ROME, JUNE 11, 2010 (Zenit.org).- The Capitoline Museum overlooking the Roman Forum is known for housing a magnificent collection of Roman art and artifacts. Since Wednesday, however, a very different exhibit is interspersed among the museum’s ancient columns and medieval art — one that details the relationship between the city and a U.S.-based organization.
“Over 90 years it has become clear that the people of Rome love the Knights of Columbus, and we love the people of Rome,” said Supreme Knight Carl Anderson, who opened the conference on the Knights that made up part of the opening ceremonies for the exhibit. “That is the secret to the success of this relationship.”
The photos and artifacts that chronicle this friendship will be on display until Oct. 31. The exhibit is titled “Everybody Welcome, Everything Free: The Knights of Columbus and Rome, 90 Years of Friendship.”
The Knights were first brought to Rome on a short-term basis at the request of Benedict XV during World War I. Their mission was to help American troops by establishing a service center in Rome like those they’d founded throughout Europe.
Their work soon expanded however, and in 1920, Benedict XV asked the Knights to return to Rome, this time on a long-term basis, taking responsibility for providing athletic facilities for the youth of the city.
That work continued even during World War II, when the United States and Italy fought on opposite sides. During that time, approximately 400,000 people a day were fed by the papal charity, which was run for some time from the Knights’ St. Peter’s Oratory next to the Vatican.
And after the war ended, the Knights worked with the U.N. Relief and Rehabilitation Administration to feed children, again utilizing their facilities in the city, while also working actively with other Catholic organizations on Italian relief efforts.
Founded in 1882, the Knights of Columbus today is the world’s largest Catholic fraternal organization with over 1.8 million members in 13 countries. One of the most active charitable groups in the United States, the Knights last year provided a record-setting 69 million hours of charitable service and more than $151 million in donations, despite the weak economy.
Examples of the organization’s Rome initiatives in the years since World War II include the sponsorship of Vatican satellite communications; major restoration projects, including the façade of St. Peter’s Basilica completed in 1987; the continued maintenance of five athletic centers available to youth and others, including the intellectually disabled; and the sponsorship of conferences on social issues, such as pastoral outreach to those hurt by experiences with divorce and abortion.
Discussing what he termed the Knights’ “fruitful permanence in Rome,” Benedict XVI’s secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, said at the opening of the exhibit: “I would like to join in with this universal expression of public applause and thank the Knights of Columbus, who in the world, and especially in Rome, witness the love of Christ and his Church for the weak and defenseless.”
He described the group as a “meaningful expression of the evangelical requisite of charity.”
The mayor of Rome, Gianni Alemanno, also participated in the exhibit’s opening.
“The Knights of Columbus are rightfully part of the Rome of the third millennium, which we want to build together without detaching ourselves from our true cultural and spiritual roots,” he said.
The mayor went on to commend the legacy of the Knights of Columbus sports centers, whose former patrons include 1960s Italian soccer star Giancarlo “Picchio” De Sisti. Today, Alemanno said, the centers are “the flower on the lapel of our city” for their free services to parishes, schools and institutes for the disabled, hospitals, centers of rehabilitation, needy children and seminarians.
The mayor also praised the quiet diplomatic work done on behalf of the city by the Knights’ representative in Rome during World War II, Count Enrico Pietro Galeazzi, in an era before formal Vatican relations existed with the United States.
The Knights’ role in diplomacy between the Holy See and Washington would come full circle in 1982, at the organization’s 100th international convention. There, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Agostino Casaroli met with President Ronald Reagan and discussed the transition to full diplomatic relations.
Feeding the hungry
The relief efforts undertaken by the Knights of Columbus during and after the Second World War are featured prominently in the new exhibit. A black and white photo taken by a U.N. photographer on a Knights of Columbus playground depicts the Knights’ collaboration with the U.N. Relief and Rehabilitation Administration to aid in the distribution of food — especially to children — during a time of severe shortages after the war.
Likewise, a news article from 1944 describes St. Peter’s Oratory as the headquarters of Pope Pius XII’s personal food distribution program, which fed upwards of 400,000 people daily.
The exhibit also traces the Knights of Columbus’ contribution to arts and communications projects in Rome and the Vatican.
Since 1975, the organization has financed the satellite transmission of major Vatican events, such as Christmas and Easter liturgies and the funeral Masses of Popes John Paul I and John Paul II, as well as satellite downlink costs for poor nations. In another boost for Vatican communications, the Knights funded the Vatican Television Center’s purchase of a mobile television studio in 1985.
Cardinal John Foley, the former president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, said these actions have marked a pivotal step forward for the Church’s mission of evangelization.
“For many countries, that signal would not have reached them without the help of the Knights of Columbus,” Cardinal Foley said. “So there was a consciousness of the importance of this work, and it has helped create a real sense of the unity of the Church, the universality of the Church.”
The Knights of Columbus have also assisted with some of Rome’s greatest treasures, supporting Vatican restorations through a close partnership with the Fabbrica di San Pietro. Projects funded by the Knights at St. Peter’s Basilica alone include the restoration of the façade, the Maderno Atrium, the dome of the Blessed Sacrament chapel, several grottos and the statues of Sts. Peter and Paul in the Square.
“Some of the greatest works of spiritual beauty and creativity that humanity has produced are in the safeguarding hands of the Vatican,” Anderson said in a video shown at the event. “The Knights have felt very proud that we’ve had the opportunity to preserve and enhance what really is a patrimony of humanity.”