When St. John Paul II died on April 2, 2005, the Knights of Columbus mourned not only the loss of the Holy Father, but a friend. While the Order has worked closely with pontiffs dating back to 1920, its friendship with St. John Paul II was especially strong.
The relationship began in October 1978, when the Knights covered the costs of the telecast of the pontiff’s installation. St. John Paul II would become the most traveled pope in the Church’s history, and the Order funded the broadcast of pastoral events during his journeys.
One significant trip occurred early in his pontificate — a historic visit to Communist-controlled Poland. Communist leaders tried unsuccessfully to prevent the trip, in part because of the Knights of Columbus, who helped fund a documentary to inspire the Polish people and prepare them for the Holy Father's visit. An estimated 13 million people attended one of St. John Paul II’s public events during the visit and inspired the Polish people's love of freedom that eventually led to the fall of the Iron Curtain.
The Knights would later produce films about St. John Paul II: John Paul II in America: Uniting a Continent, Liberating a Continent: John Paul II and the Fall of Communism.
In addition to supporting St. John Paul II’s telecommunication efforts, the Knights also supported physical renovation projects in Vatican City during his pontificate, including the funding of a Polish chapel in the Vatican Grottoes, and the restoration of St. Peter’s Basilica. As a gift of appreciation, the pope presented to the Knights a copper cross once displayed on the roof of St. Peter’s.
At the behest of St. John Paul II, the Order also promoted vocations and fostered devotion in various ways including through the establishment of a prayer program celebrating the 25th anniversary of the pontiff’s papacy in 2003. The intention of the program was for the pope and all priests.
St. John Paul II recognized the vital charitable outreach of the Knights as he noted in numerous papal letters. He stated that they are an “outstanding example of Christian commitment” and commended the Order for upholding and promoting “Catholic teaching, above all in the area of the family and the defense of life.”
St. John Paul II canonized six Knights — Mexican martyrs killed during the Cristero War in the 1920s — and he also beatified Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, a member of the Knights of Columbus in Puerto Rico.
Even after the Holy Father’s death, the Knights of Columbus carries on his legacy. The Order sponsors the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington, D.C., and the Pontifical School of Theology in Kraków. A major initiative of the Knights of Columbus, the Saint John Paul II National Shrine in Washington, D.C., chronicles the life of the Holy Father and houses a first-class relic of his blood.
During his canonization in 2014, the Knights provided financial support for the Vatican television’s broadcast of the canonization ceremony, and hosted numerous pilgrims at K of C facilities.
As past Supreme Knight Carl Anderson said during the canonization vigil for St. John Paul II, “The legacy of his personal life of holiness, his incredible public ministry, and his profound teaching about the faith, continue to resonate not only with the John Paul II generation — of bishops, priests, religious and laity — but also with so many others who were moved by his witness and teaching, especially in the area of human love.”
The relationship between the Knights of Columbus and St. John Paul II is further explored in the book The Knights of Columbus: An Illustrated History.
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