocational or corporate demands, but rather they “work to live,” so they can better prioritize the important things in life, have them more abundantly and share them with others.

Father McGivney’s legacy continues to provide many spiritual and temporal benefits both for countless generations of his adoptive sons, and for the wider world at large.

Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is an administrator at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life and is on the faculty for the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University.