Father McGivney was a remarkable man, who in just thirteen years of Priesthood taught us many lessons about the sanctity of human life.
Michael was brought up in mid-19th century Waterbury. The son of Irish immigrants, he was the oldest of thirteen children, six of whom died at a young age. And here’s where it gets incredible.
For the reason our Holy Father has ordered the beatification of Father McGivney in a couple weeks has to do with another family of 13 kids who live today in Tennessee. For thanks to Father Michael, their youngest is now five years old. Let me explain.
Michelle and Daniel Schachle were expecting their thirteenth child (there’s that number again!) when they went for the nineteen week ultrasound. Michelle described how the doctor took his time and then got very quiet. Then he layed down the scope and looked at them: “There’s nothing we can do; he’s not going to live. We can take you over and induce labor now, or you can wait and let nature take its course — but he will die.” The combination of Down syndrome and fetal hydrops, a life-threatening build-up of fluid in the tissue around the lungs, heart and abdomen, was always fatal, he told them.
So Michelle and her husband went to see their parish priest and began planning the Funeral for their unborn child. But once they got home Daniel had an idea. Since they were both kids they had known the Knights of Columbus and had heard of their founder, Father Michael McGivney. They knew he had been declared venerable and needed a miracle to be beatified.
“We emailed hundreds of people asking them to pray to Father McGivney for him,” Daniel later said. After all, he recalled, “Father McGivney needed a miracle to be named ‘Blessed,’ and there’s no reason it can’t be our son…He needs a miracle; we need a healing — let’s go get it.”
And they prayed in a very particular way: not for the Down syndrome to disappear. “we welcomed that as a gift,” Daniel later said, “We simply prayed to Father McGivney “Save our baby.”
To the amazement of the doctors, the hydrops disappeared and Michael was born on May 15, 2015, the same day that the first Council of the Knights of Columbus had been founded some 123 years before.
Father McGivney loved his people. And he evidently still does, even those not yet born. For he would have agreed with our Holy Father, Francis, who wrote in his Encyclical letter Gaudete et Exsultate:
“Our defense of the innocent unborn…needs to be clear, firm, and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred and demands love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of development.”
The Holy Father goes on:
“Equally sacred…are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection.”
Father McGivney would have agreed with that too: Especially that year when he was in Seminary in Quebec and his father died, leaving his poor mother with six hungry mouths to feed. So he left Seminary for two years and got a job to feed and clothe and house his siblings. For he had learned that the lives of the poor and the destitute were sacred, beginning with his own family.
And he would apply that lesson years later when scores of families in his parish lost their fathers to the small pox and other diseases in the crowded Irish neighborhoods of his parish. Their children, I imagine, must have looked an awful lot like his hungry brothers and sisters had years before. Which is why he founded the Knights of Columbus, as a fraternal society providing death benefits to poor Catholic families.
He founded the Knights, he later wrote, on the principles of unity and charity: unity, he wrote, in order to gain the strength to be charitable.”
Charitable to all, and especially the ones whom everyone else had rejected, as when he refused to abandon the young James “Chip” Smith, who was sentenced to death for killing the police chief.
Five days before the execution date, Father McGivney celebrated a Mass for James in his jail cell. And when he emerged there was a crowd outside, waiting to hear what happened. He told the gathered throng: “I am requested by Mr. Smith to ask pardon for all faults he may have had and all offenses he may have committed, and at his request I ask for the prayers of all of you, that when next Friday comes he may die a holy death.”
Then he asked everyone to pray for those who would be there with James on the day of his execution, later writing: “To me this duty comes with almost a crushing weight. If I could consistently with my duty be far away from here next Friday, I should escape perhaps the most trying ordeal of my life, but this sad duty is placed my way by Providence and must be fulfilled.”
Father McGivney understood the sanctity of every life, and he understood it throughout the years he walked the Irish slums of his parish, especially the half dozen years they were were hit with smallpox. And in his final year, it got even worse with an influenza epidemic killing one out of ten of his parishioners.
Maybe it was during a Funeral that he caught it, or maybe in one of his trips to a sick parishioner’s house. No one really knows. But the thirty-eight year old priest died of pneumonia on the 14th of August 130 years ago.
And on that day, the Church now proclaims, young Father Michael was welcomed to the mountain of the LORD of hosts, where “the veil that veils all peoples” and “the web that is woven over all nations” has been destroyed. He was welcomed to that place where “the Lord will wipe away the tears from every face” and they will “rejoice and be glad” in his presence forever.
So let us pray with Father Michael McGiveney:
for every child in his or her mother’s womb: that they might be protected and defended from all harm;
for every little child in our church and in out country: that we might cherish and protect them, that they might thrive in safety and joy;
for every mother too poor to feed her children, or every father too impoverished to put a roof over their heads;
for those we threw away: for the abandoned, the homeless, the underprivileged, the handicapped and those who are different from us: that we might seek them out and welcome them home;
for the vulnerable elderly and the infirm: that we might thank God for their lives, their wisdom and their infinite value;
for the victims of human trafficking: that we might work to free them from those who would use and abuse them as commodities to be traded and not cherish them as sacred gifts from a loving God;
and for all who are rejected, forgotten or alone, that we might love them with the love of Christ, and lay down our lives for them.
Let us pray with Father McGivney, in the words of Pope Saint John Paul II, that heaven might look down on ‘babies not allowed to be born,
on the poor whose lives are intolerable,
on victims of brutal violence,
and on the elderly and the sick…
‘that we might defend them,
by proclaiming the Gospel of Life
with honesty and love.’ Amen.