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Living Up to Father McGivney’s Example

The Michigan Knights complete extraordinary funding of life ethics chair dedicated to Knight’s founder.

by MOSAIC Editorial Team

The check presentation was a highlight of last year’s Archbishop’s Gala, Sacred Heart Major Seminary’s annual fundraising dinner—and it received a rowdy response.

Before a crowd of close to one thousand cheering attendees, Mr. Robert Fox, then-State Deputy of the State Council of the Michigan Knights of Columbus, and Mr. George Dann, former state deputy, handed a symbolic “big check” to Sacred Heart’s rector, Msgr. Todd Lajiness.

In doing so, they fulfilled a big-hearted pledge by the members of the Michigan Knights and the entire state council board. 

The check represented a donation of $135,000—the final installment of a $1.25 million commitment to fund the Fr. Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at the seminary. The Michigan Knights are the sole endowers of the chair.

Life: True to Knights’ Mission

Sacred Heart—which educates and forms future priests, deacons, and lay ministers for the Archdiocese of Detroit and dioceses nationwide—announced an ambitious goal in 2003: to establish six fully-endowed academic chairs. The Michigan Knights, then led by State Deputy Kevin McFarland and later by Mr. Dann, were among the first organizations to pledge support.

At the time, Monsignor Lajiness had just become Sacred Heart’s dean of studies, responsible for the seminary’s educational curriculum. He recalls how the endowed chairs were a “foundational block” that buttressed the seminary’s institutional pledge to be a vital center of what is known as the “new evangelization”—St. John Paul II’s challenge to the Church to engage the culture with the fundamental, ever-fresh message of Christ.

“The concept of the chairs actually originated with Archbishop Allen Vigneron, who was then the rector of Sacred Heart,” Monsignor Lajiness says.  “We all believed that the Chair of Life Ethics would be an exceptional project to collaborate on with the Knights of Columbus. 

“A key promoter of the new evangelization is the Knights,” explains Monsignor. “Supporting Catholic teaching on life issues connects with their mission.”

The seminary and the leadership of the Michigan Knights enthusiastically agreed that the chair would be named after Fr. Michael J. McGivney, the founder of the Knights of Columbus. The naming was especially appropriate: Father McGivney was a staunch supporter of Catholic family life, and the Knights are renowned for defending a whole range of life issues. 

Seminarian Formation Most Important

The national Knights of Columbus Supreme Council showed its wholehearted endorsement of the Michigan Knights by placing an outstanding leadership gift of $250,000 into the life ethics endowment. 

“Our founder, the Venerable Fr. Michael J. McGivney, is holding our brother Knights to a higher standard in their lives,” says Mr. Kenneth Unterbrink, the current State Deputy of the Michigan Knights. “Our brother Knights hold that the formation of our seminarians is as important as it gets.”

In supporting the Father McGivney chair, “We are then living up to the standards of our founder,” Mr. Unterbrink explains. “We, the Knights of Columbus, have an obligation to support the formation of our seminarians, and more importantly to support their pro-life formation.”

Chairholder is International Scholar

But who would be the first chairholder? Dr. Janet Smith, called an “international voice for life” by Monsignor Lajiness, was invited to become the holder of the Fr. Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics. Dr. Smith, who joined Sacred Heart’s faculty in 2001, is one of the preeminent scholars in the country on Catholic sexual ethics and bioethics. She has written and spoken extensively on topics such as the natural law, Natural Family Planning, assisted suicide, contraception, and abortion. 

She accepted the seminary’s invitation—which received a hearty thumbs-up from the Michigan Knights—and became the chairholder for the academic year 2004-05. She continues to be the Father McGivney chair of life ethics today.

The endowment by the Michigan Knights allows Dr. Smith to teach graduate-level courses at Sacred Heart to seminarians, deacon-candidates, and lay ministry students. She continues to advance the “culture of life” by promoting the beauty of Catholic teaching on life issues and human sexuality through her writing and speaking ministry.

“I am extremely thankful for the opportunity provided for me by the funding of the Fr. Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life,” Dr. Smith says. “I have been teaching the fundamental moral theology classes for years and am able to enfold the life issues into almost every element of those courses.”

Dr. Smith also teaches priests from across the country and around the world who are enrolled in Sacred Heart’s Licentiate in Sacred Theology (STL) degree program. The post-graduate STL degree specializes in the theology and methods of the new evangelization. She teaches courses on St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, bioethics, sexual ethics, and a seminar on the social and moral implications of same-sex attraction, to priests who attend a five-week summer residency session at the seminary. 

“The courses have helped the STL priests to preach on life issues and to compose presentations for their parishioners and fellow priests,” Dr. Smith says, adding that she teaches on these same topics to graduate seminarians in the Master of Divinity program.  

Her tenure as the Father McGivney chairholder overflows with other accomplishments. Dr. Smith helped to organize a national conference on Humane Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s document on the transmission of life, and recently organized an international conference, held in Plymouth, Michigan, presenting the Church’s teaching on homosexuality, with a follow-up conference in Phoenix, Arizona, and more planned in other parts of the country. She serves the Universal Church through papal invitation as a three-term consultor to the Pontifical Council on the Family, and as a member of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

Dr. Smith was able to take a partial leave of absence recently to care for her mother, Anne, who suffered from dementia. During this difficult time, “The seminary has been spectacularly accommodating to me as I spent large portions of a year caring for my own mother. I learned an enormous amount about the lived experience of ‘end of life’ issues,” she says. 

Dr. Smith adds that she has been incorporating what she learned about the rewards and challenges—and heartbreak—of being a caretaker of an afflicted family member into her speaking ministry.

Gratitude and Bond of Friendship

There has been an extra benefit from the funding of the life ethics chair, says Monsignor Lajiness, who has served as the Detroit archdiocesan chaplain of the Knights of Columbus (2004-10) and also the Michigan state chaplain (2010-12). “It has been close collaboration between the Knights and the seminary. The friendships that have been formed through this project—this is certainly one the greatest outcomes.”

Monsignor notes that as chaplain to the Knights, “I had the honor to see on an intimate level the dedication—actually the ‘otherworldly’ dedication—the Knights have shown. They express their faith in so many ways.

“With that perspective, my depth of gratitude to their service to the seminary through this significant gift, and also gratitude for their contributions to the Church throughout the world, is overwhelming.” 

by MOSAIC Editorial Team

MOSAIC Editorial Team

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Sacred Heart Major Seminary is a Christ-centered Catholic community of faith and higher learning committed to forming leaders who will proclaim the good news of Christ to the people of our time. As a leading center of the New Evangelization, Sacred Heart serves the needs of the Archdiocese of Detroit and contributes to the mission of the universal Church.