MY BROTHER KNIGHTS, as I have done in years past, I wish to take this opportunity in my closing remarks to emphasize themes brought to us by our Holy Father, Pope Francis, in his letter to our convention (see page 2). The Holy Father’s letter to us should serve as a mission statement for us as we move forward in the coming year.
I begin by recalling these words: “His Holiness is grateful for the countless ways in which the Knights of Columbus continue to bear prophetic witness to God’s dream for a more fraternal, just and equitable world in which all are recognized as neighbors and no one is left behind.”
In this way, Pope Francis encourages us to move forward under our theme, Knights of Columbus: Knights of Fraternity. Let us continue our work to build civil communities based upon brotherhood and to strengthen the fraternal character of our parish communities through our work of charity and unity.
As I said in my annual report, it is the fraternal character of our charitable work that gives the Order its decisive character and its impressive strength. Through Father McGivney’s spiritual genius, the Knights of Columbus has become a vehicle by which we are able to transform friends into brothers. At the same time, we are able to transform those in need into our brothers and sisters.
Pope Francis has reminded Catholics time and again that the disciples of Christ must reflect the “joy of the Gospel.” This, too, is an essential dynamic of the fraternal character of the Knights of Columbus. This is expressed in thousands of ways through our social and fraternal activities, especially those in our parish communities.
When we provide wholesome activities for families to come together, we not only strengthen family life, but we affirm what it means to live together in Christian community and strengthen parish life as well. Father McGivney understood this; it was the reason he organized parish picnics, youth outings and even baseball games.
And through our many programs serving persons with developmental disabilities, such as Special Olympics, we not only affirm the “joy of the Gospel,” we also affirm these brothers and sisters in what we may call the “dignity of the Gospel.”
This year, the message of Pope Francis focuses on the upcoming beatification of our Founder. I can report to you that in my meetings with Pope Francis and especially in the meeting with our supreme chaplain, the Holy Father expressed a genuine affection for Father McGivney and appreciation for his work.
We often hear it said that shepherds should have the smell of sheep — quoting the now-famous phrase of Pope Francis. Father McGivney would certainly agree. But I also think that this phrase would have given Father McGivney pause.
As a pastor, Father McGivney never left his sheep. He never saw his parish community as an “us” and “them” situation. To the contrary, Father McGivney’s understanding of Christian communion would, I think, be best expressed by paraphrasing the words of St. Augustine: With you I am a Christian; for you I am a priest. In this way, Father McGivney was truly the model parish priest.
Father McGivney’s priesthood could in no way be seen as a position of comfort and privilege. To the contrary, it was first and always a path of sacrifice and service. As Pope Francis reminds us in his letter, “This spirit of Christian solidarity marked in a special way the life and activity of your Founder, the Blessed Michael McGivney.”
This spirit of solidarity, this closeness to his people, marked the priesthood of Father McGivney and called him to a life of heroic virtue. As one of his contemporaries observed, the people in the neighborhood referred to him as a saint — and they meant it.
Pope Francis goes on to encourage all of us and “trusts that [the upcoming beatification of Father McGivney] will be a stimulus for Knights to deepen their commitment to live as missionary disciples in charity, unity and fraternity.”
“THROUGH FATHER MCGIVNEY’S SPIRITUAL GENIUS ... WE ARE ABLE TO TRANSFORM FRIENDS INTO BROTHERS.”
The final section of the pope’s message that I would bring to your attention is this: “Through the building up of family life, individuals and societies grow in solidarity, mutual respect, truth, mercy and love. At a time of social unrest, these virtues are all the more necessary in the promotion of peace, reconciliation and justice, a mission which the Knights of Columbus are pledged to advance by serving as a leaven of the Gospel both with their local communities and the wider society.”
My brother Knights, I offer three observations about this statement by the Holy Father. First, his words should encourage us to redouble our great work to strengthen Christian family life through our programs such as Building the Domestic Church; Consecration to the Holy Family; our men’s spirituality program, Into the Breach; and our promotion of the family rosary and prayer.
Second, as I have said many times, our principles of charity, unity and fraternity are needed today as much as ever. Can any of our societies say that they have an abundance of charity, unity or brotherhood? It is up to us to bring a Catholic witness of charity, unity and fraternity into the day-to-day realities of life. In this way, we can practice both a charity that evangelizes and, dare I say, a patriotism that evangelizes.
Third, I would observe that we can only give authentic witness to our principles if our own councils are places where charity, unity and brotherhood are authentically practiced. I urge everyone to make our councils places of tr ue fraternity.
As we prepare to move forward now together at the beginning of this fraternal year, we are all aware of the painful upheaval caused by the global coronavirus pandemic and the social unrest that has gripped so many communities.
We are determined to continue our charitable work under the banner of “Leave No Neighbor Behind.” This initiative has already brought more than $5 million and hundreds of thousands of volunteer hours of aid to our suffering neighbors in need. This good work must continue in the days ahead and we are determined that it will.
We must also continue our work to promote unity and brotherhood, especially in those communities where racism, prejudice and inequality have eaten away at their foundations.
In my annual report, I quoted the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the necessity of our nation having communities based on “the solid rock of brotherhood.” But I repeat: When we look around, where do we see such solid rock? That solid rock must be us. This must be our witness. We must provide such an example for our fellow citizens.
The day I was elected supreme knight, I said that we have “a moral obligation to offer membership in the Knights of Columbus to every eligible Catholic man.” I went on to say that the Knights of Columbus should be everywhere the Catholic Church is.
This was meant not just as an incentive to grow the Order, and not just in recognition of the many benefits that membership in the Knights of Columbus can bring to a Catholic man and his family. It was also meant in recognition of the Order’s role in promoting missionary discipleship and evangelization in our Church.
I would further emphasize that it means opening the doors of our more than 16,000 councils to the diversity of races and ethnicities that is our Church today. Already we can see this in the success of our Spanish-speaking councils, the tremendous growth of the Knights of Columbus in the Philippines and among Filipino communities in the United States and Canada, and among communities of Middle Eastern Catholics. Yet more needs to be done.
I am pleased to report to you that, during their recent meeting, your supreme directors voted to bestow honorary membership to two distinguished Catholic gentlemen: Knights of Peter Claver Supreme Knight James Ellis and Past Supreme Knight DeKarlos Blackmon. It is my sincere hope that in the days ahead, we may find ways for greater cooperation between our two fraternal societies. We must move forward, united in a spirit of brotherhood and charity, to meet the great challenges before us.
The devastation of the global coronavirus pandemic may be with us for years to come. We have met other natural disasters in the recent past, but none as widespread and potentially longlasting. In the midst of such challenges, we also face cultural challenges that are not unlike those we have faced in the past.
I refer now to the recent attacks on our faith and attempts to marginalize and even exclude our Church from society. Earlier, I spoke about attacks on the legacy of St. Junípero Serra.
Just days ago, according to news reports, a member of Congress pointed to the statue of Father Damien of Molokai, Hawaii, that stands in the U.S. Capitol and said it is an expression of “white supremacist culture.” We know Father Damien as a Catholic missionary from Belgium — recognized now as a saint — who gave his life in solidarity with the Indigenous people suffering from leprosy. While many were shocked to read this report, I am not sure that St. Damien would be, for he was the subject of anti-Catholic slander and lies during his own lifetime.
But it is nonetheless worth taking a moment to reflect on this incident. If Father Damien is not good enough for an honored place in American society, what chance do any of the rest of us have? If today there is to be no place in our Capitol building for a saint such as Father Damien, then tomorrow what place will there be in our country for our Church? Will our Church, too, be dismissed someday as merely another institutional expression of a “white supremacist culture?”
My brother Knights, I have been to Molokai. I have prayed in the chapel that Father Damien built with his own hands. I have seen the faces of those suffering from the terrible disease of leprosy. I know what Father Damien’s sacrifice has meant to them. And I say to you that the defamation of our great saints must end.
During my first visit to South Korea, I visited one of the great shrines to the Korean martyrs. In the entrance of the church there is a large painting of a group of young French missionaries saying farewell to their families. The painting depicts mothers who are weeping and fathers with tears in their eyes as they say goodbye to the sons they will never see again. That painting impressed upon me the reality of a sacrifice that occurred thousands of times as generations of Catholic missionaries — both men and women — left their families and friends to lay down their lives in service to the Gospel and for the salvation of souls they had yet to meet. They did not journey to new lands as conquerors or colonists. They came as missionary disciples whose lives were hard, painful and often short.
We should be encouraged that the heroic virtue — the holiness — of both St. Junípero Serra and St. Damien of Molokai has been reaffirmed in recent years by Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI. We may not have been called to follow in the footsteps of these missionaries. But I do believe we have been called to defend their legacy.
Five years ago, during the canonization Mass of St. Junípero Serra in Washington, D.C., Pope Francis called Serra “the embodiment of ‘a Church which goes forth.’” Perhaps that is why today he and other Catholic missionaries who also were a part of that “Church which goes forth” are under such attack.
“WE HAVE BEEN CALLED TO BE MISSIONARY DISCIPLES IN THE MIDST OF OUR FAMILIES AND PARISHES.”
In his reflections on the French Revolution, Edmund Burke observed that an institution is never more vulnerable than when it admits a need for reform. Obviously, this is as true of churches as it is of governments. Since the Second Vatican Council, our Church has undergone a continuous process of self-examination, renewal and reform. Much has been accomplished and more needs to be done. Recently, it may seem that the challenges are greater than ever. And we must shoulder our share of this work.
Some of us may look around at the problems we face and be reminded of that passage in the Second Letter to the Corinthians in which St. Paul writes, “We should like you to realize, brothers, that the things we had to undergo … were more of a burden than we could carry, so that we despaired of coming through alive. … It has taught us not to rely on ourselves but only on God” (2 Cor 1:8-9).
Yet, in these words of the great missionary disciple, St. Paul, we see the 2,000-year-old spirit of that Church which goes forth. These words also capture the courage and determination of that Spanish missionary along the coast of California, that Belgian missionary isolated on an island in the Pacific, and that young American parish priest in the port city of New Haven, Conn.
My brother Knights, we have not been called to leave our families and follow in the footsteps of these missionary disciples. But we have been called to be missionary disciples in the midst of our families and parishes, to reach out to our neighbors, whether they be next door, across town or in another country.
During his visit in Washington, D.C., Pope Francis suggested that the Church in America take up as its own the motto of St. Junípero Serra: Siempre adelante! Always forward!
This is a motto worthy of the Knights of Columbus and of the legacy of Father McGivney. You may ask, what is his legacy? It is the legacy of giving life to a brotherhood that would soon grow into one of the great fraternal charitable movements in the history of our Church — for that is now what the Knights of Columbus has become.
This legacy of greatness is a call to be greater still. It is a call to be great of heart, of muscle and of vision. To be great not for the sake of our own prestige and power, but to be great in service to others. Let us, as Knights of Columbus, take up this challenge.
Let us go forward together in a spirit of fraternity with charity and unity in our hearts to be that leaven in society, to fulfill the mission of the laity to transform society in the light of the Gospel, and to write an even brighter chapter in the history of the Knights of Columbus.
But Pope Francis has given us an even greater challenge. He did so in the announcement of the beatification of Father McGivney.
What is this challenge? It is the challenge presented by Father McGivney himself — the challenge to live a life of heroic virtue according to the principles of charity, unity and fraternity.
And so, during the coming fraternal year, may we walk this path together, encouraging one another and strengthening one another “as iron sharpens iron” (Prov 27:17). May we truly be through the year Knights of Columbus: Knights of Fraternity.
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