How a priest who died in previous pandemic can help Americans overcome loneliness today

Carl A. Anderson

As America grapples with a devastating pandemic and a divisive political atmosphere, millions of people are desperately searching for hope. It can be found Saturday in the Cathedral of Saint Joseph in Hartford, Conn.

There, the Catholic Church will bring to the brink of sainthood a parish priest who brought people together, showing a better way to persevere through times of hardship and challenge.

The priest is Father Michael McGivney, who died at age 38 in the flu pandemic of 1889-90. This weekend, the Catholic Church will beatify him, which accords him the title of “Blessed” and indicates the church’s confidence that he is now in heaven.

This historic step was made possible in May, when Pope Francis confirmed as a miracle the healing of an unborn child whose parents prayerfully sought Father McGivney’s intercession to save their son from a fatal condition.

Catholics and people of any faith can find inspiration from Father McGivney’s actions during his mere 38 years on earth. He lived in a time of terrible loss and profound trial, a time in which many families were losing breadwinners and plunging into poverty. Communities were struggling with addiction, especially alcoholism. Young people were casting about in search of meaning. Society itself was falling prey to racial and religious intolerance and bigotry.

As a young priest, Father McGivney asked what he could do to address the many crises that surrounded him. Everywhere he looked, he saw people drifting away from each other. So, Father McGivney resolved to unite them.

Almost half of Americans age 62 and up experience some degree of loneliness, according to an AARP Foundation survey.

Father McGivney’s key insight was the need for fraternity, which he understood in the widest context of people uniting in common cause. He recognized that when people come together, they turn their attention away from themselves and focus instead on service to others. They strengthen one another, and in doing so, they strengthen society itself.

Priest founded Knights of Columbus

This vision of fraternity, rooted in unity and charity, drove Father McGivney forward. It led him to reinvigorate a benevolent society for the young people of his parish, a place where they could find wholesome activities and avoid the alienation and waywardness that defined many of their peers.

Ultimately, Father McGivney founded the Knights of Columbus. The fraternal service organization drew Catholic men and gave them a higher purpose: To protect their families, preserve their faith and pursue good works in their communities. Today, more than 2 million Knights continue to advance this mission in America and across the globe.

It is impossible to separate Father McGivney’s understanding of fraternity from his Catholic faith. Yet his vision of people uniting to help those around them is applicable to Americans of all beliefs. Not only can it meet the needs of those who are suffering in this time of pandemic, it can fill the void that millions of people now feel in their own lives.

Recent polling shows that more than 60% of Americans report feeling lonely, up 13% over the past two years. Other research shows that younger generations are the loneliest, with nearly a quarter of millennials saying they have no close friends.

As people pull further and further apart from one another, we will find it harder to address the needs that surround us on every side. Worse, those needs will only multiply as the problems facing America mount.

The solution is the same now as it was in Father McGivney’s time — fraternity, in the broadest and deepest sense. No less a leader than Pope Francis made this exact point in his new encyclical, “On Fraternity and Social Friendship,” released earlier this month.

People can unite to help others

People can unite in common cause in many ways. Neighbors can come together to tackle the issues in their community. Friends can join forces to help right a social wrong. People can put aside their political and personal differences to come alongside the poor, the widowed, the orphaned, the suffering, the marginalized, the oppressed.

There is no shortage of opportunity. If we are willing to summon the courage to unite and to act, there is no limit to the good we can do, meaning we can find and people we can help.

Father McGivney shows a way forward. This weekend, the Catholic Church will powerfully reaffirm that his life is worthy of praise and his example is worth emulating.

Millions of Catholics already look to him for guidance and inspiration. Now, imagine if millions more, from all walks of life, made Father McGivney’s mission their own. The more who do, the more likely it is that America will come through the challenges we face.

Carl A. Anderson is CEO of the Knights of Columbus.

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