By Bishop James Conley
On Feb. 8, I had the blessing of attending the Knights of Columbus clergy appreciation dinner. This is an annual event where the Knights graciously invite the priests and seminarians from the Diocese of Lincoln to come together, share a meal, and mutually encourage one another.
This year’s dinner was particularly edifying to me, as several Knights got up and spoke, promising their continued support for the priesthood, the Church, and the common good of society.
Knights of Columbus are perhaps most recognizable to Mass-goers as they provide color guards at Mass, especially for special Masses like First Communion, Confirmation, and Ordinations to the diaconate and the priesthood.
In those color guards, the 4th Degree Knights appropriately carry swords as part of their uniform. The Knights are truly warriors in the Church today.
The Knights of Columbus was started rather organically by Venerable Father Michael McGivney, a priest in New Haven, Conn., in 1882 to serve a practical need. Father McGivney wanted to provide insurance for widows and orphans left behind with the death of the major breadwinner. He felt this pain firsthand when his own father died, necessitating a temporary suspension of his seminary studies to help his family.
The Knights of Columbus continue to provide insurance and other financial needs for fellow Catholics, and they have also become the world’s largest Catholic fraternal services organization. The Knights of Columbus has grown from several members in one council to 15,900 councils and 1.9 million members throughout the United States, Canada, the Philippines, Mexico, and 13 other countries.
Father McGivney founded the Knights of Columbus under the principle that a Catholic man can be a good Catholic and a good American. This is as true today as it was in the 19th Century. Jesus himself taught us to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Mt 22:21).
But that which belongs to God is primary. As the statesman St. Thomas More said shortly before his execution, “I am the King’s good servant, but God’s first.”
Christ is the savior of the world. As useful and good as cultures, countries, and governments may be, they don’t save us. Our fidelity to Christ and his Church is the foundation from which drives all of our human and spiritual activities, guiding them in the right direction, and keeping us from the wrong path.
The Knights of Columbus continue to serve the Church on their founding principles of charity, unity, and fraternity. Throughout the years, the Knights have stayed faithful to these principles, even though they have been manifested in different ways.
In particular, I am grateful for the Knights’ support of the dignity of human life from conception until natural death. The Knights help organize pro-life rallies, billboards, and awareness. Since 2009, they launched The Ultrasound Initiative, which has provided more than 1,000 ultrasound machines. This initiative has saved lives. When a woman who is considering abortion sees her unborn child and hears the heartbeat, it has an effect.
In its early years, the Knights had to endure the attack of overt anti-Catholicism as Catholics were attempting to assimilate in the United States. They even battled the Ku Klux Klan. The KKK acknowledged this in their own literature. A 1921 pamphlet from the KKK stated, “the organization most interested in the destruction of the Ku Klux Klan is the Roman Catholic Order of the Knights of Columbus.”
The Knights of Columbus continues to fight for religious liberty in our contemporary culture. This liberty flows from the dignity of the human person, which gives us freedom from coercion in matters of belief and conscience, and that no one should be forced to act in a manner contrary to his or her own beliefs or conscience.
For example, the Knights vigorously opposed the Department of Health and Human Services contraceptive mandate, which forced the funding, directly or indirectly, health plans that include objectionable services such as sterilization, contraception, or abortion-inducing drugs.
Recently, a fellow Knight of Columbus, Brian C. Buescher, an Omaha-based lawyer nominated by President Trump to sit on the United States District Court for the District of Nebraska, was questioned by Senators about whether membership in the Knights of Columbus might impede his ability to judge cases impartially.
In this hearing, the Knights of Columbus was accused of holding “extreme positions,” such as the promotion of marriage as being between a man and woman. The line of questioning amounted to a religious test for serving in public office.
In 2017, the Knights of Columbus gave $185.6 million in donations and 75.6 million hours of service provided worldwide. Supreme Knight Carl Anderson explained the scope of their charitable activity: “We are answering Pope Francis’ call to go to the peripheries. We can reach halfway around the globe to help those in need and we can reach to our neighbor next door. And we do that every day. That makes us witnesses to the faith.”
Being witnesses to the faith is what discipleship is all about. There are many good organizations within the Catholic Church that help carry out her mission. The Knights of Columbus is one of those organizations.
I join my brother priests in thanking the Knights for the great work that they do throughout the Diocese of Lincoln. May God reward them for their efforts as good Catholics and good citizens.