I was confirmed exactly fourteen years ago, on October 25, 1998. A tuxedo-clad, red-caped, sword-bearing phalanx escorted the bishop of Joliet to the altar. I stood transfixed by the pageantry. In this way I was introduced to the Knights of Columbus.
And then, alas, they promptly fell out of sight. We didn’t actually have our own parish organization. Most of these Knights were borrowed. It took several years, and another pastor, before we had our own council and Daughters of Isabella auxiliary.
But once planted, they grew quickly, picking up a slew of recruits and asserting themselves in public. The regalia that had dazzled me was now on display for several major liturgies a year. And I had a greater appreciation this time, because I picked up subtleties that were lost on me before.
Specifically, I realized what some of the newbies were “getting out of it.” Men who just sat in their pews, with no other visible role in the parish, suddenly marched along with a title and a degree, a uniform and a cause. They were more alive. One in particular, a quiet, sixtyish fellow who seemed to attend church mainly as his octogenarian mother’s chauffeur, began running around talking to people, shaking hands, and joining other activities. I was in favor of whatever caused this transformation.
My favorite memories of the Knights of Columbus are from Masses where they had a ceremonial role and I was a Eucharistic minister. We ministers went to our stations with the bread and wine. The Knights received first, and then they took up posts next to us, silent and straight as trees. As everyone approached for Communion, the Knights did for Jesus what the Queen’s Guard does for Buckingham Palace. It was a lesson in reverence I’ll never forget.
Our Knights established a generous reputation. They showed up in my high school’s annual report as donors, especially of memorials and honoraria. They passed out baby bottles to collect for a crisis pregnancy center. They initiated the First Friday fish-fry as a fundraiser, and they did blood drives. During Lent, they provided hospitality before the weekly Stations of the Cross, serving bread and myriad homemade soups in the school hall: tomato, tortellini, curried sweet potato.
I respected these salt-of-the-earth types with names like Frank and Sal and Pat. As Sal’s wife Maria put it, in a lot of ways they were just a bunch of family guys who regularly got together and had a grand old time. But they also had a sense of being set apart, which compelled them to free up their schedules for helpful and noble things.
It was my very respect for these helpful, noble family guys that pained me when the Equally Blessed coalition (of which Call To Action is a part) recently released a report about the funding priorities of the Knights’ national organization, entitled “The Strong Right Arm of the Bishops: The Knights of Columbus and Anti-Marriage Equality Funding.”
It read: “Since 2005, the Knights of Columbus has provided more than $15.8 million dollars toward these efforts, providing $6.25 million directly to anti-marriage equality efforts and $9.6 million to organizations to build a conservative religious and political culture to oppose efforts for marriage equality” (3-4). Given the Knights’ rich history of fraternal aid and charitable giving, I wonder what that $15.8 million could have meant for traditional recipients like widows, orphans, and folks with special needs.
But for me personally, one of the most eye-popping disclosures concerned the Knights’ relationship to NOM, the National Organization for Marriage. NOM, a prime backer of California’s Proposition 8 and a recipient of $1.9 million in K of C money, behaves like this:
According to documents unsealed in March 2012 by a federal judge presiding over a case in Maine, the organization had officially embraced a divide and conquer strategy that attempted to create a rift between people of color and the LGBT community. “Find, equip, energize and connect African American spokespeople for marriage, develop a media campaign around their objections to gay marriage as a civil right; provoke the gay marriage base into responding by denouncing these spokesmen and women as bigots,” advised a strategy document on the 2008 and 2009 campaigns, the same years that the Knights of Columbus played a major role in launching NOM. (20)
Family guys. Helpful and noble. As I have gotten older, two of my great realizations are my expanded sense of what a family is, and my understanding that protecting all kinds of families is helpful and noble. My regard for individual Knights and local councils notwithstanding, I declare that the group as a whole, and their powerful ecclesiastical and political allies, need to be ashamed of these goals and tactics. Period.