After 142 years, the Knights of Columbus is pulling down a veil of secrecy that has surrounded its initiation ceremonies in an effort to better showcase the order’s core principles and its drive to help Catholic men become disciples.
Since its founding, the initiation ceremonies for the first three degrees of Knights membership –which are focused on the principles of charity, unity and fraternity – have been separate and open to members only. The fourth degree, dedicated to the principal of patriotism, was added later and is also secret.
But beginning in 2020, the Knights have adopted a new ceremony, called the Exemplification of Charity, Unity and Fraternity, combining the initiation for their first three degrees into a single ceremony that will be open to family, friends and fellow parishioners.
“There is nothing we do that is secret or needs to be secret,” Supreme Knight Carl Anderson said. “We decided this is a way to let other parishioners know, family members know, what the Knights of Columbus is all about. And we think that’s a good thing.”
The Knights of Columbus is a fraternal organization of Catholic men that was founded in 1882 by Venerable Father Michael McGivney, a young priest serving at St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Connecticut. Today, the order has more than 2 million members internationally.
In 2018, the Knights of Columbus gave $185.7 million to charity and donated 76.7 million hours of hands-on service.
The order also is one of the largest life insurers in North America, building on Father McGivney’s goal of providing for families left destitute by the death of its breadwinner.
Although membership in the order as a whole is growing, not all areas are showing increases in members, Anderson said. It’s a trend that follows what is happening in the Church as a whole, he added.
“I think the Catholic Church is growing more quickly in some areas than in other areas. Those trends affect us as well,” he said. “When you see dioceses with parishes closing, that has to affect all the Catholic organizations in those dioceses.”
At the Supreme Convention last summer, a resolution from the Illinois delegation calling for combining the first-, second- and third-degree ceremonies into one and removing the condition of secrecy was approved. Anderson directed an in-depth review of the ceremonies “with an eye toward staying true to our roots while at the same time presenting our principles of charity, unity and fraternity in a more clear and convincing way.”
At the mid-year meeting for the order’s State Deputies, who are the highest official in each jurisdiction, in Orlando, Florida, in November, Anderson unveiled the new ceremony “that stays true to our traditions while addressing the needs of our times.” The fourth degree ceremony will remain unchanged and will continue to be open to members only.
“Secrecy has to be understood in the context of the 19 th century,” Anderson said. “There was incredible bigotry against Catholics,” with the anti-Catholic Know Nothings in control politically in New England at the time, and later the Ku Klux Klan became a powerful political force across the country, he said. “There was some appeal to secrecy.”
Also at the time, the idea of progressing through the degrees as a journey toward Knighthood was popular.
But today, those features have proved to be an impediment to men joining, particularly young men, Anderson said.
Over the years talking with members involved in recruitment efforts and new members, the order has found that many young men thought going through three separate ceremonies too time consuming and difficult to attend, Anderson said. Also, many councils lacked teams to conduct the ceremonies, which could delay men moving to the next degree for months, he added.
Young men today often find secrecy unnecessary, Anderson said.
With a new, single ceremony that takes about 30 minutes, more councils will be able to have their own ceremonial team and have more degrees more often, Anderson said. “We think making it easier to join with more degrees in more places will help us move forward.”
Condensing the ceremony should give it a heavier impact, Anderson said. “Sometimes less is more in the sense that sometimes the shorter, more compact, more forceful statement is easier to remember than a more lengthy ceremony.”
By opening the ceremony to the public, “families and friends can see what we’re all about and hopefully decide I or my brother or my husband should join,” Anderson said.
The new degree ceremony pulls from the three previous ceremonies to pass along the history of the order and the importance of the principles of charity, unity and fraternity.
“We need to impress on the members the importance of charity, unity, fraternity, how they are linked, and how in Father McGivney’s vision of Christian discipleship … charity, unity and fraternity become a path of discipleship for the Catholic man,” Anderson said.
The ceremony is “an important way that we teach the principles and teach them in a way that the men remember,” Anderson said. “It’s a way of not just giving a lecture but a way to make a dramatic impression of the principles of the order.”
A ceremony that focuses on the principles of charity, unity and fraternity enhances the Knights involvement the Church’s work of evangelization, Anderson said.
“I think its central,” he said. The order’s principles “are really at the core of Catholic life, and (the new ceremony) makes it clear we have a responsibility and the responsibility extends into the whole person, the spiritual dimension, the fraternal dimension, and the financial dimension. … We try to take a holistic approach. That’s what this new ceremony emphasizes.”
The script for the new degree calls for the ceremony to be conducted in a church or similarly appropriate location, with a priest or deacon participating. The expectation is that the new ceremony can be held after a Mass when the congregation can be invited to stay and watch.
“It’s an exciting development for the Knights of Columbus,” said Michael McCusker, the state deputy of Tennessee. “How many times do we go home from degrees with our hearts on fire and we had a desperate need to share it with our families, but we couldn’t? To me that’s akin to putting your light under a bushel.”
“The more people know about who and what we are, the more likely they are to join,” echoed Tracy Staller, the ceremonials director for the Tennessee State Council and the immediate past state deputy. “And the new ceremony does a wonderful job of explaining who and what the Knights are.”
“What I also like is it removes the struggle of getting a man to go through all three separate degrees,” said McCusker, a member of Council 9317 at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Cordova, a suburb of Memphis, Tennessee. “I like that they go, they and their families see what they’re involved in, and the minute they leave, they’re full members of the Knights of Columbus.”
The script for the new ceremony was made available to all councils on Jan. 15. It was left to each state deputy to decide how and when the new ceremony will be rolled out in their jurisdiction. The Connecticut State Council used the new ceremony for the first time on Jan. 1 at St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Connecticut, the birthplace of the order.
“Connecticut where the Knights of Columbus was founded wanted to have the first ceremony of the year,” Anderson said.
Fifty-two candidates from Connecticut councils participated in the new ceremony on Jan. 1. About 200 people attended the exemplification, including Anderson.
“They had a very large turnout and it was very well received,” Anderson said. “That’s been our experience across the country.”
In Tennessee, councils are encouraged to use the new ceremony as soon as they are ready, but all councils must use the new ceremony on March 29, Founder’s Day for the order, and thereafter, McCusker said.
Council 6099 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, plans to use the new ceremony at its regular monthly degree ceremony on Feb. 27. Masses to mark Founder’s Day are being planned at the cathedrals of the three dioceses of Tennessee – Knoxville, Nashville and Memphis. A degree ceremony using the new script will be held after the Masses in Knoxville and Nashville, while Knights leaders in the Memphis diocese are still working to organize one there as well.
“We’re eager to start using them,” said Staller, a member of Council 12961 at Holy Family Church in Seymour, Tennessee. “The sooner we get it going, the more impact it will have.”
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