Patrick E. Kelly, 14th Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus.
(Image courtesy of the Knights of Columbus)
Patrick E. Kelly is the 14th Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus. Taking office on March 1, 2021, he serves as the chief executive officer and chairman of the board of the world’s largest Catholic fraternal service organization, with more than 2 million members.
Mr. Kelly has a distinguished career in the Knights of Columbus, the military and public service. He has a 25-year record of service to Church and country, which serves him well in advancing the Knights’ mission of Charity, Unity, Fraternity, and Patriotism.
In May, Mr. Kelly spoke with the Catholic Herald’s Managing Editor (US), Jamie MacGuire, about the most pressing issues facing the Church and – more precisely – facing Catholics in the United States at the start of the third decade of the 21st century.
Safeguarding precious rights to religious liberty at home and advocating in behalf of severely persecuted brethren around the world are two of the chief areas in which Mr. Kelly said he sees the Knights of Columbus having a leadership role.
“[Religious liberty] has always been a very important issue for the Knights,” Kelly said, recalling that Bl. Michael McGivney founded the Knights of Columbus “in a period of extreme anti-Catholic bigotry.”
That’s not an exaggeration — it was an age of Catholic immigration, and occasionally violent anti-Catholic societies flourished — though the bigotry Catholics faced was fairly mainstream and casual. “The New York Times went so far as to write that our founding parish in New Haven was a blemish on an otherwise upscale street,” Kelly recalled, referring to a fascinating article that appeared in The New York Times’ pages on 28 July 1875.
The Times piece in 1875 detailed the acquisition and construction of the parish church on Hillhouse Avenue. It discussed the financial struggles of the parish and parishioners in sensational (not to say “fantastic” terms) and contained some delicious morsels.
The slug described the “aristocratic” Hillside Avenue in New Haven, Connecticut, as “blemished by a Roman Catholic edifice” and described the parish as poorly managed and at risk of failure. The church – St. Mary’s – was “an eyesore on the avenue, a source of annoyance and injury to neighboring residents, and a complete failure as a business enterprise.” Plus ça change.
One of the tastier nuggets in the Times’ story regarded either the rectory or the parish-and-rectory.
The Times reported that the rectory was a heavy financial burden for the parish, but the passage is not a model of clarity: “If it becomes impossible for the parish to support it,” the Times reported, “an effort will be made to induce the Jesuits or some other Roman Catholic Order to take it into their hands.” The Dominicans got the parish in 1886 and have kept it ever since. So, that happened.
“Anti-Catholic bigotry has ebbed and flowed since,” Kelly said, “but today I think we can see a rise in intolerance of Christians and Jews alike, and the Knights are committed to facing such biases head on.”
If the accostment is startling — Catholics in the United States have faced nothing of late like the gruesome murderous hatred that visited Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on 27 October 2018, in which a gunman shouting anti-Semitic slurs killed eleven people and wounded six others before being apprehended at the scene — Catholics have been the target of bigots with murderous designs in the United States at other times in history, and Catholics are today persecuted ferociously around the world.
This history and current state of affairs should move Catholics to greater solicitude for their co-religionists and with all Christians, even as it provides added inducement to Catholics — were any needed — to foster fraternity with their elder brethren in the faith, and spurs Catholics to greater solidarity with all who desire only to practice their religion in peace while enjoying their full rights as human persons and citizens.
“We are determined to fight for a continuing Christian presence in the Middle East, the cradle of Christianity, as well as in other areas where persecution of Christians has been on the rise, such as Africa, where Nigeria is a country of particular concern,” Kelly said. He noted the Knights’ work with the Institute for Ancient and Threatened Christians. “We have already invested over $25 million to protect and sustain Christian communities on the Middle East,” he said, “and our efforts there and elsewhere will continue.”
“We see these efforts as a natural concomitant to our pro-life, pro-family and other charitable work here in the US,” Kelly went on to say.
The American culture in which Catholics — Catholic men in particular — are called to bear witness, is not always naturally conducive to living the Christian life. Mr. Kelly acknowledges that both the Catholic Church and the Catholic family struggle in a frequently “toxic” cultural environment.
“Men in particular, have to work extra hard to hold onto their marriages and to sustain their children’s Catholic faith,” Mr. Kelly told the Herald.
The kind of fraternity that the Knights of Columbus provide is one way to help Catholic men thrive. “In today’s world, there is a lot of isolation and loneliness in men’s lives,” Mr. Kelly said. “They need encouragement and strengthening in the world they encounter in 2021.”
“The Knights want to give men the sense that the call to be a Catholic is an heroic vocation of virtue, discipline and service to others,” Mr. Kelly explained. “We do this by presenting conferences, organizing pilgrimages and producing videos such as our ‘Into the Breach’ videos that focus on prayer, the sacraments, marriage and so forth.”
In all this, the figure of the founder of the Knights of Columbus, Blessed Michael McGivney, continues conspicuous after nearly 130 years. His beatification in October of last year was “one of the greatest days in the history of the Knights of Columbus,” the Supreme Knight said. “His apostolate of confronting extreme poverty, early death, and strengthening Catholic families,” Mr. Kelly added, “is a great role model for all priests and, indeed, for all Catholic men.”
This special concern for Catholic men — and in particular for Catholic fathers — is powerfully evident in Pope Francis’s encouragement of devotion to St. Joseph, Our Lord’s earthly guardian and the Patron of the Universal Church.
Catholics are celebrating a special year of St. Joseph, which Pope Francis decreed for 8 December 2020 to 8 December 2021 – from one Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception to another, highlighting the Marian and therefore ultimately Christ-centered focus of the year.
“It was especially meaningful that Pope Francis declared The Year of Saint Joseph, the patron of Fathers and of the Universal Church,” Mr. Kelly said. “St. Joseph’s towering example of absolute obedience to the Lord and decisive action in carrying out His wishes should inspire us all and will certainly remain in the forefront of our minds as the Knights chart their course forward in the challenging but exciting landscape of the 21st century.”