For Americans, the annual observance of the Fourth of July celebrates the independence of the United States. Our national story is made up of the varied lives and unique experiences of countless peoples who nonetheless share in seeking “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Each of these people is following his or her own American Dream, the achievement of which requires hard work, fortitude, and faith. As we celebrate and reflect upon our personal freedoms— long fought for and subsequently defended— we also acknowledge those peoples whose rights are continually imperiled or at risk of being curtailed by injustice. The United States by no means has a spotless record in establishing civil rights, but those efforts have raised up incredible heroes who sought to make the American Dream more accessible peacefully and justly. As Catholics, we especially thank God for His blessings on this land and for the preservation of our rights to bear witness to Him publicly as Americans.
Thanks to the efforts of French and Spanish missionaries in the 16th and 17th centuries, Catholicism began to take root among the indigenous peoples of what would become the United States. As the fledgling country wouldn’t have an installed bishop until 1789, the American Church continued to grow during the first half of the 19th century thanks to the influx of Irish and German immigrants seeking the religious toleration which was becoming less and less abundant in Europe. Protestants were critical of these arrivals, declaring it was not possible to be a good American and Catholic at the same time (partly due to false beliefs spread about allegiance to the Roman pope). Thanks to the determination of these immigrants, and the grace of the Holy Spirit, by 1850 Roman Catholicism was the largest denomination in the United States.
Despite the political and cultural persecution American Catholics experienced, the ministries and loving charity of certain clergy and religious ensured that the needs of their fellow citizens were met. Figures like Mother Cabrini and Mother Seton founded religious communities that took care of the poor whom society all too often ignored. Mothers Drexel and Duchesne cared for Native Americans (as did Kateri Tekakwitha), African Americans, and women as they evangelized with the missionary spirit. Fr. Michael McGivney began a member-benefit society (which would become the Knights of Columbus) to care for the widows and families of Catholic male breadwinners who lost their lives. Isolated from the public square, the Catholics of this country nevertheless found a niche caring for other outcasts through a public witness that expressed faith as the catalyst for action. Doing so forced many observers to cease their suspicions and prejudices and helped normalize Catholicism in America. The examples of faithful religious continued to inspire Catholics in all walks of life to live out their faith freely. In recognition of their faithful witness of the Gospel, many of these brave citizens are now hailed as saints for universal veneration in the Church.
Today, secularism and the misrepresentation of civil rights threaten the very foundation of the society which Catholics have indisputably helped shape. Legal challenges are filed against religious symbols, schools, churches, and charities, supposedly for discriminatory actions or the preservation of the separation of church and state. American Catholics are often torn between publicly defending these institutions and their work or avoiding antagonization for speaking out. Nonetheless, the Church continues to meet the needs of the poor and the outcast in the same spirit of welcome the poet Emma Lazarus immortalized in the words of “The New Colossus,” which hangs in the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty:
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
As Americans, we thank God for the gift of religious liberty and for those who continuously defend it. As Catholics, we pray for our leaders to be guided by the Holy Spirit to pursue justice and for those abroad who are still struggling for the basic rights and freedoms we enjoy. There is no shortage of opportunities around us to live and act as the saints before us. The American story continues with each of us; perhaps its future chapters will tell of the great love and commitment of countless citizens who welcomed the refugee, defended the unborn, cared for the disabled, accompanied the lonely and the imprisoned, fed the hungry, clothed the naked, promoted charity, and honored the dead. We have much to celebrate on July Fourth; may God always guide our nation in the ways of liberty and justice for all.
“Are you junior Knights of Columbus?” This was the question posed to me by an elderly woman during my freshman year of college as I joined my brother knights for 8am Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception adjacent to The Catholic University of America’s (CUA) campus. It was a Friday morning, and of course I loathed getting out of bed. However, I had made a commitment and I wanted to follow through as best I could.
Some of the upperclassmen knights that were with me answered politely back, “No, ma’am, we’re just regular knights.” She smiled and wished us well, clearly happy to see young men going to Church. Back then, our council membership was small, but we had big aspirations. All of the guys that I joined the Knights with had the same idea in mind. Here we were, embarking on a new chapter of our life. We wanted our faith to be enriched and strengthened. We wanted to serve the community and neediest among us. We wanted to find friends who would support us in our endeavors.
The Knights of Columbus are a 1.9 million member Catholic fraternal organization. Founded in 1882 by the Venerable Servant of God Fr. Michael J. McGivney, the order is founded on the principles of charity, unity, fraternity, and patriotism. Originally formed to provide financial assistance to members and their families, the order today continues to do so through its insurance program, which funds its charitable works. The Knights of Columbus are organized into local councils, often housed within parishes, and are governed internationally by a supreme council headquartered in New Haven, Connecticut – where the order was founded.
As the Knights of Columbus meet this week in Toronto, Canada for their Supreme Convention – their international convention during which they elect officers, pass resolutions, and report on membership, etc.—I wanted to share my story of the impact this organization has had on my life.
Growing up, I always wanted to get involved in extracurricular activities at school and within my community. I joined the student council, led clubs, and served as a counselor to other students. When I arrived at college, things were no different. The CUA council of the Knights of Columbus was the first group I joined. It soon became apparent to me that I had found just what I needed – what I had been looking for as a new college student. This group would help me realize that my faith should not just be important - but it should be the cornerstone of my being.
As a knight, I have grown in fraternity with my brothers. I have been able to serve my community through charitable fundraisers and service opportunities. I have supported veterans and active-duty military – something that the order encourages no matter which country a council is in. I have been able to instill in others the characteristics of true chivalry. Because of the Knights of Columbus, I have become a better Catholic and a better man.
I would encourage any Catholic male to think about joining this organization. A similar organization for women is the The Catholic Daughters of the Americas. If you are already a knight, I would encourage you to stay involved and help to recruit others. As our chaplain is fond of saying, “What you give to the council, you will get back one hundredfold.” I cannot endorse this statement enough.
Let me leave you with a few lines from a song that we sing at the end of our council meetings:
We have a mission great
True to our Church and State
Onward we move
We dry the mourner's tear
The tired heart we cheer
Faith in our works appear,
Upheld by Love.
These few lines, I think, embody just what it means to be a Knight of Columbus.