Speaking to a K of C delegation on pilgrimage to Rome 100 years ago, Pope Benedict XV said, “Knights of Columbus, you have done great things — you are destined to do still greater.”
The group of 235 Knights met with the Holy Father on Aug. 28, 1920, followed by a private papal Mass the next day. The Knights, led by Supreme Knight James Flaherty, processed into the papal audience in faultless formalwear, but the event was much more than a formality. In fact, it turned out to be a pivotal moment in the Order’s relationship with the Vatican, inaugurating a century of service and collaboration.
“The Knights of Columbus, besides being a magnificent example to their brethren in the faith, are also the best of citizens,” Pope Benedict XV stated. “Truly they deserve to be honored with the name of ‘sKnights,’ a name which, in the Middle Ages, was the hallmark of an institution among whose aims were respect for and defense of the Church, care and love for the weak and poor.”
Noting that the Order had offered to extend its charitable work to Rome, Benedict XV presented a problem that the Knights were equipped to solve. Catholic children, the pope said, were being drawn toward non-Catholic groups through the sports programs they offered. He urged the Knights to make their presence felt in Rome so as to counter this anti- Catholic “propaganda, which to our sorrow we see so widely spread in this dear city.”
Here, the pope added, “is another field of competition before you.”
It did not take long for the Knights to respond. Between 1922 and 1927, the Order built five recreation centers in the Eternal City. A sixth facility opened in 1952, and all but one of the “playgrounds,” which include soccer fields, gyms and chapels, continue to operate today. The Order donated the property of St. Peter’s Oratory, which was also used as a relief center during and after World War II, to the Holy See in 1965, for the site of a new papal audience hall adjacent to St. Peter’s Basilica.
Indeed, the Order’s practical and effective response to Pope Benedict XV’s request for assistance was the first of many initiatives in service to the Vatican. For more than 50 years, the Supreme Council has supported the Holy See’s communications efforts, from a shortwave transmitter for Vatican Radio in 1966 to livestreamed broadcasts today. Since the 1980s, the Order has likewise sponsored a series of restorations in collaboration with the Fabbrica di San Pietro, from the façade of St. Peter’s Basilica to the preservation of invaluable sacred art.
In recent decades, the Knight of Columbus has also sponsored many papal events and initiatives, such as pastoral visits of Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, and various World Youth Day activities since 1993. And since the Order established the Vicarius Christi Fund in 1981, it has generated more than $60 million for the pope’s personal charities.
This past February, in anticipation of the centenary of the Knights’ presence in Rome, the Knights of Columbus Board of Directors visited the Vatican and met and prayed with Pope Francis (see April 2020 issue of Columbia).
“As an organization of Catholic men, we are proud to have been of service to Your Holiness, and to each successor of St. Peter since 1920,” Supreme Knight Carl Anderson said in remarks to Pope Francis Feb. 10. “The Knights of Columbus, now 2 million strong, pledge our continued support of the Church — locally in our parishes, and universally through our assistance to the Holy See.”
After World War I, the Knights memorialized the bonds of fraternity forged between the United States and France
THE KNIGHTS’ 1920 pilgrimage to Rome was preceded by a pilgrimage to France, where the Order had served thousands of troops during the First World War through its Army huts program.
The K of C delegation arrived in the city of Metz, in the Lorraine region of northeast France, on Aug. 20. The next day, Supreme Knight James Flaherty presented two symbolic gifts of unity in commemoration of the Allied victory in the war — to the country, a statue of the Marquis de Lafayette, and to Marshal Ferdinand Foch, supreme commander of the Allied forces, a ceremonial gold baton.
Metz held special significance for Lafayette, who trained there as a soldier before joining the American Revolution in 1775. Foch also had ties to Metz, having gone to school there before it was annexed by Germany in 1871. Before the city was returned to France at the end of the First World War, Foch replied to a letter of support from Supreme Knight Flaherty.
“I am deeply touched by the attention of the Knights of Columbus,” Foch wrote. “It was from Metz that Lafayette went to help your ancestors, and we shall one day see your victorious banner floating over Metz.”
His words proved prophetic, as the victorious marshal presented the city to the French president on Dec. 8, 1918, with U.S. Gen. John Pershing at his side and the American and French flags flying overhead.
When the Knights presented their gifts in Metz on Aug. 21, 1920, the two flags waved again. Immense crowds, including 5,000 French troops and 3,000 children in traditional garb, thronged the streets. Airplanes flew overhead as people cheered, “Vive l’Amerique! Vive les Chevaliers de Colomb!”
After a solemn Requiem Mass for the war dead in the Metz Cathedral, Marshal Foch marched with the Knights to the square where the new statue of Lafayette stood shrouded. In the presence of bishops and other dignitaries, Supreme Knight Flaherty unveiled the 18-foottall bronze sculpture depicting Lafayette on horseback, as schoolgirls scattered flowers at its base.
“Lafayette is both of France and America,” Supreme Knight Flaherty said in his ceremonial address. “Let this statue be a symbol of 145 years of unbroken bonds of friendship.”
He then presented the gold baton to Foch, describing him as an ideal Christian soldier.
Foch embraced the supreme knight and said, “America and France have long fought for liberty and they will continue to protect liberty throughout the world. Knights of Columbus: You have performed a service for both France and America of benefit to all future generations, and you have stirred the heart of the French people as they have never been stirred before.”
A year later, during Foch’s visit to United States, the Knights officially made the marshal, renowned for his deep faith as well as his military leadership, an honorary member.
The Order formally expanded to France in 2015 and, having grown to 23 councils, the jurisdiction was recently declared a territory by the Knights of Columbus Board of Directors. — reported by Andrew J. Matt, managing editor
Logos & Emblems
Fraternal Leader Advisory
Knights in Action
Share your Knights in Action News
Please contact the
Knights of Columbus News Bureau