His mother urges him to keep trusting in God
By Jay Nies
Dr. Peter O’Reilly was close to becoming a priest when he left the seminary and went to medical school.
Years later, his godson was planning on becoming a doctor when he realized the Holy Spirit was leading him to Priesthood.
That godson was Bishop-elect W. Shawn McKnight.
“We prayed extra-hard for Shawn to become a priest, because I guess we saw something there,” said Bishop-elect McKnight’s mother, Mary Schaffer. “But by the time he was taking his MCATs and looking at medical schools, we were thinking, ‘Okay, he’s going to be a doctor, and he’ll be a good one.’”
She remembers him calling her around Christmastime during his junior year at the University of Dallas, where he was majoring in biochemistry.
“He said, ‘Mom, I think the Holy Spirit is leading me to be a priest,’” she said.
His parents kept praying for him through the seminary, into the Priesthood, through all of his assignments and now during his transition toward becoming the fourth bishop of the Diocese of Jefferson City.
“It’s kind of overwhelming,” said Mrs. Schaffer. “You pray for one of your children to be a priest, and that’s such a blessing unto itself. But to have him be a bishop! That’s awe-inspiring.”
Strong but gentle
Mrs. Schaffer grew up in a faithful, Irish Catholic family that prayed the Morning Offering together every day and went to Mass every Sunday.
She was a student at an all-girl’s Catholic high school in Wichita, Kansas, when she met one of her brother’s friends, William McKnight.
They were right for each other. They got married and had a son, whom they named William Shawn.
The boy was about 18 months old when his father, his grandfather and his great-uncle were all killed in a boating accident.
Mrs. Schaffer had never dealt with the death of someone close to her before. Becoming a widow and a single mother at age 20 shook her to the core.
In spite of being surrounded by strong people of faith, she struggled, doubted and pulled away from the Church for a while.
“But I think when I came back, I came back much stronger than I was before,” she said.
Her mother-in-law, Shawn’s grandmother, invited them to live with her and her own children who were still at home.
The youngest was just two years older than Shawn.
“She was so strong through the whole thing, even though she had just lost her husband and her son,” said Mrs. Schaffer. “Her strength really inspired me, the way she carried all of that.”
Mrs. Schaffer also found consolation from Father (later Monsignor) Thomas McGread, their pastor at St. Francis of Assisi parish in Wichita.
“He was so comforting and supporting of us,” said Mrs. Schaffer. “He always said to trust in God. He helped very much.”
About a year later, she and a friend were at a social gathering when Mrs. Schaffer met the brother of some girls she had known in high school. He had just returned from serving in Vietnam.
“Not long after that, he came over to the house and met Shawn and his aunts and uncles,” she recalled. “He fit perfectly into the family. My mother-in-law adored him.”
Brothers and sisters
Gary and Mary Schaffer got married, and young Shawn had a dad again.
“I often say that my father is deceased, but my dad is alive and well,” Bishop-elect McKnight once quipped.
The couple decided that Shawn should keep his last name, since he was the firstborn and the third generation of McKnights to be named William.
Seven more children — a daughter and six sons, including twin boys — were born to the Schaffers.
“Shawn was a very responsible child,” Mrs. Schaffer recalled. “I think he took the responsibility of being the oldest child very seriously.”
For a while, they lived two doors away from Shawn’s grandmother, Pat McKnight.
“I would make him cereal for breakfast, then he would walk down to his grandmother’s house and she’d fix him bacon and eggs before school,” said Mrs. Schaffer.
“Grandmas like to feed,” she noted. “I know. I’m a grandmother.”
She believes growing up with a lot of siblings, including one with special needs, taught Bishop-elect McKnight some important lessons.
“I think it prepared him to be the person he is,” she said. “He learned to deal with all different sorts of personalities under one roof.”
It helped him learn to connect with people and listen to them.
“And he knows how to be strong, but he’s always gentle,” said Mrs. Schaffer. “That’s one thing I’ve learned by watching him: how to stay strong but be gentle about leading others in the faith.”
Christ always present
Mr. and Mrs. Schaffer were already observant Catholics, but taking part in a Marriage Encounter weekend ignited their faith and willingness to get involved.
“Marriage Encounter inspired us to do more, to give more of our time and talent,” said Mrs. Schaffer.
Fr. McGread, who would become a pioneer of the Catholic stewardship movement, taught his parishioners that giving money is important but not enough.
“Time, talent and treasure!” said Mrs. Schaffer. “He made it obvious how important it is in a parish to give of yourself, whatever your talents are.”
He also encouraged parishioners to continue growing in faith and knowledge through Bible studies and adult education classes.
The Schaffers set out to raise their children in “a household that truly trusted in God and shared ourselves with others,” said Mrs. Schaffer.
“Whatever parish you’re in, you give of yourself — not just money, but your time and your talents,” she said. “We tried to show that to our children as they were growing up.”
Mr. Schaffer is a contract engineer for the Boeing Corporation, so the family spent time on the outskirts of Seattle, in rural Wyoming, in South Carolina, Georgia and other locales, in addition to Wichita.
“Christ is always present in every parish we’ve been at,” said Mrs. Schaffer. “Different people and different ways of doing things, but the Eucharist — Christ — was always there. He was always present and we could see Him and receive Him.”
Wherever the Schaffers were living, they chose Catholic schools.
“We had to go clear across the valley to get Shawn to a Catholic high school when we lived in Kent, Washington,” Mrs. Schaffer noted.
“Being in Catholic education requires you to sacrifice for your children,” she said. “That’s how God works things. He always requires something of us. But we get so much from it in return.”
For some in the Schaffer household, stewardship also meant service to country. Four of Bishop-elect McKnight’s brothers have served in the U.S. military, and he was an Air Force chaplain during the summer of his deacon year.
“Pray for your bishop”
Mrs. Schaffer will never forget the day her son knelt down before Bishop Eugene Gerber and received the sacrament of holy orders.
“That’s when it really hit me: ‘He’s now God’s … he’s to work wherever God wants him to be,’” she said. “He was being given a family that’s so much bigger than the one he had.”
Mrs. Schaffer hopes he never forgets something she and Mr. Schaffer did their best to teach him: to trust in God always.
“No matter what comes up in front of you, trust that God will get you through it,” she said.
She likewise hopes never to forget a lesson he taught her: to appreciate the dignity of other people by listening to them and gently bringing them around to the truth.
The Schaffers are looking forward to attending Bishop-elect McKnight’s ordination and installation and meeting people from his new diocese.
She asks for the people her son will be serving to be kind to him and to keep praying for him.
“Have faith that God is really the One Who’s leading your diocese,” she said. “And pray for your bishop and be faithful to God.”