VATICAN CITY (AP) – Pope Benedict XVI on Saturday set the founder of the Knights of Columbus, one of the world’s largest lay Catholic groups, on the path to possible beatification and sainthood, the Vatican said. The pope recognized the “heroic virtues” of the Rev. Michael J. McGivney, who in 1882 created a fraternal society for Catholic men who suffered discrimination for their religion and immigrant origins.

A miracle performed through McGivney’s intercession must be certified by the Vatican before beatification, which is the last formal step before the sainthood process can begin. McGivney was a 29-year-old assistant pastor at St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Conn., when he founded the group, which now has 1.7 million members and in 2006 collected nearly $144 million in contributions for charity. Its charitable work also includes substantial support for the Vatican. The group funded the restoration of the facade of St. Peter’s Basilica during the 1980s, and annually underwrites the cost of satellite TV broadcasts of liturgical celebrations from Vatican City, including the Christmas midnight Mass.

Born in 1852 to Irish immigrants in Waterbury, Conn. McGivney died of pneumonia at age 38.

In 1997 the cause to canonize him was opened. That process received important support last year, when the Vatican’s No. 2 official, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, celebrated Mass at the Knights of Columbus annual meeting in Tennessee and said he would work to have the priest declared a saint.

AP-ES-03-15-08 1252EDT

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