Joe Pargola distinctly remembers his last “normal” Knights of Columbus activity. Father Joseph D. Gallagher Council 3673 in Morrisville, Pa., was hosting Stations of the Cross at Holy Trinity Parish on March 13, 2020. Pargola, the council’s grand knight, prayed with his wife and two kids as the pastor led a group of Knights and other parishioners through the Passion.
The novel coronavirus had been all over the news. But, like most people, Pargola little suspected what a heavy cross was coming or how long it would have to be carried. After the service, he and Deputy Grand Knight Jim King took their families out to eat.
“We had no idea that was the last time we would have dinner together at a restaurant for more than a year,” Pargola recalled. Within a week, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia had suspended public Masses, and the council’s in-person meetings were canceled indefinitely. The COVID-19 pandemic had arrived.
The Knights of Columbus has faced countless crises, but perhaps never one that has challenged fraternal life so widely. Unable to meet or hold events in the usual way, some councils — particularly those with many medically vulnerable members — have struggled to stay active. At the same time, the Leave No Neighbor Behind program, introduced in March 2020, was a resounding call to action, and many councils have found unexpected blessings in responding to the pandemic: a deeper sense of purpose, closer bonds among members and with their parish, and new creativity in serving the Church and the community. Now, with restrictions slowly easing, the Order is turning attention to what comes next. A new initiative, the COVID Recovery Program, is helping councils assess where they are and what they can do to engage Knights and build up their parishes.
In his remarks to the 2021 state conventions this spring, Supreme Knight Patrick Kelly encouraged Knights to lead the restoration of parish and council life. “The past year has made clear that the Mass is truly the source and summit of our lives as Catholics. By the same token, we have come to a deeper appreciation for the bonds of brotherhood forged in our councils,” the supreme knight said. “That is why we must devote our strength to fully reopening our parishes and returning to normal council activities as soon as it is safe to do so.”
THE NEEDS OF THE TIME
For many councils, the circumstances of the pandemic and the Leave No Neighbor Behind initiative have been a rallying point. That has been the case with St. Mark Council 10874 in Stouffville, Ontario.
“In a moment of crisis, men are tested — and we were tested to reach out to the peripheries,” said Grand Knight Nicholas Quadrini, a political science major at the University of Toronto. “A brother Knight recently reminded me that when we look back on this pandemic, people are going to ask, ‘Were the Knights of Columbus there when we needed them?’”
The greatest need in Stouffville was food insecurity, so the council held its first food drive early in Ontario’s first lockdown. Uncertain how people would respond, council leaders were inspired by the turnout from Knights, parishioners and others. The one-day drive collected more than $2,000 worth of supplies for a local food bank. In the months that followed, the council held more food drives, as well as fundraisers for a pregnancy center and the Global Wheelchair Mission.
Across the continent in Oceanside, Calif., the Knights at Mission San Luis Rey Parish were also busy. Every week for several months, members of San Luis Rey de Francia Council 3162 packed and transported groceries from Catholic Charities to the parish food pantry. Grand Knight Armando Mena — who was president of the San Diego Chapter when the pandemic began — estimates that their deliveries were feeding about 300 parishioners each week.
Support for parishes is a key component of both Leave No Neighbor Behind and the COVID Recovery Program, and Knights have responded in myriad ways to their parishes’ different situations and needs.
Many councils, like San Isidro Council 16980 in Pompano Beach, Fla., quickly assisted with filming and livestreaming Masses. The council also contributed funds to help sustain San Isidro Parish when collections dropped to less than half their normal levels during the initial lockdown.
When the lockdown hit Pennsylvania, Grand Knight Joe Pargola and the Knights of Council 3673 in Morrisville devised a plan with their pastor. Msgr. John Eckert wanted to open Holy Trinity Church and expose the Blessed Sacrament for private prayer during the usual Mass times. The council committed to having at least one Knight present during those windows each week; they also organized a system for contactless collections.
Since Holy Trinity reopened in June 2020, the Knights have been at every Mass to greet parishioners, ensure masks are worn and social distancing is observed, and clean the church. It’s not just about following protocol; the goal, Pargola explained, is to make going to church as safe as possible so that people feel comfortable returning to Mass. The importance of this work — connecting the faithful to the sacraments — has strengthened the council’s sense of purpose.
“We can’t wait to be able to host our first pancake breakfast, but at the same time it’s nice to know that we’ve grown beyond that,” Pargola said.
ADAPTING TO GROW
With life disrupted in so many ways during the pandemic, local councils could no longer do things just because they had always been done. This presented both a challenge and an opportunity.
“We had to put convention aside,” said Grand Knight Quadrini in Ontario. “The pandemic created a mindset of trying new things.”
Many councils around the world began holding virtual meetings right away. For Quadrini, who is 20, the transition to videoconference was seamless. For Grand Knight Mena in California, 75, there was an initial learning curve.
“Technology is only as good as the people using it,” Mena laughed. “But we discovered that you can teach an old dog new tricks.”
When it comes to setting up and learning the virtual tools, Grand Knight Pargola in Pennsylvania noted that motivation can be more important than age.
“Guys who are not generally technologically savvy have adapted,” he said. “They have been actively participating virtually because they want to. It was important for them to find a way.”
All three grand knights said that attendance at their virtual meetings has been comparable to or better than pre-pandemic attendance. They each plan to follow the COVID Recovery Program’s recommendation to offer virtual options even when restrictions are lifted.
“It’s not ideal to have people participating by computer,” Pargola acknowledged. “But I’d rather have another seven to 10 guys jumping on virtually because they ran their kids to practice or they got home from work late than have them not be involved at all.”
Pandemic restrictions also prompted councils to reassess what they do and how they do it. Sometimes that meant finding a new way to do a traditional event. In Morrisville, members of Council 3673 packaged doughnuts-to-go to give to parishioners after Mass. The council also held its annual Free Throw Championship outside, despite freezing weather. One mother told the Knights, “Thank you for providing something normal for our kids.”
But lockdowns also meant trying new programs and initiatives. For the first time, Council 10874 in Ontario offered a faith formation program: Into the Breach. “People were stuck at home and looking for something to work on in their lives,” Quadrini said. “They felt a yearning for spiritual development.”
The San Luis Rey Knights in California turned to prayer as well, holding monthly virtual rosaries, watching video reflections from their pastor and from Bishop Robert Barron, and conducting a parishwide Consecration to the Holy Family.
“We were not able to do our normal fundraising,” Grand Knight Mena said. “But the thread running through the Faith in Action programs is prayer — and sitting in place we can pray.”
‘Christ told St. Francis, “Go rebuild my Church.” That’s what we need to do: work with the pastors and the bishops to rebuild the Church.’
FORWARD IN FAITH
Besides developing technical skills and flexibility, some councils are emerging from the pandemic with new brothers — men who saw the Knights’ fraternity in action and thought, “I want to be a part of that.”
San Isidro Council 16980 in Florida added five new members in the fall, after it helped to organize an event at the parish where several hundred families in need received toiletries, baby items and cleaning supplies.
“They joined because they saw what we were doing,” said Grand Knight Romulo Barbera. “This pandemic has shown the importance of a brotherhood that helps you in these situations. People realized that the Knights of Columbus does very important, very necessary work.”
But even councils that have managed to grow stronger under the pandemic’s many crosses are more than ready for it to be over. And they know their work will not be done, especially in their parishes.
The first and most essential step of the COVID Recovery Program is for leaders to meet with their pastor and offer the council’s help refilling the pews and supporting the spiritual life of parish families. The program guidebook suggests that Knights could distribute flyers door-to-door or make phone calls to parishioners, help as ushers for Mass and the sacraments, and organize parish “welcome back” initiatives.
Though Ontario went on lockdown again in April, Grand Knight Quadrini in Stouffville has been brainstorming ideas for barbecues and other events that will bring parishioners back together.
“If I’m looking forward to anything, it’s building that community back again,” he said.
In Pennsylvania, Grand Knight Pargola believes the Knights’ presence each week has helped Holy Trinity stay connected with its parishioners and put the parish in a good position for the future. The Knights standing by the door of the church greet a few more familiar faces each week. “For that 15, 20 minutes before Mass, while we’re outside, it feels like a normal Sunday,” Pargola said.
But no matter their level of activity over the last 15 months, all Knights are called to participate in the Church’s ongoing work of evangelization, noted Grand Knight Mena in California.
“Christ told St. Francis, ‘Go rebuild my Church.’ That’s what we need to do: work with the pastors and the bishops to rebuild the Church,” Mena said. “We need to once again be evangelists. You’re not going to do it by Zoom or email. You’re still going to have to do it the hard way. We have to talk to each other. In this rebuilding effort, there is something for every man to do — and we want to help every man find what he needs to do.”
CECILIA HADLEY is senior editor of Columbia.
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