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This review is from: Parish Priest: Father Michael McGivney and American Catholicism (Hardcover)
Parish Priest, Father Michael McGivney and American Catholicism, describes an era in American history which, unfortunately, is all too familiar to Americans today. In his book, Bowling Alone, The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Samuel Putnam points to late 19th century America as a period similar to the beginning of this 21st century. Following the Civil War, America experienced a flood of immigrants, a bewildering new religious scene (real Catholics instead of the stereotypes portrayed by nativist preachers), rapid technological and economic change, new methods of transportation and communication (the telephone), enormous expansion of wealth, etc. Americans needed to organize and did, a process that continued into the 1960's when it suddenly disintegrated.
Among the thousands of new voluntary organizations was the Knights of Columbus. Long before workers and tradesmen could dream of retirement and pensions, this Catholic order offered an affordable, dependable insurance program to poor Catholic men. It also promised a measure of financial security to their families. But more than an insurance program, it gathered men into a praying organization where they could model maturity for one another, and mentor young men into adulthood. When America offered young men a thousand incentives for escape, alcohol, and violence, the Knights of Columbus offered a future.
Because we have few details about Father McGivney's early life, the book starts slowly, describing the conditions of the Irish Catholic experience in 19th century eastern United States. However the Knights have kept an excellent archive since their foundation, and the story gets far more interesting as we hear of Father McGivney's struggle to organize the group. Even when he had a small band meeting periodically, he seemed to carry the vision and excitement alone. His drive was surely directed by that spirit which organized workers, Christians, and minorities throughout the country.
I was most affected by the story of McGivney's early death, two weeks after his 38th birthday. Clearly, he had worked himself to exhaustion and death. But his premature death was nothing unusual at the time:
"...in the 1880's, parish priests did not generally live very long.... From 1874 to 1886, the Hartford Diocese counted about 83 priests at any one time. Yet during that same span, seventy priests died. That translates to a turnover of almost 85 percent in a dozen years. Going into the priesthood, young men knew that they had little chance of reaching fifty years of age...." (page 193)
Several years before his death Father McGivney handed leadership of the Knights to qualified laymen; from there he fades again into obscurity.
Parish Priest describes a good man, typical of his profession and his time, who had a vision and the energy to bring it to reality. Father McGivney's biography should interest anyone curious about the life of a Roman Catholic priest; it will fascinate his disciples, the Knights of Columbus. The United States once again faces an uncertain future. The gap between rich and poor has widened dangerously since the 1960's and threatens to swallow large portions of the middle class. We need a measure of McGivney's spirit as we revive the American community.