Salt-of-the-earth Catholics attend the annual Knights of Columbus convention, as do prophets and humble heroes of the universal Church.
While talking to Church leaders of communities under great pressure, attending this year’s convention Aug. 1-3 in St. Louis, it became clear that the Knights play a pivotal role internationally — especially in places where U.S. sanctions or policy blindness make our government absent.
In Korea, Syria, and Lebanon — as it has done in Cuba, for example — the Knights of Columbus is fearlessly exploring ways to embody the Gospel’s directive to feed and clothe the poor, comfort the sick, and serve the half-dead victim of robbers.
Seoul in Action
Against the secular tide but with the Holy See, the Knights of Columbus are advocating a non-violent, humanitarian response to conflict and suffering on the Korean peninsula.
The Knights established its first council there 10 years ago.
The Catholic Church in South Korea is one of the Church’s fastest growing communities in the world, with approximately 5.2 million believers.
This year’s Gaudium et Spes prize — and its $100,000 purse — was awarded to Maryknoll missionary Father Gerard Hammond for five decades of commitment to the people of the divided Korean peninsula.
Every six months, in May and November, Father Hammond travels from his home in Seoul to North Korea with a medical team to care for close to 2,000 patients with multidrug-resistant tuberculosis.
Since 1995, to date with no interruption, this dedicated group has been able to care for some 250,000 people, initially patients with “regular” tuberculosis, then moving to the most difficult cases at the request of North Korea’s Ministry of Health.
“Our Holy Father tells us to go to the peripheries and we are doing just that,” Father Hammond told the Register.
“You know the phrase ‘Doctors without Borders’? We practice ‘Healing without Borders,’ the Catholic commitment to mercy and compassion,” the cheerful 84-year-old priest explained.
In the Gaudium et Spes award citation (the first time a priest received it since being established and given initially to Mother Teresa in 1992), Father Hammond’s “Christian witness of presence” was lauded.
By highlighting this “Apostle of Peace,” the Knights align with the Catholic Church’s longstanding position that dialogue between North and South Korea is the key to peace.
“The Church has always advocated reconciliation,” said Father Hammond, reminding the Register what currently governs relations between north and south is “just a truce.”
Although he cautioned, “I don’t want to get into politics,” the priest asked the profound geopolitical question: “Do sanctions really help?”
He continued, “Those are questions we have to think about. Usually, sanctions hurt people. The individual people who are not involved in political activities.”
Another priest of heroic virtue attending the Knights convention was Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart Aleppo, Syria, who has lived through Hell: murder and mass destruction, kidnappings and chaos.
He calls it “a Calvary.”
Jeanbart has bravely led a once-prosperous Melkite Greek Catholic community as it resists genocide — surviving 10 bomb attacks on his home and at least six against his cathedral.
“Three years ago it was not clear we would survive. They wanted to destroy Syria,” Archbishop Jeanbart told the Register in St. Louis.
Never did the archbishop consider leaving his flock despite savage violence against Christian homes, businesses, schools, and holy sites.
“This year, hundreds of Christians have come back [to Aleppo] from Lebanon and we’ve helped some 20 families return from far away: Europe, Canada, Venezuela,” said Archbishop Jeanbart.
Another indicator of community revival is an increase in registration for the new school year.
Before the war, some 175,000 Catholics lived in Aleppo, which was once the country’s industrial hub.
Today less than 75,000 remain according to the archbishop, who estimates 30-40% of those who fled are living in the region and considering return.
“We have restored more than 580 houses,” he said, with help from supporters in Europe and the U.S. Ongoing aid has come from many Catholic quarters including the Knights of Columbus.
Archbishop Jeanbart’s archdiocese helps all Christians in need, not just Syrian Catholics the holy man assured the Register.
Did the U.S. government contribute significantly to alleviating the plight of Christians in Syria?
Not according to the archbishop, who told journalists at last August’s Knights of Columbus convention, Western governments “send their money to the people in the camps and to the fighters and nothing to us.”
Steeped and tested in adversity, Syriac Catholic Church of Antioch Patriarch Ignatius Youssef III Younan is a prophetic speaker of truth.
Like Archbishop Jeanbart, the Beirut-based leader attended the Knights of Columbus convention to thank the Knights for aid provided to the persecuted faithful.
Radical Muslims and their allies have created “a horrendous situation” in Iraq and Syria, which impacts the stability of neighboring countries such as Lebanon.
“If the situation continues,” said the patriarch, “The Middle East will be empty of us, our Apostolic Church and indigenous population.”
“We are suffering. It’s not just a matter of theorizing. Our survival is at stake,” he intoned somberly.
Some 2 million refugees from wars in Iraq and Syria live in Lebanon — a country of just 4 million. Christians are generally afraid of the United Nations-run camps, relying instead on private donations and often, the Church.
In contrast to the indifference of Western governments, the patriarch praises Catholic leaders and lay people, such as the Knights of Columbus, who “have visited [Syrian and Iraqi] refugees to alleviate their dire conditions. Like the Good Samaritan, they emulate Jesus, sharing in their suffering, consoling, encouraging and reminding them that the Lord will never abandon them,” he told the convention last year.
Tremendous, action-oriented contributions characterize the Knights of Columbus program for the persecuted Church in the Middle East.
In his report to the full convention last week, Supreme Knight Carl Anderson outlined the dimensions of this aid, both financial and political.
Since 2014, the organization has raised more than $13 million for Christian refugees, providing food, clothes, medicine, and shelter to thousands of displaced people.
Among the state-level groups active on behalf of Middle Eastern Christians are some 36 K of C councils associated with Maronite, Chaldeon, Melkite, or Syriac Catholic parishes in North America.
Advocacy is critical too: Last year, the Knights provided empirical evidence of genocidal atrocities against Middle East Christians in a major report, “Genocide Against Christians in the Middle East,” cosponsored with In Defense of Christians.
One week later, then-Secretary of State John Kerry concurred with the Knights, declaring a genocide in the region, which has specific implications in international law.
Looking forward, Anderson announced the organization will raise $2 million to restore the town of Karamdes, destroyed by Islamic State (IS) when it overran the Nineveh Plain in 2014, forcing some 3,500 residents, mostly Christian, to flee.
The Supreme Knight urged individual councils, parishes, or individuals to consider these economics: $2,000 can resettle one family back home in Karamdes, as explained on the K of C website, christiansatrisk.org, where visitors can donate.
Knights of Columbus Vice President Andrew Walther explained the project’s logic to Fox News: “ISIS may have been defeated militarily, but ISIS’s goal is the de-Christianization of Iraq.”
He continued, “It’s important that these ancient communities survive. If they don’t, even though ISIS has been driven out, they will have won ideologically.”
Besides money, the Knights are raising prayers: On Nov. 26, the group will partner with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for a day of prayer followed by a week of awareness and education.
The Knights of Columbus refined its ability to provide humanitarian and spiritual support to communities where the U.S. was absent in Cuba.
The order was founded in Cuba in 1909, so it was on the basis of long history that contemporary knights, consistently and persistently, found ways to help the Cuban people.
In 2010, Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega was awarded the Gaudium et Spes prize.
While in Washington, D.C., that year to attend the Knights’ convention, the cardinal held secret meetings with the White House and State Department, which helped lay the ground for the U.S.-Cuba breakthrough, ending the economic embargo.
That same year, the San Carlos and San Ambrosio National Seminary opened, the first new Catholic construction allowed in over fifty years, since Fidel Castro took power in 1959.
Three key Catholic factors made the seminary possible: St. John Paul II’s visit to the island in 1998, when he blessed the seminary’s cornerstone; Cardinal Ortega’s policy of rapprochement with the Castro brothers; and financing from the Knights of Columbus.
The Knights contributed approximately 80% of the seminary’s $5 million price tag.
As Iraqi-born Bishop Yousif Habash of the Syriac Catholic Church declared in St. Louis before saying the Our Father in Aramaic (Jesus’ language) on the convention stage, “Today, I am full of hope and joy because there are wonderful people who love the Church of Jesus. The world needs the good Catholics of every nation.”
Senior Register correspondent Victor Gaetan is an
correspondent and a
contributor to Foreign Affairs magazine,
the Washington Examiner.