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Three models of priestly goodness

On Fr. Michael McGivney, Fr. Den Morrow, and Fr. Philip Tighe.

Fr. Michael McGivney. (Credit: John Tierney/Father McGivney Guild)

The Pandemic of 2020 has been hard on every Catholic. Eucharistic fasting for this length of time may remind us what 20th century heroes of the faith in underground Churches endured, and what 21st century confessors in China and elsewhere endure today; and that is no bad thing. Still, it is very, very hard to be the Catholic Church without being a vibrantly eucharistic Church. That’s true for everyone. The people of the Church should realize that it’s especially true for priests.

Priests who live out their priesthood as the Catholic Church understands that unique vocation – as an icon of the eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ, the Church’s spouse – miss their eucharistic congregations terribly. They have dedicated their lives to nourishing the flock, and to be unable to do so as they did eight months ago is a constant sorrow. Pastors are also bearing heavier financial burdens these days as donations shrink. Then there are the serious challenges involved in keeping parochial schools afloat under today’s public health circumstances. No man entering the seminary after the Long Lent of the 2002 and the sexual abuse crisis could imagine he was embracing an easy life; but no one expected this.

All the more reason, then, to celebrate the October 31 beatification of an exceptional parish priest, Father Michael McGivney, founder of the Knights of Columbus, who died during the pandemic of 1890.

He was born in 1852 to immigrant parents and his brief life coincided with the greatest period of expansion in U.S. Catholic history. That expansion also helped define his heroic ministry – and his genius. America in the late 19th century had nothing remotely resembling the social safety net created since the New Deal. Immigrant and first-generation families who lost their sole wage-earner could find themselves in desperate straits. In collaboration with Catholic lay leaders in New Haven, Connecticut, Father McGivney founded the Knights of Columbus in 1882 and created a new model of Catholic pastoral action: a fraternal organization that would provide for the spiritual and material needs of its members while serving the bereft, the indigent, and those foundering in their new homeland. Catholicism has been one of the great integrators of immigrants in American history, and no small credit for that is due to the Knights.

McGivney’s Knights also anticipated the Second Vatican Council in its teaching that the lay vocation in the world is just that: a vocation, a divine calling to live out the Great Commission given every Catholic in baptism: “Go and make disciples….” (Matthew 28:19). Following Father McGivney’s lead, the Knights have been a force for evangelization as well as charity, even as they have provided major philanthropic support to many Catholic initiatives, including Vatican communications. In the public arena, the Knights’ recent robust defense of religious freedom follows the example of their work for racial justice. Knights of Columbus chapters on nominally Catholic campuses today provide young men serious about their Catholicism with a means of evangelizing their peers while nurturing their own faith.

Father Michael McGivney’s beatification is a blessing for the organization he founded and inspired; it is also a compliment paid by the universal Church to the parish priests of the United States. Two of the finest were called home to the Lord in recent months, and while there is no way of knowing whether they will eventually follow Blessed Michael McGivney into the Church’s liturgical calendar, their memory is already firmly lodged in the hearts of the people they served, and they stand as further models of priestly goodness.

One of his admirers told me that, were it not for the pandemic, the entire city of Grand Rapids, Michigan, might have turned out in May for the funeral of Father Dennis Morrow, so beloved was this pastor, police, and fire department chaplain. I knew Den Morrow in college and he remained a rock of Catholic faith for the next 50 years. Father Philip Tighe came to the seminary after a business career, and it was clear from the deacon year he served in my Maryland parish that he would be a superb priest, eager to lead others in the adventure of orthodoxy – which I happily observed him doing when he became my daughter’s family’s pastor in North Carolina. His August 31 death deprived the Diocese of Raleigh of an exceptional spiritual leader.

There being neither rivalry nor jealousy in the heavenly Jerusalem, it is easy to imagine Fathers Morrow and Tighe celebrating Father McGivney’s beatification with him. May these three great American priests intercede for us all.


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About George Weigel 308 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent book is The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), published by Ignatius Press.

2 Comments

  1. Regarding Father Morrow, he will be sorely missed. Just to add a few items about him. He was pastor of St Peter and Paul Parish in GR. St Peter and Paul is a parish founded I think by Lithuanian immigrants. He did a lot to reenergize the parish after the previous priest stepped down and left the Church. One of his hobbies was an historian of the parish, collecting materials and information of its Lithuanian heritage, as well as Grand Rapids in general.

    My Grand Parents and Parents were married at the Church (St.Peter and Paul) and I was baptized at the Church. Eventually my parents moved a few miles away and became member of St Adalberts, a very beautiful Church built by the Polish community. Anyways my mom died unexpectedly on Dec 24. I was still in the Chicago area at the time planning on driving in Christmas day. The priest at St Adelberts could not come right away, my sister contacted Father Morrow. He immmediately came over to gave my mother the last rites he was also there, when my father passed a year and half later. My cousin related to me how he came over to a hospital to be there for a friend of hers who left the church to bring her back to Christ befor her friend died. I am forever grateful for Father Morrow. Since then my communication has been limited to my donations to the parish. If anyone is interested some of his columns in the parish weekly bulletin are still on the parish website. He is great example or model of a priest.

  2. Just to add a general comment. I think there are many priest who are role models in our midst that we don’t recognize. Essentially they proceed doing their preistly duties, which too many of us take for granted. This is not to take away from the priest mentioned in the article and as I already mentioned Father Morrow is certainly in the category of model priest. However there are so many others, I will mention two that I think are models. One is Father Mike, now deceased, who was pastor at St Joseph the Worker Parish in Wheeling, Illinois. I sorely miss his frank sermons on how a Catholic Life should be and appreciate his deligent service to the Church. Another, whose name I won’t mention since he is still living, is a priest who carried forward his parish in some financial troubled times, yet persevered. He underwent some unwarranted criticism but in the end all is well. In my thinking the priestly life undergoes a variety of challenges, running a parish with one priest, which is compounded with the addition of a school to manage, is no piece of cake. While the main priestly requirement is providing the mass, sacrements and related spiritual duties. Each parish priest must run a parish, maybe a school and who knows what else. So in the end we should recognize, if silently, the role models they are. More importantly we should be praying for them: for their spiritual health, physical well being, and thanking God for their service.

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