THE BASEMENT OF ST. MARY’S CHURCH, site of the first council meetings in Knights of Columbus history, hosted another “first” on New Year’s Day. In the very place where Father Michael McGivney founded the Order in 1882, more than 50 men became Third Degree Knights — witnessed, for the first time, by their wives, children and other guests.
This was the debut of the combined exemplification of charity, unity and fraternity, the new public ceremony that can now be used instead of individual First, Second and Third degree ceremonies. Supreme Knight Carl Anderson, who announced the combined ceremony at the midyear state deputies meeting in November, was on hand for the historic event and greeted Knights and their families afterward.
“It’s the beginning of a new era for the Knights of Columbus,” Anderson told those gathered Jan. 1 at St. Mary’s in New Haven, Conn. “We’ve been talking for many years now about the Knights being a family-oriented organization, by which Catholic men joining our brotherhood become better Catholics, better husbands, better fathers. And that’s the point of this exemplification of the three principles; that’s the point of having family members witness your promises.”
Twenty-nine councils brought candidates and members to take part in the New Year’s Day exemplification, which was organized by the Connecticut State Council. A degree team made up of state leaders conferred degrees on 52 men — 10 new recruits, six online members and 36 First Degree Knights. Through the half-hour ceremony, all became full members of the Order.
Separate degree exemplifications — in which candidates are conferred with the First Degree during one event and later devote several hours to the Second and Third degree exemplifications — can be an impediment to joining for time-pressed family men, said Connecticut State Deputy Gary McKeone.
“I’ve been a member since 1988,” McKeone said. “If I were to join now, I would have gone through the First Degree but wouldn’t be able to give up a full Sunday to go through the Second and Third degrees. I wouldn’t want to spend the time away from my family.”
Another reason behind the change is a decline in the manpower needed to form degree teams. Members often have to wait long periods of time to advance to the Second and Third degrees, and some lose interest before they can do so.
To make the Order more inviting and accessible to a new generation of Knights, a simpler ceremony was developed by state leaders, Supreme Officers and experienced ceremonialists. This new streamlined ceremony “stay[s] true to our traditions while addressing the needs of our times,” Supreme Knight Anderson told state deputies in November. “It presents a fuller and richer understanding of who we are, what we stand for and what we are called to be.”
The most groundbreaking change is that the new ceremony can be held in the presence of family and friends, whether in a council chamber or in a church. As a result, the condition of secrecy, which was a component of the earlier form, has been lifted. Nearly 200 guests witnessed the first exemplification at St. Mary’s, more than double the number organizers expected.
Michael Shea, grand knight of St. Francis de Sales Council 9 in Bristol, Conn., observed that the new exemplification ceremony is more precise, while combining essential elements from each degree.
“I also like how it incorporated our families,” Shea said. “As Knights, that’s one of our key duties: bettering ourselves, our families and parishes. The new ceremony emphasizes this from the first moment.”
Lisa Gamsby of East Haven, Conn., was one of the guests; she watched with her mother and her 2-year-old daughter as her husband, Jason, advanced to the Third Degree, and her father, Glenn Stokes, became a new member of the Order. Both men are members of Our Lady of the Rosary Council 3300 in East Haven.
“It was really beautiful to see such a community of people coming together for something good,” Lisa Gamsby said. “There was a good family atmosphere, with people supporting each other. It was like a community you get to know within your own parish.”
For Jason, a 39-year-old trial lawyer, the presence of his family was meaningful, as was taking the degrees in the very hall where the Order was founded.
“I appreciated that I could invite my wife and daughter to come and see the process of becoming a Knight,” he said. “Gathering where Father McGivney started the Knights, right there at St. Mary’s, for the first exemplification of its kind — and then with Supreme Knight Carl Anderson being there to show his support — made the day extra special.”
Also present for the historic degree ceremony was the pastor of St. Mary’s, Dominican Father John Paul Walker; Father Jeffrey V. Romans, Connecticut state chaplain, who took the part of chaplain on the degree team; and Father Alphonso Fontana, pastor of St. Francis de Sales in Bristol, Conn.
Supreme Knight Anderson acknowledged that the new ceremony represents a major change. But, he added, “What is not changing is our commitment to charity, unity and fraternity.”
He continued, “What is not changing is our understanding of Catholic discipleship as envisioned by Father McGivney, that this brotherhood of Catholic men — mostly laymen — is the way to live out one’s life as a dedicated Catholic, to strive to be better as a Catholic individually and to be better as husbands and fathers; to strive to be better as parishioners, to engage in the parish, to strive to be better citizens, bringing the influence of our Gospel values into society.”
JOHN BURGER writes for Aleteia.org and is a member of Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Council 16253 in New Haven, Conn.
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