RIMINI, Italy, AUG. 31, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Here is the address Carl A. Anderson, supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus, gave last week at the Meeting of Friendship Among Peoples held in Rimini, Italy.
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Two years ago, Pope Benedict invited us to live out hope “with works of charity, because hope, like faith, is demonstrated in love.”
That love of neighbor, which expresses both faith and hope, is the story of the Knights of Columbus.
When the Venerable Servant of God Father Michael McGivney founded the Knights of Columbus in 1882, he did so as a pastor, concerned about the welfare of the most marginalized.
Widows and orphans in 19th century America didn’t have much of a social safety net. If a breadwinner died, his wife and children faced a life of poverty, and the likely dissolution of the family, as children would be divided up among relatives able to support them, or worse, would be sent to state institutions for the indigent.
To make matters worse, Connecticut — and much of the United States — harbored a deep hostility to the Catholic Church. Employer discrimination based on an immigrant’s Catholic faith was a fact of life.
But the problem wasn’t simply a general one to Father McGivney. It was something he had dealt with personally — and I think that in any discussion of charity, the personal component — the encounter between us and Christ in the distressing disguise of the marginalized — if I may paraphrase Mother Teresa — is often more compelling than the statistics.
Father McGivney knew this first hand, when in early 1882, he put up the money necessary to keep a teenager named Alfred Downes with his family.
The boy’s father had died and left a widow and children with no financial resources to speak of. Only Father McGivney’s help saved young Alfred from being wrested from his mother and siblings, and put in a state institution. And let’s not forget that the state that ran those institutions was quite hostile to the Catholic Church.
Faced with such personal experiences, we can see why this priest was the same man who that very same year, would formally establish the Knights of Columbus.
Father McGivney had several goals in the foundation of the Knights. First and foremost was the protection of the spiritual and temporal welfare of his parishioners.
Spiritually, the men of St. Mary’s parish in New Haven needed a Catholic group, a network of faithful men with whom they could associate and have their faith strengthened. McGivney knew that many of his parishioners were tempted to join other fraternal societies — that were not Catholic — but which promised both “fraternity” and career advancement — what we might call “networking.”
So Father McGivney saw the Knights as an authentic response to the threats to his flock’s faith. Threats made all the more real by the need these men had to feed their families.
On a temporal level as well, Father McGivney was concerned with the welfare of his parishioners. Among other things, as his experience with the Downes’ family makes clear, Father McGivney also knew that the safety and security — as well as a parent’s ability to bring up their children Catholic — could be seriously threatened by the financial upheaval caused by a tragic death.
So — in a very real way — the Knights were organized to protect the integrity of the Catholic family and some of the most vulnerable and marginalized people of the time — widows and orphans.
The Knights were a living example of what Pope Benedict referred to in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, when he wrote: “The parable of the Good Samaritan offers two particularly important clarifications. Until that time, the concept of ‘neighbor’ was understood as referring essentially to one’s countrymen and to foreigners who had settled in the land of Israel; in other words, to the closely-knit community of a single country or people. This limit is now abolished. Anyone who needs me, and whom I can help, is my neighbor.”
In addition, the choosing of the name “Knights of Columbus” was not accidental. Columbus was chosen as the Order’s patron, precisely because he was then one of the only Catholics popularly revered in American history. Linking the organization to a patriotic hero underscored the fact that a man could be a good Catholic and a good American citizen.
As a group committed to the spiritual and temporal welfare of its members, the Order had as its founding principles charity, unity and fraternity. It was the principle of charity — the first principle of the Knights of Columbus — that was to become our most defining characteristic.
Knights started by helping their local parish priests — beginning with Father McGivney himself. They collected money for the family of a deceased member — a process that grew into one of the most highly rated insurance operations in the United States. They became pillars of their community, and the way they loved their neighbor became a concrete example of Christ’s love in the world.
From those humble beginnings, the charitable endeavors of the Knights grew.
When Catholics from Ireland and Italy were marginalized by American immigration laws that excluded them, the Knights of Columbus stood up to the bigotry publically denouncing the laws in question and calling for their reform.
When there was a lack of sufficient accommodation for the spiritual or temporal well-being of Catholic troops in the American military, it was the Knights who stepped forward.
Other religions had service centers that catered to those of one faith or another, but for a Catholic to avail himself of their services meant that he would have to run a gauntlet of proselytizing.
The Knights stepped forward — at home and in Europe. Caring for the temporal needs of the troops meant running service centers. Unlike those with an overt sectarian agenda run by other non-Catholic religious groups, the Knights’ program proclaimed “Everybody Welcome, Everything Free.” As a witness to authentic Christian charity, the Knights embraced all as our neighbor.
In fact, though racial tolerance — let alone acceptance and equality — was decades away, the Knights were applauded by Emmet J. Scott, the black historian who chronicled African Americans’ experiences in World War I. He wrote: “Another organization was of much service in making Negro soldiers comfortable at the front. This was the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic society, which has to its credit that, unlike the other social welfare organizations operating in the war, it never drew the color line.”
On a spiritual level, the Knights also provided Catholic chaplains to the troops, supplementing those provided directly by the Army. More than 50 chaplains were sponsored by the Knights. These brave priests risked everything. One heroic example is Father William F. Davitt of Holyoke, Massachusetts, who died in the line of duty on November 11, 1918, the day the war ended. He — and the others — had risked their lives to be with the troops, with those most in need, those literally in no-man’s-land, but also those whose souls depended on them.
Peacetime offered different challenges. And after the war the Knights commitment to charity continued by providing job training for returning troops.
And having been victims of prejudice as Catholics, and having seen the horrors on the battlefields of the Great War, the Knights continued — or perhaps I should say pioneered — work on racial equality. In the 1920s, in keeping with our commitment to the marginalized, we published a series of books on the contributions of racial and ethnic minorities — including such titles as The Gift of Black Folk, by W.E.B. du Bois, and the Jews in the Making of America, by George Cohen.
At the same time, at the request of the Vatican, the Knights began charitable activity in Rome. In the 1920s, the Knights began to run sports fields for the use of the children of
Rome, many of whom did not have access to adequate sporting facilities. Everyone, including the poor were welcome without cost.
Over the years, the commitment to charity remained. During the Great Depression, the Knights ran job boards to help those who were out of work. In the 1940s, it was again the Knights who assisted Canadian troops with Army Huts — and provided a similar program for Allied troops in the Philippines.
Having done pioneering work on racial equality during the 1920s, it was no surprise that during the 1960s, the Knights were a proud partner of the American civil rights movement. Members of the Knights including then Supreme Knight John McDevitt and Oblate Father William P. Ryan, just to name a few, were outspoken supporters of civil rights.
One story of the Knights work during this period illustrates this work well. In 1964, the Knights threatened to boycott the New Orleans hotel scheduled to hold our convention if the hotel did not repeal its segregationist policies. It immediately integrated. Catholic action in defense of the dignity of the human person had resulted in real change. It had triumphed over prejudice.
As racial bigotry began to diminish, old threats to human dignity remained and new ones began to emerge. One marginalized group with which the Knights began to work very closely in the 1960s was the intellectually disabled. Our work with Special Olympics, for example goes back 40 years, when the Knights began working with the late Eunice Kennedy Shriver, wife of Knight and American statesman Sargent Shriver.
And this work continues to this day as one of the Knights strongest programs.
The Knights of Columbus has worked to build a culture of life since abortion first threatened young life in the womb. The Knights were present at the very birth of the pro-life movement, taking up the cause of those who had no voice, and becoming one of the strongest advocates on their behalf in the years that followed.
But what we have found is that our life cannot be one dimensional. The Knights have worked to support the mothers of children who choose life. Working with the Sisters of Life — a congregation founded by the late Cardinal John O’Connor of New York, the Knights have sponsored Villa Maria Guadalupe — a pro-life retreat center and a place of hope for mothers in crisis.
The Knights have also helped to heal the pain of parents of aborted children. Working with Project Rachel, the Knights have sponsored two conferences on the effect of abortion on fathers.
In addition, with the John Paul II Institute in Rome, we sponsored a conference last year on the effect of abortion on parents, and the effect of divorce on children.
Whether locally or nationally, Knights have been defenders of those with no one else to defend them. And it has been this way since our founding.
People often speak of the Church’s preferential option for the poor. And we often hear reference to Christ’s words that tell us that what we do for the least we do for Him. This is a great part of the reason that the Knights of Columbus have had as a consistent mission an outreach to those on the margins, to those forgotten by society, to those society considers the least!
Today, 127 years after our founding in Connecticut, our ability to practice our principle of charity has grown exponentially. Last year alone Knights donated more than $150 million to charity and provided more than 68 million hours of charitable service — almost all of which was provided at the local level.
On a weekly basis, our members cook meals for the homeless, help provide for the needs of those with intellectual disabilities, support women in crisis pregnancies, and the children they bring into the world.
The Knights have provided ultrasound machines to crisis pregnancy centers so that they can help a woman see the life inside her — and choose to love that life. The Knights have worked to care for the men and women who have lost a child to abortion, and are wounded by the experience. The Knights have provided coats, in the dead of winter, for poor children in America’s inner cities. In short, we have awakened people to their own humanity, and rediscovered our own. This is what the Knights do today, and what I believe Father McGivney founded us to do.
We have led by example — not only in our charitable giving — but also in our ability to run a successful business enterprise based on Catholic social teaching.
We treat customers and employees fairly. Our investment rules prevent us from investing in dozens of companies that violate Catholic teaching in a number of areas, and yet, in one of the worst financial crisis in memory, we turned a solid profit.
In addition, because of our commitment to running our business in a “Catholic” way, the Knights is one of only four US life insurance companies — and the only one in Canada — to have achieved the highest rating for financial strength from AM Best and Standard and Poors, and ethical certification from the Insurance Marketplace Standards Association.
I think it is important that each of us work to better the moral compass of business. This can be done in many ways, all of them important. First, we should keep our ethics consistent throughout our life, whether at home or at work, and we should settle for nothing less than ethical behavior from those who work for us. Second, where we invest our money and what companies we choose to partner with is an obvious ethical matter in which we can help to influence the moral compass of various businesses for the better.
As we face the worst economic crisis of our lifetime, we should remember that the worst of human nature — greed — has been diagnosed as a large part of the cause. Many lost sight of the importance of unity — of communion — with their neighbors. And we must look to the best of humanity — to generosity, solidarity, and communion — with our neighbor as the prescription. A business model based on the understanding of the dignity of each person, and on our responsibility to our neighbor cannot help but be an ethical one. We must work to replace Cain’s motivation, with the Good Samaritan’s in every aspect of our lives, and especially in business relationships. Only in this way — as the Pope makes clear in his recent encyclical Caritas in Veritate — will development be truly sustainable.
And we have also gone out of our way to witness to other organizations on the good that can be done in service to our neighbor.
This past year, the Knights organized a summit on volunteerism as a response to the economic crisis. The Knights shared — and had others share — the good that we are able to do in our communities with dozens of organization from around the United States. We brought together organizations such as the Salvation Army, the United Way, Catholic Charities, and General Electric — all committed to working together for the good and dignity of those in need.
In each of these cases, as with so much of what we do, the service has been to those most in need — whether that need is temporary, long-term, or permanent.
I believe that Catholics — and Catholic organizations and movements — have an excellent opportunity to reach out both to other Catholics, and to the world at large, through charity. As Christians, Christ has called us to be known by the “way we love one another,” and the leadership we can exert can be a great force for good. At the Knights of Columbus we have built great and lasting relationships and have been able to exponentially multiply the good that we do by working together with other groups — at our summit — and long before that with Special Olympics, the American Wheelchair Mission, Habitat for Humanity, Catholic Charities, and many others. We have also worked closely, since our founding, with the Catholic Church at every level: within our parishes, our dioceses and with the Holy Father. By putting ourselves at the service of Church and community — and by working in and with both, we are bet
ter able to answer Christ’s call to love our neighbor, and by our example to teach all nations.
Such cooperation — communion if you will — with the Church and with other organizations striving to do good, is, I believe, an excellent model for Catholic movements as they seek to transform the world by encouraging people to say “yes” to Jesus Christ. And nowhere is the face of our Church more attractive than in our open embrace of our neighbor. Each encounter with those in need is actually an opportunity to create a civilization of love, one person, one act at a time.
But sometimes statistics and the sheer volume of good works can make the practical effect hard to visualize. What makes an organization like ours work — and keep on working for more than 127 years — is the effect of each event, each encounter between a member and his neighbor. Both are changed, but the change for the one giving help is often the more profound.
In my role as Supreme Knight, I must admit that what moves me most are those moments when I can see first-hand the effect of our work.
It’s not the millions of dollars and hours donated. It’s not the number of projects. As Pope Benedict reminds us often, it’s not about numbers at all. It’s about saying “yes” to Jesus Christ in service to our neighbor — It’s seeing the face of Christ in the face of each person who needs our help.