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    Prepared to Lead and Serve

    An interview with Supreme Knight Patrick Kelly about his vocational journey

    Pope Francis greets Deputy Supreme Knight Kelly during the pilgrimage of the Knights of Columbus Board of Directors to Rome in February 2020. Photo by Vatican Media/L’Osservatore Romano


    In the weeks leading up to Patrick Kelly taking office as the Order’s 14th supreme knight, the editors of Columbia asked him about his past experiences and the path that led him here.

    COLUMBIA: Can you share a little about your family upbringing and the role that faith played in your early life?

    SUPREME KNIGHT PATRICK KELLY: I was born in Flint, Mich., and I was blessed to be raised in a large Catholic family. My seven siblings and I learned the faith largely from the witness of our parents, who instilled in us a deep love for Christ and the Church. Our family was close friends with our pastor, and we frequently had him over for dinner. Faith was a central part of our everyday life. Eventually, I went to Marquette University in Milwaukee for my undergraduate studies. I had a great experience there due in large part to the friends I made and to several very impressive Jesuits I met.

    COLUMBIA: What led you to join the Knights of Columbus while you were a student at Marquette?

    SUPREME KNIGHT PATRICK KELLY: My father and grandfather were both Knights and that gave me a great sense of the Order growing up, but I joined the Knights of Columbus based on friendships. I naturally wanted to be united with other men and to be strengthened by our shared values. I was blessed to find good friends at Marquette, and several of them were Knights. It became clear very quickly that the Order would be a place where those bonds of fraternity and faith could grow.

    COLUMBIA: What inspired you to pursue a career in the Navy? How did that experience influence who you are today?

    SUPREME KNIGHT PATRICK KELLY: I was always attracted to military service and its heroic ethos. Here again, my father had a big impact on me; he had served in the Navy, and I loved to hear him tell stories about his days in the service. One of my earliest memories was my dad taking us aboard the USS John F. Kennedy in the late 1960s. Everything about the Navy just seemed so incredible to me growing up, and to this day I think joining the Navy was one of the best things I’ve ever done.

    My time as a naval officer was extremely formative for me. You cannot beat the camaraderie that comes with military service, and I find so many reflections of that in my experience with the Knights of Columbus. In the Navy, great leaders taught me not only teamwork and integrity, but also the value of servant leadership, which clearly resonates with my Christian faith. We should “not come to be served, but to serve” (Mt 20:28). To quote another passage from Scripture, a foundational virtue of military service is the willingness to “lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15:13). As Knights, we are called to do the same.

    COLUMBIA: Why did you decide to pursue a master’s degree in theology? What impact did your studies have on you and on your work?

    The decision to study theology came at a point in my life when I wanted to discover more about the fundamental questions of life. As a JAG (judge advocate general) officer in the Navy, I sometimes worked with sailors who had gotten into trouble. Many of these individuals were largely good people who had made very poor decisions.

    I saw that in many cases they had nothing guiding their lives — no faith, no positive role models — so they just went along with the crowd or followed their passions. Reflecting on the gift of my Catholic faith and the grace that I have received, I recognized in our faith a consistent way of seeing the world that brings order and joy to life.

    At this time, St. John Paul II was pope and I found him to be a very compelling figure. I would read his words and always came away saying, “This is the truth!” And so the path suddenly became clear for me. I left the Navy on a Friday, and on Monday I started classes at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington. It was a radical change, and some of my fellow naval officers didn’t get it at all. I understood why they thought it didn’t make sense, but as the saying goes, God writes straight with crooked lines.


    Supreme Knight Kelly and his wife, Vanessa, stand together with their three daughters in St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Conn., where Blessed Michael McGivney founded the Knights of Columbus in 1882. Photo by Laura Barisonzi


    COLUMBIA: How did your work in the U.S. government, including the Justice Department and State Department, help to prepare you for your career with the Knights of Columbus?

    SUPREME KNIGHT PATRICK KELLY: My government service has given me a sense of Washington and the political process — experience that I have put in service to the Order and the Church as we advocate for public policy related to our most basic values.

    My work at the Justice Department involved counterterrorism, and at the State Department I focused on international religious liberty. I saw how Christians and other religious minorities were being persecuted around the world, and I worked to free prisoners and to put sanctions on countries that persistently violated religious freedom.

    This is directly relevant to the Knights’ efforts to defend religious freedom, and especially the role the Order has played in recent years to bring religious persecution to light and to aid persecuted Christians around the world.

    COLUMBIA: How has your life changed since you got married, and how do you balance your many duties with being a husband and a father of school-age children?

    SUPREME KNIGHT PATRICK KELLY: Marriage has made my life infinitely better. My wife, Vanessa, is an incredible woman and we have three beautiful daughters. It is daunting — and humbling — to consider how impactful our interactions with our children are. My wife and I try to pour everything into laying a good foundation for them to grow in grace and virtue. And we recognize that this starts simply with our witness to them — that we take our faith seriously, and that it affects every aspect of our lives. That’s key.

    Family life can be a great source of growth and purification, but it can also be a huge challenge. And in terms of my service to the Knights, the fact that I have young children helps me to understand what families are going through. Young fathers have it tough. They are trying to build healthy marriages and keep their kids Catholic in a culture that is working against them. I know this struggle firsthand, and it is my hope that the Knights can help fathers with the pressure they are under.

    In terms of balance, that too is a challenge, as I think it is for all men. Thankfully, my wife knows my clear intention in this regard and is great about reminding me when I start to slip. She’s a firm believer that we think better and make better decisions when we have a balanced life.

    COLUMBIA: What does it mean to you to be elected the Order’s 14th supreme knight?

    SUPREME KNIGHT PATRICK KELLY: I am unbelievably honored to serve as supreme knight and to lead this great organization of men who are devoted to Our Lord and his Church. When I was elected, I knew it was a life-changing moment. I gave my wife a hug and we both thanked the Lord, asking him to sustain us in all the challenges and equip us for what lies ahead. And then I sent a text message to my mom, thanking her for all she and my dad had done for me, and all her continued prayers to this day.



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