Saturday, May 9, 2009

Parish Priest: Father Michael McGivney and American Catholicism

By Douglas Brinkley and Julie M. Fenster, CAD 17.50, 240 pages, Harper Perennial.

Authors Brinkley and Fenster tell the story of a powerful man while conveying a sense of the times in which the priest, the founder of the Knights of Columbus, lived. Parish Priest places Father McGivney in his society through familial and ecclesiastical connections. McGivney had to find a way to fit into the social customs of the times even as he went about his ministry.

For instance, the daughter of the most prominent Episcopalian clergyman in New Haven, Connecticut, where Fr. McGivney was working at the time, had converted to Catholicism and later died. McGivney fulfilled his priestly duties towards the deceased even while minimizing the scandal. He allowed the Episcopalian minister to conduct a service in the Anglican church for his late daughter, a very forward move by the Irish-American priest.

The authors' esteem for the Catholic priesthood is at the heart of the book's success: “They [parish priests] celebrate Mass, baptize infants, visit the sick and dying, and preside at weddings and funerals. It's the parish priest to whom many of America's 65 million Catholics turn in times of personal crisis or if poverty strike a family. They serve on the level of one human helping another.”

Parish Priest shows Father Michael as a heroic parish priest among many heroic Church leaders. For example, they emphasize that he was not the only Catholic pastor to die largely of exhaustion at a painfully young age, 38 in his case.

Father Michael was one among many heroic priests striving day and night to improve the lives of the poor and factory workers of New England. The authors convey the strong character of these leaders: “The many high-powered men who were drawn to the priesthood believed with a kind of determination in the ideal, protecting it with their deeds, and not just words.” Father McGivney, for one, set up the Knights to offer community to men and life insurance for the families of deceased members, two extremely important needs in this time and place.

Parish Priest also includes solid, informative theology of the priesthood. “'At the altar in Holy Mass,' [Jacques] Miller wrote, 'it is Jesus Christ who offers gifts, changes the bread and wine into His own Body and Blood, and immolates the victim. As Jesus Christ and the Church, according to St. Augustine, are not two Christs but one Christ, so the Eternal Priest and all the priests born in time are not a multitude of priests, but one Priest. The man disappears in this August mystery.'”

The authors demonstrate how American culture—at least at that time—can coexist and thrive alongside a strong, thriving Catholicism, and vice versa. This issue was a real problem in nineteenth-century America.

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