When Blessed Michael McGivney founded the Knights of Columbus in 1882, many of its first members were — like Father McGivney — the children of immigrants, or immigrants themselves. Rooted in a shared faith, the Order forged bonds of unity, charity and brotherhood, and within a matter of decades, it expanded internationally with councils in Canada, Mexico, the Philippines and beyond. Today, even as Catholic men around the world join the Knights of Columbus, a growing group within the Church shares a close similarity with those very first Knights: Hispanic Catholics in the United States.
“The Hispanic community — including the immigrant and refugee communities — is the best reflection today of the early Knights of Columbus,” explained Supreme Director Antonio Bañuelos, a past state deputy of Iowa who immigrated to the U.S. from Chihuahua, Mexico. “I have seen how the Order has helped immigrant and refugee families integrate more fully into the Church and take more active roles in church leadership.”
As of 2016, Hispanics made up more than 40% of the Catholic Church in the United States, and an even greater proportion — more than half — of American Catholics under the age of 29. However, while the Hispanic population in the U.S. Church has grown rapidly for decades, surveys indicate the practice of the faith decreases by roughly 10% with each generation: More than 6 in 10 immigrants from Latin America identify as Catholic, but the same is true for only 43% of the grandchildren of immigrants. These demographic changes raise a question for the Knights of Columbus: How can the Order provide pastoral care to the largest segment of the Church in the United States today?
The answer is more than simply hosting events or creating councils that cater to speakers of a particular language, Supreme Knight Patrick Kelly told K of C leaders at the Midyear Meeting of State Deputies last month. It’s a matter of personal invitation.
“Hispanic men are interested in how the Knights can help them grow in faith and as husbands and fathers. We know this because they tell us,” the supreme knight said. “Now is the time for us to lay a foundation in the Hispanic community on which future generations can build.”
“We need to understand that Hispanic ministry or outreach is not only about doing things in Spanish. It is about a true identification with our brothers and sisters, as Jesus prayed to the Father: ‘Let them be one as you and I are one.”
BROTHERS AT HOME AND ABROAD
The Knights of Columbus has a long history of building unity among Catholics throughout North America. The first Latin American council was established in Mexico City in 1905, taking the name Our Lady of Guadalupe. During the persecution of the Church in Mexico in the 1920s and ’30s — when simply being a Knight could be cause for arrest or even execution — K of C leaders worked strenuously to bring attention to the plight of their Mexican brothers. Since 2000, nine members of the Knights of Columbus have been canonized or beatified as martyrs of the persecution.
The blood shed by these martyrs “has united forever the Knights of Columbus with the people and the land of Mexico,” Past Supreme Knight Carl Anderson said in 2011. “The Order’s history is forever linked to this history of this great nation.”
As Mexican Knights sought refuge in the United States, they started their own councils, beginning in 1927 with Tepeyac Council 2635 in South Los Angeles. In 1931, members of this council helped start an annual procession in honor Our Lady of Guadalupe, their home country’s patroness and a source of comfort during persecution. The oldest religious procession in Los Angeles, the event continues to draw tens of thousands of participants each December.
In Cuba, Knights faced a similar persecution for standing against anti-Catholic policies in the early 1900s. By the 1960s, the Order had been forced underground to avoid imprisonment by the Castro regime, and Cuban refugees in the United States began establishing new councils to revive their brotherhood in their new country.
“It’s part of the history of the Knights that immigrant brothers who don’t have families here find their family in the Knights of Columbus,” said District Deputy Ricardo Hernandez, a past grand knight of La Virgen de Guadalupe Council 17815 in Canby, Ore., and a former state membership director.
Another link between the Hispanic community and the Order is shared devotion to the Blessed Mother under her title Our Lady of Guadalupe. She revealed herself to St. Juan Diego as “your compassionate mother, yours and all of the people who live united in this land and of all the other people of different ancestries” — a mother attentive to all of her children’s needs and suffering.
Past Supreme Knight Anderson drew inspiration from St. John Paul II’s 1999 apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in America, in which the pope referred to the Virgin of Guadalupe as “an impressive example of a perfectly inculturated evangelization.” Standing before the miraculous tilma with Our Lady’s image, Anderson entrusted the Knights of Columbus to Our Lady of Guadalupe’s protection during his installation in Mexico City in February 2001. She remained a constant guide throughout his 20-year administration.
K of C-sponsored events dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe, including congresses and festivals, a U.S. tour of a relic of the tilma and a speaking tour by Msgr. Eduardo Chávez, the postulator of St. Juan Diego’s cause for canonization, collectively drew hundreds of thousands of people and increased devotion to Our Lady nationwide. In his final column in Columbia in February 2021, the past supreme knight said Our Lady of Guadalupe was “key to our role in this great mission [of evangelization] and for our own development.”
When Hispanics learn of the Order’s devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe, said Hernandez, they feel at home: “She’s our mother, and anyone who’s going to make your mother feel welcome and special, you’re drawn to that person automatically. It’s as simple as that.”
GROWING INTO THE FUTURE
Knights of Columbus leaders like Bañuelos and Hernandez point out that bringing Hispanic men into the unity and fraternity of the Knights of Columbus is of increasing importance today. While Hispanics are expected to make up 50% of the Catholic population in the United States by 2030, the Order’s membership currently does not reflect that trajectory. And with young people, including Hispanics, rapidly becoming less likely to maintain their faith as adults, the Order can’t miss this opportunity to reach Hispanic men.
“Both the Church and the Order need to do a better job in connecting with Hispanics,” Bañuelos said. “Not so much in thinking about how to minister to them, but rather focusing on how Hispanic Catholics are needed for the development and growth of the Body of Christ.”
While some Hispanic immigrants are familiar with the Knights of Columbus in their home countries, many are not — or simply don’t understand the Order’s purpose, said Hernandez, whose parents and grandparents immigrated from Honduras. Supporting the parish, serving the community and growing in faith are all ingrained in Hispanic culture, he said, but “the dots aren’t always connected that this is an organization that allows you to do all of that and helps you be a man of God.”
Helping Hispanic men connect those dots will require a change in how local councils approach them, Bañuelos said. Instead of waiting for Hispanic men to come to them, Knights need to approach those men with an attitude of “How can we make you feel more welcome in our community?”
Speaking to state deputies during the Midyear Meeting, Supreme Knight Kelly noted, “Most Hispanics have no cultural attachment to the Knights of Columbus. That’s a stark contrast to many of us. I am a third-generation Knight. Many, if not most, of you have fathers and grandfathers who were Knights. Yet virtually all the Hispanics we need to reach would be the first Knight in their family.”
In addition to emphasizing opportunities for spiritual growth and fraternal benefits related to the material needs of families, councils are encouraged to organize activities that allow different cultures to be shared.
“We have to show our Hispanic brothers that the Knights of Columbus is an instrument to feed us, to get closer to God — to reach santidad (holiness),” said Hernandez, whose parish is affiliated with two K of C councils: La Virgen de Guadalupe Council, which is Spanish-speaking, and St. Patrick’s Council 3484. Both councils, he said, do an excellent job sharing their cultures with one another, whether participating together in Las Posadas — a traditional Latin American Advent celebration — or marching in the city’s Fourth of July parade as a united, multiethnic group.
As the Order adapts to a changing Church, its very origins give Bañuelos hope for the future of the Knights. As he sees it, each new wave of immigrants to the United States has brought rich gifts and traditions to the Church in this country. Now it’s time for Hispanic Catholics to contribute to this great heritage, and the Order has a role to play in it.
“We need to understand that Hispanic ministry or outreach is not only about doing things in Spanish,” he affirmed. “It is about a true identification with our brothers and sisters, as Jesus prayed to the Father: ‘Let them be one as you and I are one.’ If a Catholic man wants to be more integrated with the local Church, grow spiritually and create a legacy for future generations, we need to bring him home into the Knights of Columbus.”
ELISHA VALLADARES-CORMIER is a freelance writer from Sandusky, Ohio, and a member of Bishop John Mussio Council 9804 at the Franciscan University of Steubenville.
ON THE MORNING of Nov. 14, 1921, Luciano Pérez Carpio, an employee of the Private Secretariat of the Presidency in Mexico City, entered the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe and placed a flower arrangement containing a bomb below the revered image. When the bomb exploded, it shattered nearby vases, damaged candlesticks and mysteriously bent an iron and bronze crucifix weighing close to 75 pounds, as if containing the blast. But Our Lady remained unscathed.
“They wanted to destroy the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, but it was Jesus Christ, Our Lord, who defended his mother, our mother,” said Msgr. Eduardo Chávez, postulator of St. Juan Diego’s cause for canonization and a canon at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The 1921 attack, he said, was an “awful moment, but at the same time a God-filled moment,” because it is a testimony to God’s love.
Msgr. Chávez, who coauthored the book Our Lady of Guadalupe: Mother of the Civilization of Love with Past Supreme Knight Carl Anderson in 2009, recounts in further detail the story of the bombing in a new Spanish- language book titled La persecución desconocida contra la Iglesia Católica (The Unknown Persecution Against the Catholic Church). — reported by Elisha Valladares-Cormier
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