Great leaders may be born or built, but no one of either pedigree ever got to the top without developing a serious desire to serve. (If he did, he wouldn't be great.)

For the Catholic leader, that desire must be infused with love for the Church and zeal for the Gospel — or the career that results will end up as so much hollow ambition or empty achievement.

It is with such noble ideals in mind that that the Knights of Columbus have launched a program aimed at building today's college students into tomorrow's great Catholic leaders.

A key part of the program is the Knights' annual International College Council Conference. This year's conference, convened in September, brought more than 150 young Knights from 60 college councils to the organization's headquarters in New Haven, Conn. The theme: “Leading Through Service.”

The young Knights learned “leading by way of serving the Church and serving the community, using our basic principles of charity, unity, fraternity and patriotism,” explains Cyril Embil, a Knight who works with new and established college councils. “The most important is drawing on charity as the first of our principles and leading through that.”

Embil is proof positive the leadership conferences work. He joined the Knights' Husky Council at Northern Illinois University in 1995, his freshman year.

“Most of us go into college thinking it's time for no restrictions and freedom from parental guidance and the Church,” he says. “For me personally, and for a lot of brother Knights, the college council is a big help. We have a way to express our Catholic faith through service and leadership, and that keeps us within the Church and closer to the faith.”

Called to Service

This year's conference chairman, Jonathan Baxa, a senior at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., joined the Knights as an 18-year-old in Belleville, Kan. He first attended Conception Seminary College, where he was impressed by the support the Knights of Columbus offered seminarians. Transferring to Benedictine, he learned the Knights' council at Benedictine College “had a very strong foundation of prayer and were very active in the community.” He became its Grand Knight for the 2003-2004 school year.

This year's conference, says Baxa, “was a terrific experience, talking to Knights around the country, hearing their problems and their successes,” he says. “It gave the guys energy to take wonderful new ideas and solutions to their councils back home.” The Knights shared and merged ideas on what's needed to improve their councils, parishes, communities, families and youth ministries.

Baxa's council was instrumental in starting a crisis-pregnancy center in Atchison and will raise the annual $3,600 rent for the building this year — after raising $5,000 in two days for nursery items.

Baxa says the idea is to go beyond preventing abortions to helping young mothers before and after their babies are born. “That's a very specific example of how these councils can bring leadership through service,” he says.

“In doing that within the context of the pro-life movement, through our service, we become leaders in our individual communities, leaders working toward changing the culture,” adds Baxa. “That's what our Holy Father has called us to do.”

Baxa describes another idea he picked up at the conference for honoring women and the family. A Knight from the University of Nebraska told how his council had gone around campus passing out flowers to women and saying, “You are worth waiting for; thanks for being a true woman.”

“That's leadership through service,” Baxa says. “That's being men to stand up and do that.”

Called to Holiness

Embil explains that most of the college councils use the conference as a way to train their newly elected officers. “They go back with such great motivation to strengthen their council, strengthen their faith and serve the community better,” he says

Nor do the conference organizers skimp on the universal call to holiness. In fact, they stress it right along with the call to service, says Embil — and it's already paying dividends. After this year's conference, for example, some councils set about organizing Eucharistic adoration.

Sean Meenan, a 2002 graduate of the University of Wyoming, joined his college council as a freshman and was appointed to the conference coordinating committee twice. He credits the conference with inspiring him to spend a year at Mundelein Seminary, discerning a vocation to the priesthood and, now, working with youth.

“The whole experience with the Knights made me think a lot about the youth,” he says. “They need help and guidance in forming their life and bringing the Church into their life. That's why you can find me at just about any youth function at the parish or on the diocesan level.”

For his part Baxa, looking back on this year's “Leading Through Service” theme, reflects on two highlights.

One was the keynote address delivered by retired New York Fire Department Capt. Al Fuentes, a Knight and one of the last persons rescued from the rubble of the World Trade Center after the Sept. 11 attacks. He spoke on the need for community leadership and selfless service. He's “a true hero because he's lived an entire life of service,” says Baxa. The other was a talk offered by Dominican Father Gabriel O'Donnell on the founder of the Knights of Columbus, Servant of God Father Michael J. McGivney. “There was a priest,” says Baxa, “who truly saw the needs of his parishioners and founded this organization serving brothers through faith and family.”

“Leadership through service is that saintly call we're all called to,” he adds. “It's such a timely message for Catholic leaders to hear — do the good works, live the life of selfless service.”

Seemingly both born and built, the attendees of the Knights of Columbus' International College Council Conference are already leaders — leaders the Church will look to for years to come.

Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.