By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor
INDEPENDENCE — When we think about it, many seemingly random events and people we encounter change our lives for the better. So, are they really random, or do we feel God’s hand on our shoulders?
A decade ago, Mike Mayo and his wife Megan were active at St. Mark the Evangelist Parish — she taught in the pre-school and was a member of the choir. One evening, Mike was sitting near the choir during practice, when his cell phone vibrated. Not wanting to disturb the choir, he took the phone outside to answer the call. Wrong number.
He then discovered the door had latched behind him, forcing him to walk around the church building to another entrance, where he found a parishioner straightening up the narthex. The two men began chatting and Mike was invited to become an usher.
During his service as an usher, he got to know some of the parish’s Knights of Columbus. He enjoyed their camaraderie and when, during the 2008 membership drive, several of the Knights suggested Mike join the Order, he did.
At his First Degree exemplification, or initiation, the new Knight was given a Knights of Columbus rosary, and charged with praying it regularly.
“I was given the Rosary,” he recalled with a grin, “and eventually learned to pray it … on a flight to Spain to visit our daughter Kelly. Praying the Rosary daily has changed my spiritual makeup considerably! It has made me more generous, made me care about others’ needs a lot more. I still pray the Rosary every day, during my morning run, whether that’s on the treadmill or around the neighborhood. I can reflect on my blessings with thanksgiving, and what being a Catholic husband, father, grandfather and Knight of Columbus really mean to me.”
Mike learned a lot about his faith during his first years as a Knight, including Church precepts, additional prayers and litanies, and the Ten Commandments — “C’mon, do you really know the Ten Commandments, in order?” he asked.
A prospective knight is required to be a “practical Catholic.” Mike explained that a practical Catholic is a practicing Catholic who believes the pope is the legitimate leader of the Church, and the Church is a valid gift from God. A practical Catholic is also joyous and faithful to the Church and to his family.
He gives the Knights of Columbus, Father James L. Wallace Council #6794, at St. Mark’s and Nativity of Mary parishes, a lot of credit for his growth in spirituality. “Through them, I’ve also found I really enjoy helping people, especially when it’s not required.”
He quickly got involved in many of the Knights’ charitable efforts — the Tootsie Roll drive, which raises funds for developmentally disabled patients at Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital in St. Louis, supporting the Special Olympics and the FIRE Foundation, the Father James L. Wallace Council’s sponsorship of a seminarian, pro-life initiatives, veterans’ assistance at St. Michael’s Veterans Center (they donate furniture and more) all the while quietly advancing through the degrees of knighthood.
The Knights of Columbus were founded as a fraternal, mutual benefit organization. In the decades following the Civil War, poverty was rife among Catholic families, especially immigrant families. Catholics also faced anti-Catholic biases in education, employment and assistance in the event of the death of a breadwinner. In the spring of 1882, Father Michael J. McGiveney of New Haven, Conn., decided to rewrite the old ending to that story.
March 29 marked the 135th anniversary of the founding of the Knights of Columbus in the basement of St. Mary’s Church in New Haven. Father McGiveney gathered a small group of men, united in faith, to help provide for Catholic widows and orphans in time of need. He foresaw that the guiding principles he established — charity, unity and fraternity — would also strengthen faith, families and the community.
Under those principles, he initiated a pass-the-hat insurance system to raise funds to help support Catholic widows and orphans in the event of the family breadwinner’s death. Today, that system has evolved into a multi-billion-dollar, AAA rated insurance program. The small group of Catholic men is now 1.9 million strong in the United States and 11 other nations.
A new member is initiated into the First Degree, founded on the principle of charity, and has the opportunity through involvement, spiritual growth and continued formation to become a Second then a Third Degree Knight, explicated by the guiding principles of unity and fraternity. Once he has attained the Third Degree, he is eligible for the Fourth Degree, as long as he maintains good standing in his council as a Third Degree Knight.
The first exemplification of the Fourth Degree was held in New York City, Feb. 22, 1900. The ritual added patriotism to the founding principles of the Knights of Columbus — charity, unity and fraternity. The primary purpose of the Fourth Degree is fostering the spirit of patriotism through the promotion of responsible citizenship, love and loyalty to the Knight’ respective country through active membership in a local group, known as an assembly.
Many priests have joined the Knights of Columbus over the years and today, and many of the prelates in the United States, are Fourth Degree Knights. Bishop James V. Johnston, Jr., of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, is a Fourth Degree Knight. He was to be honored April 1 at an exemplification ceremony in Kansas City.
The Fourth Degree, or Patriotic Degree, is a visible symbol of the Knights of Columbus. Those who choose to can become part of the Color Corps, the caped, plumed hat, sword-bearing Knights who stand as honor guards, participate in parades, at special Masses and other events. The Fourth Degree Knight is addressed as “Sir Knight.” Third Degree Knight of Columbus Mike Mayo became Sir Knight Mayo a couple of years ago. He joined the Color Corps, something only about 18 percent of the Fourth Degree knights join.
The public sees the baldric and sword, the colorful cape and frothy chapeau. What’s more important and less obvious is the Fourth Degree emblem, a triad of a dove, a cross and a globe. By wearing the emblem, a Knight commits to conducting himself honorably as a Christian gentleman in both his public and private lives and to act with patriotism on behalf of his country.
The emblem: the dove (colombo in Italian) the classic symbol of the Holy Spirit, of peace, hovers over the earth, the globe. Both the dove and the globe are mounted on a variation of the Crusader’s Cross, found on the tunics and capes of the crusading knights who fought to regain the Holy Land.
Spiritually, the emblem’s sacred symbols represent the Three Divine Persons in one Godhead, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit — the Trinity. The globe is symbolic of God the Father, creator of the universe (a blue globe with the nations of the Western hemisphere in white). The cross typifies God the Son, the Redeemer of mankind (a red cross with gold borders and gold knobs forming the ends of the arm of the cross, also known as the Isabella Cross, after Queen Isabella, the promoter of Christopher Columbus. The white dove represents the Holy Spirit, the sanctifier of humanity.
Red, white and blue are the colors of the American flag, under which the Knights of Columbus were founded, and are used to stress patriotism.
The Supreme Council of the Knights of Columbus commented, “Considered under a religious aspect, we have the honor and the privilege of wearing on our swords and our lapels the sacred symbol of the Most Blessed Trinity. This should always remind us to live a good Christian life, and that we should never bring dishonor on the emblem we have been privileged to wear. By this, others may see our good works, through which we glorify our Holy Religion, our Honored Order and our Beloved Country.”
Sir Knight Mayo proudly displayed the Fourth Degree emblem worn on the left shoulder of his red cape, his black tuxedo, the red, white and blue service baldric with the Knights of Columbus emblem (a shield mounted on a Formee cross) and scabbard for his sword, his white gloves and sword and the white plumed naval chapeau.
The colors of the cape and chapeau indicate the office held by the Fourth Degree Knight. His red cape and white plumed chapeau denote what Sir Knight Mayo describes as a “grunt.” Many colors of cape and chapeau can be seen when the honor guards participate at Masses or public events. A dark blue cape and chapeau indicate a Supreme Master; light blue for the Vice-Supreme Master; gold is for a Master; dark green for a District Marshall; and white for a Faithful Navigator, to name a few.
Currently, the office of Supreme Knight is held by Carl Anderson, and the Supreme Chaplain is Archbishop William E. Lori. The official motto of the Knights of Columbus is “In service to One; in service to all.”
The Knights of Columbus have had many well-known members over the years, including President John F. Kennedy, New York governor and 1928 presidential candidate Al Smith; Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito; former Florida governor Jeb Bush and former Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner. Cardinals William Levada, former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Sean O’Malley of Boston and Jaime Sin, deceased former archbishop of Manila, are all Knights. Two famous sports figures, Vince Lombardi and Babe Ruth were also Knights of Columbus.
Sir Knight Mayo said, “You know, there may come a time when we have to look past our daily duties and routines and serve our fellow man, the patriotism angle. The Knights of Columbus is all about service — to our faith, our families and our country. As a Fourth Degree Knight, I serve God through my faith, my family, and my fellow man — those I know and those I don’t. Being called Sir Knight brings that home. It’s a real honor.”