ORLANDO, Fla. OSV News – With more than 2 million members, the Knights of Columbus are more intentionally becoming a spiritual vanguard of the Catholic Church, deepening their faith in Jesus Christ and evangelizing through charity.
In this interview with OSV News, held Aug. 2 at the Knights' supreme convention in Orlando, Supreme Knight Patrick Kelly discusses how he sees discipleship of Christ at the heart of the Knights' faith, charity and identity – and the personal difference he believes Knights can make on the church and society.
This interview is lightly edited for clarity.
OSV News: First of all, your annual report to the Knights this year, and the theme of the convention: "First in Faith and First in Charity." What is the message that you wanted to give the 2,300 Knights, spouses and family members assembled here today?
Kelly: The message is that the great works of charity that the Knights do must be matched with great works of faith. That is so important. The Knights have always been very faithful, but I think more and more we have to be very deliberate about faith formation and forming Catholic men – and the Knights have a reach into tens of thousands of parishes.
So what we are doing is we've set up this new initiative called the "Cor'' initiative – it's Latin for "Heart" – and it really is about faith formation. But it's not just for Knights. The local parish (Knights of Columbus) council will sponsor it, but they'll sponsor a meeting for all the men of the parish. So it is prayer, faith formation and fraternity. Prayer, obviously, is hugely important and it's faith formation in the context of friendship. That's the thing that's so important in terms of reaching people, instilling a deeper faith in you: It really takes root if it's rooted in friendship.
OSV News: One thing I noticed in your report was how many times you highlighted the examples of a charity that was personal for Knights. What's the connection between a faith in Jesus Christ that is personal and charity, particularly one that is personal?
Kelly: It's very much a connection. It's possible for charity to be divorced from faith and be divorced from Christ. The Rotary Club or the Lions Club, they do charity. But for us, as Knights, our charity is grounded in our faith. It's grounded in the vision of Blessed Michael McGivney to serve the widow and the orphan and those who are vulnerable. So that relationship with Jesus Christ is the thing that will change everything. It'll change everything.
And a lot of it is on a personal level. When you're encountering a person, you're encountering someone made in the image of God – and that's what Christ did. That's what we're called to do. Christ didn't have policies and programs. It was in personal encounters.
OSV News: Would you say discipleship of Jesus Christ is very much the identity that you want to see cultivated in Knights?
Kelly: Yes. That's very well said. That's the identity that we want to cultivate in Knights: that we are Knights and we are men. We have a mission. We have a baptismal call. But also as Catholic men, I mean, we have a vocation. We know our vocation, and there's clarity there amid the cultural confusion that exists out there. We know as Catholic men we have a vocation and that vocation is to protect and to serve. Ultimately, we find our fulfillment when we serve others, and this is as old as the church. Christ taught us this, but it's just true. It's just so true, and that I think is very personal.
I also mentioned (in the report) that we live in an age of isolation and loneliness, but this is something that I think is the value of the Knights of Columbus: It brings men together in a brotherhood. So here at this convention you see men from all walks of life, from all these different countries where we're established, but they all come together here and they come together with a sense of brotherhood.
OSV News: One of the things that you spoke about was the importance of becoming "Knights of the Eucharist." You mentioned a number of initiatives that Knights' councils have also taken in response to the Eucharistic Revival – have you started to get some sense of how this renewed attention on the Eucharist, turning to Jesus in the Eucharist, is making a difference on the Knights' mission?
Kelly: I think that turn toward the Eucharist helps us get in touch with who we are, and we understand better that we have the heart of a father. That God the Father gives us his Son, and it is through our relationship with him, through living in union with Jesus, that we develop this Eucharistic heart, a heart of the Father – that to me kind of ties it all together: what we're called to do with our individual families, what we're called to do as husbands and as fathers to our children.
We're all familiar with the studies on the faith life of the father; the fact that it is the father's faith life that has the number one impact on the children, whether those children will stay Catholic. And so the era of the father sort of "farming it out," or leaving it (faith formation) to the Catholic school or leaving it to mom, that's over – men have to be really intentional about their faith. And there's meaning in that. There's value in that. I guess this is the thing: To be Catholic, we should be proud of this. It's not easy, particularly in a culture that's coming at you with its own ideology; but there's so much to be proud of in our faith.
OSV News: What would you identify as both the greatest challenge that the Knights have before them right now – but also what do you think is the greatest opportunity the Knights have right now?
Kelly: That's a great question. I think the greatest challenge is the demographic challenge that the church is facing. I think that's our greatest challenge – but with it comes the opportunity. I think the greatest opportunity for the Knights is what we're seeing with men becoming very interested in learning about their faith. You see men's groups starting in parishes all over. In this new Cor initiative that we rolled out, we have a very positive response. Men really like this. The leadership of the Knights in all of our states, they're really excited about this. They're really excited about doing this. To me, that's the greatest opportunity for the Knights, and also for the church. I think men need to know that they have this God-given vocation and that being a Catholic man requires a lot. But if we live that vocation, it'd be tremendously fulfilling – to live for others.
OSV News: You've been in this role of Supreme Knight at a time of incredible change: a pandemic and now this terrible war in Ukraine to name just two of the many global challenges. I want to ask you: How has being Supreme Knight made an impact on your own faith and walk with Jesus?
Kelly: Another great question. It has strengthened my faith, because I have to start every day on my knees. Every day, I have to pray in the morning – and I have to do it in the morning, because I have three little kids and the house gets moving – but it's really strengthened my faith. When you're the leader of a large organization, there's a lot that is out of your control. You just have to rely on God's providence and ask for the Lord's help, and just do your best. So, I would say it's really strengthened my faith and I'm also so tremendously impacted by just the goodness of the men in the Knights.
OSV News: Was there a moment – some experience – where that really came alive for you?
Kelly: It was being in Ukraine for me. I've been to Ukraine twice – and to see – it's a very difficult place to be: air raid sirens and blackouts, because the Russian missiles will hit the power grid. But to see the perseverance of the Ukrainian Knights, and to see the Polish Knights helping them in so many ways –we have these charity convoys that go into the war-torn areas – so to see the goodness there has been tremendously affirming for me. And it's really made me proud of this organization and humbled. One of the things I really like about my position is just meeting the guys who are on the ground doing the work and just spending time with them. I get a lot of energy from that and I find that to be very exciting and very uplifting for me.
Peter Jesserer Smith is the national news and features editor for OSV News.