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Their name immediately conjures up images, particularly one of plumed hats and satin-lined capes together with the sabers aligned in cathedral or church aisles for some ecclesiastical ceremony or event.
A more accurate picture was painted during an interview with the Supreme Knight of the international fraternal organization, the Knights of Columbus. Carl Anderson came to Boston Sept. 25 to visit St. John Seminary to inaugurate an additional vocation promotion program of his order.
During the celebration of the 50th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood, Pope John Paul II had written a book, “Gift and Mystery,” about his own vocational journey to the priesthood. The 1996 book has been reprinted at the request of Knights. Copies of the pope’s book will be distributed to each seminarian in the United States and also to those preparing for the priesthood at Rome’s Pontifical North American College, and Belgium’s North American College at Louvain.
In a special introduction to this edition, Anderson writes “On the 25th anniversary of the pontificate of John Paul II, the Knights of Columbus is privileged to offer a special edition of ‘Gift and Mystery’ as a sign of solidarity with his pontifical ministry as well as with those men now pursuing priestly ordination. May the testimony of ‘Gift and Mystery’ inspire and encourage those on the path of the priesthood, every step of the way.”
"We wanted these men, who are so privileged to be formed during this extraordinary pontificate, to share in a special way with the Holy Father's anniversary celebration," said Anderson.
Why Boston for the kick-off? Looking both backward and forward, Anderson noted, “Four of the past Supreme Knights have been from Massachusetts. We thought also that both the priests of the archdiocese and the seminarians here at St. John needed a special focus because of the experiences of the past months.”
Father John Farren, OP, the new rector of the seminary, had recently been the director of Catholic Information Services at the international headquarters of the Knights in New Haven, Conn. “We also wanted to thank Father Farren for his service to the order and to express our support for him in his new appointment.”
Other vocation programs
The Knights already have several programs in place promoting, encouraging and supporting vocations. Among these are: the RSVP program which offers financial support from the Knights to individual seminarians; Adopt a Seminarian, whereby a council supports a seminarian throughout his years of formation, both financial and spiritually; and an upcoming program to inspire vocation awareness among Knights and their own families tied into the World Day of Prayer for Vocations.
The combined efforts of the home office at New Haven and the various local councils throughout the order generated at least $7.5 million for the support of vocations.
Who and where are they? — Knights, that is
"Membership in the order is growing." A review of the numbers of both new councils and new members indicates noticeable growth in the southern, the western and the midwestern sections of the U.S. "Mexico is also a place where we can foresee great growth in membership. I wouldn't be surprised if we eventually saw a million Knights there." And the order continues steady growth in both Canada and the Philippines.
An area that needs special attention is the “historic core” — the states of Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New York have experienced notable decline in membership over the past several decades. The state leadership in each of those states is trying to meet new demands and, at the same time, recruit younger members. “We need to find ways of reaching younger men, to keep them involved in their parishes and in the order. This is a particular challenge.” Whether speaking about challenges the Knights face or about the evident success they enjoy, Anderson is evidently enthusiastic and obviously proud.
At the order’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C., in August Anderson reported some statistics:
Membership as of June 30, 2003 had grown to 1,660,197 from 1,647,771 in the previous year, while local councils had increased by almost 200 from 12,079 to 12,274 in 2003.
One of the original reasons Father Michael McGivney founded the Knights was to offer material support to the widows and orphans of deceased members, most of whom were immigrants, and most of them Irish. That program has expanded to become the principal source for the funding of many of the order’s better known, and in some cases lesser known, programs.
"We expect to have over $50 billion of insurance in force by year's end." said Anderson, about this key component of the order's life.
"We have a spirituality in the Knights which encourages active participation in the local parishes. Any pastor should be able to be comfortable with our members. We promote devotion to the Eucharist, to Mary, and loyalty to the Church and the Holy Father."
The Knights are encouraged to be involved in their own parishes. In the fraternal year 2002 almost 61million “volunteer hours” were offered by “these men we call Knights.” Of those hours, nearly 29 million were given to various church activities — most of those in local parishes. The Knights and their families are clearly a source of support and activity for the local parishes.
Some additional challenges
Anderson mentioned a specific challenge that the Knights face — “continuing our tradition of assisting immigrants in becoming Americans and remaining Catholic.” This is a particular focus in the southwest, with the large influx of Mexicans. But it is also a challenge for the “old centers of the order” — in the cities of the northeast where there are many Catholic immigrants who would benefit from membership in the order.
"I would like to see this happen in a way that the new members would 'get something from us' but also that they would be able to enrich the whole order with their specific traditions. This is something we must work on."
When you see a Knight collecting during the annual “Tootsie Roll Drive” in October, which supports their great work with Special Needs Children, or you smile at the appearance of the Fourth Degree Honor Guard at some civic or parish event, think also of what goes on behind the scenes — in the local councils, on the state level and at New Haven. It’s a lot more than plumed chapeaux, silk-lined capes and sabers!