Author Says McGivney Bio Could Help Restore Respect for Priests

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service
February 28, 2006

ROME (CNS) -- Supporters of the sainthood cause of Father Michael McGivney are hoping that he will become the first American-born parish priest to be canonized.

A new biography is introducing a wider audience to the 19th-century priest -- and may also help restore respect for the many good priests in the United States, said one of the book's authors.

Julie M. Fenster, a historian who co-wrote "Parish Priest: Father Michael McGivney and American Catholicism," spoke about the book to U.S. priests and seminarians Feb. 27 at Rome's Pontifical North American College.

At a time when the image of the U.S. priest has been damaged by sexual abuse committed by a small minority of clergy, the book chronicles the good work of a priest who, after founding the Knights of Columbus, worked as a simple pastor until his death at age 38.

"I'm hoping this book might act as a gyroscope to reset some of the balance for people whose only exposure to parish priests is out of those headlines" on sexual abuse, Fenster said in an interview.

She said part of her motivation for writing the book was anger that so many good priests were being maligned because of the actions of a few.

Father McGivney, she said, provides a model for the kind of selfless pastoral work done by countless priests in the United States. His faith and Catholicism entered into every activity, whether preaching a sermon or playing baseball, she said.

"He believed that when you're having fun you should feel Catholic, too, not just when you're sitting in church," she said.

The book, released in January, has been on the New York Times extended bestseller list for six weeks.

Fenster, who co-authored the book with fellow historian Douglas Brinkley, said she came away from her research particularly impressed with the fact that Father McGivney returned to parish work in his native Connecticut after making such an important mark on society through the Knights of Columbus.

"He chose to draw back into the life he really wanted, as parish priest. He gloried in these little details that other people can get distracted away from," she said.

Father McGivney's work is considered extremely influential in animating lay Catholics through the Knights of Columbus, and at the same time helping to remove the widespread anti-Catholic bias in U.S. society.

The Knights, a Catholic men's fraternal benefit society, has grown to include 1.7 million members. The organization sponsors educational, charitable and religious activities around the world.

Father McGivney's sainthood cause is now being reviewed by the Vatican, said Dominican Father Gabriel O'Donnell, postulator for the cause. He said a reported miracle of healing attributed to Father McGivney's intercession also has been submitted to the Vatican for study.

Father O'Donnell, who was in Rome for the book presentation, said he sees in Father McGivney's life an example of what Pope Benedict XVI described in his recent encyclical, "Deus Caritas Est" ("God Is Love").

"The obligation of the church to exercise charity is what Father McGivney was about," Father O'Donnell said.

One of Father McGivney's gifts, he said, was that he could speak to those at every level of society, relating well with the poor immigrant community of Catholics as well as those who were upwardly mobile, and forging connections between these groups.

Father O'Donnell said that, unlike saints of earlier centuries who were known for their extraordinary accomplishments, Father McGivney falls into the category of "the more modern saint, who is great because he did the ordinary things so well."

"That's why he's such a great model, because he was 'just a parish priest,' but of such an excellent character. He was humble, compassionate and charitable to a heroic degree, but only within the confines of an ordinary life," he said.


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