As Cardinal József Mindszenty of Hungary celebrated Christmas Mass in 1948, he may have sensed that danger was closing in. The muzzling of free speech and closure of churches and monasteries had already brutally illustrated Hungary’s status as a Soviet satellite state. Communist crosshairs centered almost magnetically on noncompliant citizens, especially religious ones, who were becoming the primary voice of dissent left in the country.
After the government issued an order to nationalize Catholic schools earlier that year, Cardinal Mindszenty drove from village to village with a sound truck, urging the populace to resist forfeiting church property. When parliament confirmed the seizure of schools, he made sure protest rang from every church tower, tolling the bells as if for a funeral.
“Communism is an atheistic ideology; hence by its very nature it is opposed to the spirit of the Church,” the cardinal stated fearlessly in an open letter. In response, the secret police made sure that his Christmas season resembled Calvary more than Bethlehem. Arrested Dec. 26 on trumped-up charges, the cardinal was tortured until compliant enough for a show trial. Eventually, on Feb. 8, 1949, he was condemned to life imprisonment. Silenced in the first of many prisons, he could not foresee that a Catholic fraternal organization across the Atlantic would come to his aid as part of its decades-long battle against communist ideology.
The Knights of Columbus, guided by the teaching of the Church and the popes, was actively engaged in a war of ideas for souls and nations throughout the 20th century — a war that would culminate in the dissolution of the Soviet Union on Christmas Day, 1991. By leveraging media to inspire and inform, promoting Catholic social teaching through action and advocacy, and supporting the work of St. John Paul II, the Knights played a small yet significant role in the Soviet collapse 30 years ago this month.
Today, the atrocities of the Soviet Union are well documented. But the horrors that would leave an estimated 100 million people dead — the gulags, forced famines, wars, genocide — were unimaginable to most people in the years after Vladimir Lenin’s successful Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.
Yet even before the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics coalesced in December 1922, the Knights of Columbus was alert to the dangers of communist ideology. Pope Leo XIII’s pivotal encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891) had set the stage, promoting the rights of workers against both the abuse of employers and overreach by the state in societies that suppressed religion.
The Columbiad, the predecessor of Columbia, promoted Church teaching on socialism as early as 1901. By 1914, the Order was sponsoring annual lecture tours against socialism, communism and anti-Catholic bigotry. The lectures featured two Knights — former socialist leader and Catholic convert David Goldstein and trade-union leader Peter W. Collins — who traveled 270,000 miles and addressed 200,000 people in the first year alone.
“Socialism here is no mean foe; it has already succeeded in gaining a vast deal of sympathy … while radical education is raising new generations fully imbued with the blasphemous notion that God is a myth,” Goldstein stated. “If then our country is to be saved from the tyranny of a Godless victory, it is perfectly clear that Catholics must come to the rescue. For, as none other, they are fitted for the heroic task.”
When the United States launched its first military response to communism during the Russian Civil War, the Order expanded its World War I work to support troops stationed in Siberia. Knights of Columbus field secretaries in France also equipped 100 American pilots who had volunteered to fight the Soviets in Poland. In light of these efforts, K of C Overseas Director William Larkin affirmed, “The Knights of Columbus can now go on record in their fight against the menace of Bolshevism.”
Meanwhile, Knights at home were launching a nationwide initiative touching on the issue of labor — helping World War I veterans obtain education and reenter the work force. While the main motivation was gratitude and justice, the program’s effectiveness as an antidote to communism was not lost on one of its leaders, Jesuit Father John J. Wynne.
The K of C state chaplain for New York and the founder of America magazine, Father Wynne noted that “this supplementary schooling will, by stressing applied patriotism and practical citizenship, be a strong weapon against the philosophy of Bolshevism.” From 1919 to 1921, more than 300,000 veterans of all races and religious affiliations found jobs through the initiative.
During this time, a concern arose that atheistic communism would take root in the Americas. In 1924, Mexico became the first country in the hemisphere to establish diplomatic relations with the USSR, bringing the Soviet threat close to home. Less than a decade after Lenin’s Bolshevik victory, Mexico was seen, in some ways — particularly by the Knights of Columbus — as an early case study for how similar totalitarian ideologies could propagate beyond the Soviet border.
Although the Mexican government suppressed the communist party, it may be more accurate to say that it crushed the competition. The government under President Plutarco Elías Calles and subsequent leaders enacted harsh, Soviet-style policies of religious persecution, disinformation, seizure of land and nationalization of some industries, and government control of religious institutions.
The Knights of Columbus famously condemned the Mexican government’s brutality, raising and spending $1 million to care for refugees and raise awareness. K of C leaders lobbied for the United States to intervene during a meeting with President Calvin Coolidge in September 1926. In response to the Order’s efforts, Columbia was banned in Mexico, and members were targeted and even martyred during the persecution of the Church in the years that followed.
The need to understand communism and fascism acquired a new urgency in the 1930s, as both were on the rise in Europe. In 1937, under Supreme Knight Martin Carmody, the Order established the Knights’ Crusade Program, which urged councils to combat communist propaganda in a variety of ways. Across the United States, councils exposed communist campaigns and organized anti-communist events, including a national Knights’ Crusade rally on March 21, 1937.
Two days prior to the rally — on the feast of St. Joseph— Pope Pius XI released Divini Redemptoris, an encyclical that decried the dangers of atheistic communism. To magnify the Church’s voice, the Supreme Council soon printed and distributed nearly 1 million copies of the document through local councils.
Another nationwide lecture tour educated the American public about communism and fascism as well. “The problem facing Americans is to know and understand what Communism is — what it stands for — and how the problems of the day can be met in the Christian manner,” said George H. Derry, the lead lecturer and a former member of the K of C Historical Commission. Derry’s talks drew more than 100,000 people from November 1937 to June 1938.
“Perhaps, in God’s providence, we are witnessing the answer to that prayer. And perhaps, by our early support for the Holy Father’s dream, we Knights helped in some way to bring it about.”
These efforts did not go unnoticed by the Daily Worker — the official communist newspaper in the United States — which often attacked the Knights of Columbus. But as a Columbia editorial in May 1937 noted, “When Communists speak favorably of us, we shall have reason to worry.”
While World War II excised the Nazi regime from Europe, the Soviet Union gained viral momentum. In response, Supreme Knight John Swift renewed a vigorous anti-communist campaign, with an emphasis on the Church’s social encyclicals.
As part of this response, the Order established the Crusade for the Preservation and Promotion of American Ideals in 1946, led again by Derry. Within two years, local councils had formed more than 1,000 discussion groups to study American principles and freedoms, as well as the rights of workers and ethical economic principles. The Order also sponsored multiple radio series about the oppressive conditions in countries under communist rule and distributed Msgr. (later Archbishop) Fulton J. Sheen’s “Communism, the Opium of the People.”
This initiative gave greater attention to promoting and discussing Catholic social teaching, including teachings on work, society and economic structures. When, in 1954, “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance thanks largely to K of C advocacy, it served as a stark contrast to communist efforts to remove God from the public square.
The Order also continued its robust support for religious liberty for those suffering under communist regimes. Hungary was a prime example. After Cardinal Mindszenty’s sentencing in 1949, the Knights of Columbus organized and took part in protests. The New York Chapter’s prominent parade for George Washington’s birthday was transformed into a protest of the cardinal’s maltreatment. About 10,000 people took part in the march in New York City, which finished at St. Patrick’s Cathedral for Mass.
During the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, Supreme Knight Luke Hart urged President Dwight Eisenhower and the United Nations to try to restrain Soviet hostilities toward Hungarian freedom fighters. Every Catholic newspaper in the Western Hemisphere was also contacted to magnify the plea.
During this time, Cardinal Mindszenty was released from prison. Within days, however, Soviet forces quashed the Hungarian Revolution, and his life was again in jeopardy. The cardinal took refuge at the U.S. embassy in Budapest, where he lived for the next 15 years. While the embassy gave him political asylum, it was the Knights of Columbus who paid the cardinal’s expenses during those long years before his eventual exile to Vienna.
Knights on the local level, meanwhile, aided refugees from communist countries. For example, Knights in Calgary, Alberta, provided beds and eating facilities for 70 Hungarian refugees, and the Wyoming State Council committed to resettling dozens more. Other local councils assisted refugees from communist Cuba and North Korea, and later from Vietnam as well, while the Supreme Council condemned each of those regimes.
In 1978, the election of Pope John Paul II — whose opposition to communist control in Poland was well known — caused consternation among communist authorities.
The Knights, however, took great joy in supporting John Paul II’s papacy, which proved to be instrumental in the USSR’s eventual collapse — as chronicled in the award-winning documentary Liberating a Continent: John Paul II and the Fall of Communism, produced by the Knights of Columbus in 2016.
Early in the pontificate, the Knights’ work in media and communications helped push back against communist propaganda. Because the media in Poland was bent on concealing John Paul II’s popularity from his countrymen, the Order helped fund a documentary of his trip to Mexico. The film was smuggled into Poland before his visit there in 1979 and presented an entirely different view of the Church than the Soviet-run media. Afterward, the Knights of Columbus funded the editing of the raw footage of the groundbreaking trip. An estimated 13 million Poles attended at least one of the pope’s public events, and the nine-day visit is widely seen as a harbinger of communism’s demise in Poland.
The Soviet Union’s war on the Church extended to strategically rewriting history, expunging Christian memory as far as possible. One effort that countered this was the 1981 International Colloquium on the Common Christian Roots of the European Nations. With funding from the Knights, it discussed Europe’s cultural and moral debt to Christianity while challenging the Soviet Union’s anti-religious propaganda in Eastern Europe. It also aimed to renew dialogue between Slavic and Western cultures. At the pope’s request, the Order smuggled copies of the proceedings into countries behind the Iron Curtain.
The Knights of Columbus also facilitated the establishment of formal diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the United States. When President Ronald Reagan was invited to the 100th Supreme Convention in 1982, Supreme Knight Virgil Dechant arranged a private meeting between the president and Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Agostino Casaroli. The two discussed a need for a U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, and less than two years later, official diplomatic ties were established.
As the Soviet grip on Eastern Europe weakened through the 1980s, the Knights of Columbus assisted in bringing the faith to the region in many ways. For example, the Order supported Vatican broadcasts of John Paul II’s Christmas midnight Mass in East Germany and Hungary in 1989 and his Good Friday services in 1991, which were televised in the Soviet Union.
Writing in the April 1990 issue of Columbia, Supreme Knight Dechant noted the dramatic political developments in the Soviet bloc and attributed them, in part, to Pope John Paul II’s work to strengthen the faith in Eastern Europe and his prayer for a unified continent.
“Perhaps, in God’s providence, we are witnessing the answer to that prayer,” he wrote. “And perhaps, by our early support for the Holy Father’s dream, we Knights helped in some way to bring it about.”
The following year, the Soviet empire that had once seemed indomitable was no more. On Dec. 25, 1991, President Mikhail Gorbachev resigned, and the communist “hammer and sickle” flag came down over the Kremlin.
In a discussion of his tenure conducted for The Knights of Columbus: An Illustrated History (2020), Supreme Knight Dechant later affirmed that the Order’s behind-the-scenes efforts against communism were the most consequential.
In the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, the Order reached out to support Catholics in Eastern Europe and sponsored a “Rosaries for Russia” program led by Venerable Father Patrick Peyton. The Supreme Council also began funding the Pontifical School of Theology in Krak ów to help train priests. Since then, the Order has established a presence in former Soviet bloc countries, including Poland in 2006 and Ukraine and Lithuania in 2013, and it continues to be a stalwart voice for religious freedom throughout the world.
ANDREW FOWLER is a content producer for the Knights of Columbus Communications Department.
MAUREEN WALTHER is co-author, with her late husband, Andrew Walther, of The Knights of Columbus: An Illustrated History (2020).
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