Life on the Chrism Trail

Homily for the Votive Mass for Blessed Michael McGivney Display of Relics

March 9, 2023
Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish
Wichita Falls, Texas

Ephesians 4:1-7a, 11-13
Psalm 110:1, 2, 3, 4
Matthew 5:1-12a

I am overjoyed and filled with gratitude for the opportunity to gather with you this evening to celebrate this liturgy and to venerate the relics of the body of Blessed Michael McGivney, the founder of the Knights of Columbus.  I am especially grateful that the Diocese of Fort Worth should be the first diocese in the United States to receive the relics of this great and holy beatified priest. I believe that it is very fitting that Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish and the Knights of Columbus of all of Wichita Falls and the Northwest Deanery should be given the privilege of praying for his intercession and venerating the relics of his body, since the Knights of Columbus in this deanery have been so imbued by his spirit for over one hundred years. The spirit and body should be together. The spirit of Blessed Michael McGivney shows itself in your generous support for widows and children of your brothers who suffer untimely death, your solidarity in prayer for the faithful and patriotic brotherhood of men in the Catholic faith, and in your most generous support for the formation of priests in pastoral charity.

The spirit of Blessed Michael McGivney is an example of the Christian life well lived with sacrifice — the sacrifice of the Beatitudes. As the late Dominican priest and theologian Father Servais Pinckaers observed, “To satisfy our appetite for riches, the beatitudes suggest poverty. In place of our aggressiveness, they would have us be meek. They would slake our thirst for pleasure with patience and love of justice, and turn our hard-heartedness into mercy, our inclination to evil into purity of heart and our touchiness to a peaceful spirit, while our vanity would be transformed into a carefree acceptance of insults and calumny. The Beatitudes seem to delight in promising us happiness in all that we loathe and fear.”

Yet, the grace of the Beatitudes is not really about an interior disposition to ignore the needs and obligations of this world for the sake of some heaven far and away from the here and the now. The grace of the Beatitudes is not strictly a matter of private preference but of the integral relationship between communal justice and personal charity that unite us with God and other human beings. This seems to us to be impossible and hopeless in our contemporary world that is so polarized with hatred and selfishness.

At the celebration marking the beatification of Blessed Michael McGivney, Dominican Father Peter John Cameron shared a powerful story from the biography of Blessed Michael McGivney that illustrates very beautifully that a man imbued with the grace of the beatitudes is able to accomplish the impossible amidst hopefulness. This characteristic of our blessed founder of the Knights of Columbus speaks clearly why he is someone whose intercession we need and from whose example we can cultivate the requisite virtues and reliance upon God’s mercy.

Father Cameron related the story of the young man known as Chip Smith. He was a young man of twenty-one years of age, who suffered from depression and developed an addiction to alcohol amidst his anger and frustration with not being able to hold employment. He was the son of immigrants and suffered prejudice from the Protestant majority in the Connecticut town in which Father McGivney served as a priest and pastor.

Chip Smith began to behave in erratic ways, threatening violence and mayhem. His behavior became so disturbing that his parents spoke with the local chief of police, Daniel Hayes, a husband and father of three who was also a friend of Chip Smith. Hayes agreed to speak with Chip and the need for such a conversation became urgent when Chip Smith entered a factory where he had been refused employment and began to wave a gun around threatening all present.

Chief Hayes began to speak with Chip. Chip became hostile and belligerent. A fight ensued and amidst the scuffle the gun discharged and Chief Hayes was shot in the stomach. Chip Smith was arrested while Chief Hayes was taken to the hospital. While being held in jail, the police informed Chip that Chief Hayes was bleeding and very possibly could die. In his hardness of heart and in the fog of his drunkenness and anger, Chip Smith exclaimed, “Good! I hope that he dies and goes to hell.”

Chief Hayes did die, and Chip Smith was convicted of his murder and sentenced to death. During his imprisonment, Father McGivney visited Chip every day in prison, and the priest’s visits and prayers assisted in Chip’s gradual conversion and contrition. In fact, Chip not only confessed but also expressed his authentic sorrow for his sin and the misery that it had brought upon the widow and children of Daniel Hayes. Chip Smith spoke plaintively to her, “I hope that God will make up for the horrible loss that I caused you and your family.”

The prayers and priestly ministry of Blessed Michael McGivney assisted Chip Smith to be converted from his sinful life. Yet, the priestly ministry of Blessed Michael McGivney assisted even more people to see their responsibility to pray for sinners and to develop merciful dispositions befitting Catholic Christians. “Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy.” Blessed Father McGivney led his parishioners to pray for the conversion of Chip Smith and in so doing they were converted from lives that confused justice with vengeance.

Father McGivney and his parishioners appealed to the Governor of Connecticut to commute Chip Smith’s death sentence to life imprisonment. They submitted a petition that included over one thousand signatures. At the top of the signature list were the names of the widow, the mother, and the daughter of the murdered chief of police, Daniel Hayes.

The appeal was not granted by the governor and on the day of Chip Smith’s execution he was granted the grace of a peaceful death as he died by hanging. On that morning, Father McGivney offered Mass for that intention at a Mass at which hundreds assisted — including the families of Chip Smith and the survivors of Daniel Hayes. Over ten thousand people attended the funeral of Chip Smith.

Our Catholic faith informs us that this justice is absolutely essential but incomplete unless tempered by mercy within the wider obligations of charity — directed especially to the weakest and most vulnerable in our community, those who are most prone to the dominance of the powerful and elite — these include but are not limited to the unborn, the terminally ill, the victims of crime, victims of trafficking, victims of domestic violence, victims of sexual abuse, the drug addict, single mothers, the unemployed, those discriminated against unjustly because of race, religion, or biological sex, the migrant and the refugee, the prisoner convicted without just representation, first responders who place themselves in harm’s way for our safety, those without access to quality education or basic health care, and those deprived of the practice of religious liberty.

These concerns are at the heart of the mission and fellowship of our fraternal order of the Knights of Columbus. They were planted there through the ministry of one good priest, who understood that each person requires the mercy of God that can only be imparted by a sacramental life and the pastoral guidance of a faithful priest ordained and configured to Christ the Good Shepherd.

Today we offer this Mass in the presence of Blessed Michael McGivney’s relics and we pray for the conversion of so many in prison who have decimated the family life of others through crime and murder, and also the family life of their own loved ones. Too frequently this compels us to refuse to hope and to abandon confidence in Christ and instead attempt to solve our social problems by killing people. We pray for our governmental officials and peacekeepers and first responders that mercy will always temper their firm and holy commitment to justice. We live amidst hopelessness with polarization encased in toxic anger — yet we live not as bystanders but as witnesses to the truth of the Gospel that we know by faith and that alone can lead us through hope to the eternal bliss of real charity. Blessed Michael McGivney, pray for us.

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