“It was said that Fr. Michael J. McGivney had a ‘Priest’s Face’”
10/31/2020, the Beatification of Fr. McGivney
Fr. Ignatius John Schweitzer, OP
It was said of Fr. Michael J. McGivney that he had “a priest’s face.” A contemporary of Fr. McGivney said this: “I saw him but once, and yet I remember as if it was only yesterday; it was ‘a priest’s face,’ and that explains everything, it was a face of wonderful repose; there was nothing harsh in that countenance although there was everything that was strong.”
It was a priest’s face, and that explains everything. What a beautiful way to sum up the person of Fr. McGivney, the man we celebrate today. To be a priest was who he was. The priesthood was not a 9-5 job. It was not something he took off and put back on. It was not something he did just in the sanctuary of the church. It was not just a part or portion of who he was. Rather it simply captures who he was. As was said of Fr. McGivney, “It was a priest’s face, and that explains everything.” That explains everything. We could say, that explains everything he was about; that was the man he was. That is the man he continues to be as he is raised up to the altars today and in his place in heaven right now.
The Letter to the Hebrews gives a succinct description of the meaning of priesthood. Hebrews chapter 5 says, “Every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.” This brings us to the very essence of priesthood. From this verse, we see the priest stands in relation to three things. The priest stands in relation to men, in relation to God, and in relation to the sacrifice he offers.
The more complete and intimate is the priest’s union with other men, with God, and with his own sacrificial offering, the more will one’s priesthood be fruitful. The sacrifice that the priest offers, in relation to man and God, is Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. The priest offers the living sacrifice of the Cross while he himself is also taken up into this offering—in his self-giving love for others and for God.
Fr. Michael McGivney, the man with “a priest’s face” exemplifies these three things in his own relation to God, to other men, and the sacrificial offering made of his life. So we’ll look at these three things.
A Priest’s Faced Turned to his Neighbor
First, Fr. McGivney, the man with “a priest’s face,” showed forth a loving face to his fellow man. Mr. Edward Downes, an acquaintance of McGivney, said, “He was a man of the people. He was ever zealous for the people’s welfare and all the kindliness of his priestly soul asserted itself most strongly in his unceasing efforts for the betterment of their condition.” McGivney was a man of the people. He was close to the needs of his fellow men. He was sympathetic and a man for others.
In founding the Knights of Columbus, he sought to care for the widow and potential orphan. He sought to establish greater fraternity among mankind, Catholic fraternity, bringing the best of our humanity together with one and another and directing it to God. Ten years after McGivney’s death, Fr. Joseph Daley said of him, “His special vocation it was – and a high and reserved vocation too – to develop Catholic manhood, to bind into one conspicuous solidarity all the elements that make for the strength of character and so, indeed, to bring out that solidity of character – in other words, that Catholicity – prominently in its strength before the world.”
A Priest’s Face Turned to God
Second, Fr. Michael McGivney, the man with “a priest’s face,” in the midst of all this, also had his face turned to God. The face of a priest is turned to his fellow men while also being turned to God. Fr. Joseph Daley also said of McGivney: “His short life of thirty-eight years, closing in the summer of 1890, was yet rich in every sacerdotal virtue – the love of souls of the true alter Christus (another Christ), the childlike piety of the Cure d’Ars, the zeal of Vincent de Paul for works of mercy, the unfatigued optimism of the associates of Ozanam – these traits, so precious in the sight of man and heaven, were clearly mirrored in the soul of that good, simple, honest priest of Connecticut.” We see that in turning to his fellow men, McGivney did not forgot God. He had great zeal for works of mercy while also having a childlike piety. All was ordered toward the glory of God and love of God.
An old seminary friend of McGivney’s also noted this same basic thing, saying, “the three points of character most noted in McGivney were his sense of orderliness, his depth of piety, and his fund of good humor.” Depth of piety marked him. The human virtues of McGivney were also stamped by “his depth of piety.”
We see in McGivney a desire for prayer, for communing with the Most High God, dwelling in intimate communion with God. We have a letter that McGivney wrote, where we see this desire to, as he says, “spend the rest of his days in God’s holy house away from the world.” To dwell in God’s holy house away from the world. In this letter from 1884, McGivney writes to the Xaverian brothers. They were a new religious congregation that came to the US in 1854. Here, McGivney’s desire for more of a contemplative and communal life comes to the fore. He writes,
“[Dear] Very Rev. Superior,
The bearer of this note wishes to enter a community of brothers where he could spend the rest of his days in God’s holy house away from the world. If you can do anything for him after he tells you his story you will relieve his mind. Whichever way you decide will clear his mind of very serious doubts as to whether he should live in the world or in a community. Hoping all will be for the better, I remain
Yours truly in Christ
M. J. McGivney.”
It’s interesting here. Fr. McGivney desires to dwell in God’s holy house away from the world but he isn’t writing to a monastery. Rather, he’s pondering the possibility of community life with some more time for prayer amidst his active apostolate. We can bet that what Fr. McGivney is really desiring, what he is really pining for…is joining the Dominican Order!…Just joking. Ok, only half-joking. But it is interesting that here presently at St Mary’s, in Fr. McGivney’s old parish, we do now have, in the Dominicans, a community like he was pondering in this letter of 1884: A community well-shaped to support the priesthood as a standing before God and men, dwelling in the holy house of God and dwelling among men.
A Priest’s Face Marked by Sacrifice
Third, Fr. Michael McGivney, the man with “a priest’s face,” was completely united to the sacrifice he offered, as his own life was offered up in union with Jesus in the saving Host. In this, Fr. McGivney showed forth the face of Jesus Christ, Priest and Victim.
From a good portion of his letters, we find Fr. McGivney in the state of being exhausted. He pours out his life for his parishioners and the fledgling Knights of Columbus. It’s common for him to ask pardon for not writing back sooner. In one letter, he says, “I know your kind heart will overlook the delay and forgive one when you know that I have been alone all Summer with the whole work of a parish on my shoulders. I have not had time for even one day’s vacation…So pardon me the delay” (Ltr 1). In another letter he writes, “you will overlook the delay when in the first place I tell you I was ill for sometime after I came from Boston” (Ltr 5). In another letter, he writes, “owing to the little time of any leisure at the beginning of the holy season of Lent, I was unable to answer you before today” (Ltr 6). So we get the idea. But this is only part of the picture of Fr. McGivney’s sacrificial life for others.
Fr. McGivney faced many painful difficulties in his priestly ministry in the parish. And he faced much criticism and resistance in founding the Knights of Columbus. Fr. W. J. Slocum, a priest-friend of his, says this in 1905:
“Perhaps there are not many priests in the diocese today who knew Father McGivney more closely than I did. In the early days of our priesthood we were stationed in adjoining parishes in the city of New Haven. So that I had ample opportunity to witness the trials that beset him when he engaged in the work of founding the Knights of Columbus. Father McGivney, though a man of unassuming character, was possessed of an indomitable will, by which, aided by the grace of God, he was able to face unkind and unjust criticism from all directions in his great effort to found a society for the benefit of young men and the glory of the Church…He was almost childlike in his manner, yet capable when the occasion required of great strength of purpose.”
This strength of purpose and will reminds one of the Son of Man, who set his face like flint, in enduring His Passion. Fr. McGivney had “a priest’s face” that showed loving concern for his fellow men, a priest’s face that, with deep piety, was turned to God, and a priest’s face of a strength of purpose in his self-giving love for others and for God. In this, he is a witness and a friend to all of us, clergy and laity alike, as we are all called to share in the priesthood of Jesus Christ, in our various ways, in the work of offering humanity to God as a pleasing offering.
Our Blessed Mother, as Shaping the Priest’s Face
Finally, on this Saturday and in this church of St. Mary, we should say a brief word about Mary’s role in all this. Very brief. For, Fr. McGivney’s priestly face was also shaped by Mary. In Jesus’ own face, we find a resemblance to Mary; and so too with Fr. McGivney. There is a maternal tenderness in this face of a priest. His maternal gentleness even calmed the fears of a murderer about to be executed, Chip Smith. And surely this maternal quality stems in part from this priest’s devotion to Our Blessed Mother. It was said of Fr. McGivney: “To
meet him was at once to trust him; children actually loved him.” It was noted, more than once, that young people found a special bond with Fr. McGivney. And his loving concern for the orphan, the widow, the sick, the imprisoned, the destitute—for all the little ones who are sometimes forgotten by society at large—bears something of the mark of Our Blessed Mother. As the face of Jesus was formed by Mary so too is ours. So, in our work of giving a human face to the compassionate love of God, we turn to Mary as we cry out on behalf of all her children, “Show yourself a Mother!” Amen.