Their activism has sparked controversy in recent months, after a U.S. senator called the Knights of Columbus and their pro-life work “extreme.” But the Knights of Columbus say their work in the pro-life movement is a part of their Catholic identity, and that they’re proud of their long-standing involvement in the annual March for Life
In fact, according to Supreme Knight and CEO Carl A. Anderson, when the March for Life began in the early 1970s, the Knights of Columbus was one of the first groups to lend a hand.
Anderson told CNA that the Knights now play a part in “just about everything that needs to be done” on the days leading up to, and during, the march.
CNA spent the 2019 March for Life getting a behind-the-scenes look at the work of the Knights of Columbus during the nation’s largest annual pro-life gathering.
The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is the largest Catholic Church in North America; it was designed to hold about 10,000 people. The night before the March for Life there were at least that number present for the National Prayer Vigil for Life. People filled the pews, and nearly every space around them in the aisles.
At 5:30 p.m., a procession of priests, bishops, and cardinals entered the basilica. When they did, Knights of Columbus from 19 different local councils were among the volunteers serving as ushers to help keep the crowd in order.
One of those ushers was Alec McGuire, a sophomore at the Catholic University of America.
McGuire told CNA that joined the Knights of Columbus because his grandfather was a Knight. At Catholic University, the Knights of Columbus is one of the largest student groups on campus. On Thursday, it was his job to “make sure people are where they’re supposed to be.”
Patrick McAleer is a field agent for the Knights of Columbus, selling the insurance policies the organization offers to its membership. He is also the chairman of the Shrine’s usher ministry. He’s been a Knight for 25 years.
For McAleer, volunteering at the Vigil Mass and other events is “a way to serve and be around so many young people who travel long distances to take part in the Mass and March.”
As an usher, McAleer said it is his job to “welcome to all our visitors to the Basilica, handle the congregation with care when we have to move people for the processional and recessional, as well as the most important duty: protecting the Blessed Sacrament, at communion time.”
‘An amazing group’
The day of the March for Life began bright and early at 7:30 a.m. for Tyler Lomnitzer, the Knights of Columbus’ program manager for pro-life activities. He spent the morning unloading signs for marchers from a U-Haul, and organizing the volunteers who would help disperse those signs.
“We successfully distributed 10,000 ‘Love Life, Choose Life’ Knights of Columbus signs,” Lomnitzer told CNA. In addition to signs, the Knights of Columbus distributed drawstring bags, fleece headbands, and beanies emblazoned with their logo.
Lomnitzer said he got involved in the Knights of Columbus when he was a freshman at CUA. When he was in school, he thought the Knights were “an amazing group of faithful and dedicated young men, helping one another grow in holiness.” Like McGuire, he too served as a volunteer at the Vigil Mass when he was in school.
“It left such an impression on me that I now oversee the pro-life activities of the Knights of Columbus on a global level,” said Lomnitzer.
On the March
Making sure that throngs of marchers begin and end the march in a safe and orderly way is a tough job, but one the Knights of Columbus have handled for years. Members of councils from around Virginia served as marshalls, and were present on street corners, around the front of the stage, and near the media and speaker areas.
Santiago Garcia, a Knight from Manassas, VA, has been in the Knights of Columbus for about two and a half years. He told CNA that he prayed to the Blessed Mother for her to “find something for me to do in the Church,” and then inquired about the Knights of Columbus. This is the second March for Life at which he has volunteered.
Garcia, along with Chris Sozio, an eight-year Knight but a first-time March for Life volunteer, was posted at the street corner by the Natural History Museum. The two worked to make sure that the sidewalks would stay open and free from loiterers before the march began, and then would walk ahead of the crowd of marchers to make sure nobody jumps ahead.
A long road
It is not unheard of for March for Life pilgrims to endure a several-hour bus journey to Washington for the march. John Moore, a Knight from Gallup, New Mexico, had by far the longest trip of all: he walked to Washington, DC from San Francisco, carrying a 20-pound wooden cross the entire way.
Moore, and his 26-year-old daughter Laura, stepped off from San Francisco on Divine Mercy Sunday in 2018. Laura drove ahead each day and provided assistance as needed, and they spent each night at hotels. She told CNA that her father spent years saving and planning the trip and was inspired by his first March for Life six years ago.
At 11:43 a.m. the morning of the March, their journey came to an end as they finally arrived at the National Mall, just in time for the start of the March for Life Rally.
Leading from the front
Carl A. Anderson, CEO and Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, has the most public role of any member of the Knights of Columbus at the March, including an address to the massive crowd during the March for Life rally.
Anderson pumped up the crowd, and announced that his organization had recently donated its thousandth ultrasound machine to a pregnancy clinic.
“Science is on your side, and so is the American public,” said Anderson. He told the crowd that an end to abortion is “not far off” and that one day the March for Life will become a “victory parade.”
“Together we will celebrate the victory of both faith and science–both compassion and common sense.”
Keeping the momentum going
The Knights’ work does not end with the March. Local Washington-area and Virginia councils clean up the mess left behind by marchers, while out-of-town Knights board busses, planes, and cars and travel back to their homes. Once home, they continue the pro-life and other charitable work that the Knights of Columbus have done for decades.
Last year, the Knights of Columbus made $187 million in charitable donations and served over 85 million hours of volunteer time.
Anderson explained to CNA that in addition to the ultrasound initiative, the Knights of Columbus are also involved in the distribution of educational materials each October for the USCCB’s Respect Life Month. Local councils work with area pro-life groups and do fundraisers and volunteer hours.
“I would say just about everywhere the pro-life movement is active, Knights are involved,” said Anderson.
The Knights of Columbus’ core principles are charity, fraternity, and unity.
Over two days, between taking care of marchers and worshipers, distributing warm clothes and cleaning up after the crowds, all while raising thousands of dollars to help women in crisis pregnancy situations, the Knights of Columbus offered a clear picture of their notion of a commitment to charity.
It may not be “extreme,” but it is extraordinary.
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