Former Knights of Columbus Chief Sees Two Decades as Living Call of Discipleship
Former Supreme Knight Carl Anderson reflects on his 21 years leading the Knights of Columbus.
NEW HAVEN, Conn. — What does it mean to be a Knight of Columbus, a part of the world’s largest Catholic fraternal organization? Former Supreme Knight Carl Anderson has worked closely with three popes, and led the Knights to making pivotal contributions to serve the Church at home and abroad, particularly in coming to the rescue of the Church in Iraq, during his two decades of leadership. For Anderson, to be a Knight of Columbus is to be a man on a “path of discipleship based on charity and unity,” with brothers to sustain him on the way.
In this March 18 interview with the Register, the former Supreme Knight reflects on his own path of discipleship, leading the Knights of Columbus through the key defining moments from 2000 until 2021, and the road now that lies ahead.
As Supreme Knight, you led the Knights’ advocacy for the Church in Iraq as it fought to survive genocide and to rebuild as early as 2014. What was going through your mind, seeing Pope Francis there in Iraq with our fellow Catholic, Orthodox and Assyrian Christians?
My first thought was that we have such a courageous pope and he has got a Jesuit’s missionary heart. My second thought was how important this visit was to the Christians of Iraq as a message of hope, many of whom I recognized watching it on TV. Before I visited Iraq several years ago, I had the privilege of meeting with Pope Francis privately, and we discussed the situation there. So I know his deep concern for Christians there and for their survival. I just pray that his visit will improve the situation. I was edified that so many government officials, some of whom I met, including Kurdistan officials, were there for his trip, and heard his words. So I just hope that his visit will continue global support for the Church’s survival there.
That’s such a tremendously important issue. With Syria and Iraq, we got to remember St. Paul did not bring the Gospel to Damascus. He was baptized by the Christian community in Damascus. This Church goes back to the very beginning. They pray in the language of Jesus, right in Aramaic, so it’s tremendously important they survive. And I think the Pope’s visit was tremendously important, and found it tremendously emotional and inspirational.
Going back to that moment in 2014, what made you realize the Knights had to make this commitment?
We’ve always been concerned for international human rights going back to the Armenian genocide, we helped then. The persecution of the Church in Mexico, we helped then. We were active supporting Christians behind the Iron Curtain. We provided the subsistence for Cardinal Mindszenty when he took refuge in the American embassy in Budapest. Not many people know that. But we’ve had a long tradition [doing this], even helping Solidarity during the 1980s. So this was the latest one. We had the resources, we had the commitment, and so we could act quickly. And we did.
Since 2000, you’ve led the Knights of Columbus through many initiatives in service to the Church, the country and the world. Which do you feel personally most grateful to have seen through?
I think it’s the basic tremendous growth of our charitable work in terms of dollars and volunteer hours, and especially now our global reach. It’s hard to imagine, but the value of our volunteer service and our dollars are in the billions of dollars over 20 years. Today we’re helping AIDS orphans in Africa. We’ve helped typhoon victims in the Philippines, and we’re now helping COVID sufferers in Latin America. We’ve had many charitable projects throughout the United States. Just two examples: We’ve given out over 100,000 wheelchairs around the world to poor families. With our ultrasound initiative, we now have 1,400 ultrasound [machines] throughout the United States. If those save just one child week, that’s 70,000 a year, and we know they’re doing more than that. So it’s probably 100,000 children we’re saving from abortion a year. It’s that kind of expansive growth of our charitable activities, I’m most proud of.
You served three popes as supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus. What was it like to get to know each one of them?
It’s privilege to be able to deal directly and personally with these three great popes. Although they’re very different, my approach is the same with all of them: and that is to ask the question, “What is the message of this pontificate for the Knights of Columbus and for the Church?” We can’t do everything, but we can do some things. And what is it; how do we seize the moment for what Providence is offering us through this Pope?
So with John Paul II, his tremendous work for human rights, his encouragement of the laity, his forceful defense of pro-life, his work for the family, is all right down the alley for the Knights of Columbus. With Pope Benedict, how could we not be so enthusiastic when his first encyclical is on charity, Deus Caritas Est? We saw that in a way as a mission statement for us. And then with Pope Francis, how could we not be enthusiastic about his call to accompany the poor at the peripheries, which we try very hard to do; and just now, as a men’s organization, his declaring the Year at St. Joseph. So that’s really the question: What is the Pope saying to us in his pontificate and how can we help?
Is there a particular experience you had with any of these popes that was most something that you cherish?
It would be Pope John Paul II. And I say that, because I first met him in 1981 and basically had the privilege of meeting him every year since then. Toward the end of his life, he was so ill. Sometimes when you met with him privately, you could have a good conversation because it would be a good day for him. And other times, it would not be such a good day for him. And you could see him struggle to communicate — to get even parts of sentences out. It just was so symbolic of his pontificate. Here was a Pope who used every means of communication to evangelize, to share the gospel — his poetry, his plays, his speeches, his encyclicals, his letters. He did video messages to the Knights of Columbus conventions. So I think maybe seeing him struggle to talk in a private meeting was maybe the most moving experience.
You dedicated the Knights of Columbus to Our Lady of Guadalupe in your first year as Supreme Knight. How important do you see Our Lady’s apparition here in achieving a truly Catholic vision for the Americas?
I don’t think you can possibly exaggerate the importance of Our Lady of Guadalupe for our hemisphere and particularly in North America. John Paul II spoke of her as “the star of the New Evangelization.” But to understand why that is, you have to look at the context of her appearance with St. Juan Diego. It comes at a horrific clash of civilizations, and you could even say of races. She comes not as a symbol of European Christianity, but she comes as an Indigenous person to an Indigenous person. She speaks an Indigenous language. That tells us so much in terms of the Church, for human rights, for reconciliation, for hope, how to evangelize, and what kind of culture we ought to be building in the New World, and why we should call it a “New World” if we really seized her message. And so that’s why when I wrote the book on Our Lady of Guadalupe with Msgr. Eduardo Chavez, the title was Mother of the Civilization of Love, because that’s what I think she’s calling us to build: the culture of life, a civilization of love. And of course, for an organization dedicated to charity, unity and brotherhood, her message is a 100% for us.
You’ve now handed leadership of the Knights of Columbus to Supreme Knight Patrick Kelly. How long have you known him and what do you expect of the Knights under his leadership?
Well, you know, the Knights of Columbus for basically 140 years, we’ve had visionary leaders. And I think Patrick Kelly is the latest in what I would say is a long line of strong leaders. I’ve known Patrick for more than 20 years. He’s a man of faith; he’s totally committed to the mission of the Knights of Columbus, especially in regard to charity, the family, pro-life, our service to the Church. So I’m very proud he’s our new Supreme Knight, and I know he’ll be outstanding. He’s the man particularly for this moment, for the Church and our country.
He brings together so many qualities. He’s educated in law and in theology. He served our country, both in the military and in civil positions of importance. He’s a very dedicated fraternalist. He understands what makes the Knights of Columbus go. He’s totally committed to our charitable work, and he’s got a special attention for young fathers, and young families. And I think this is a demographic in the Church that really needs the support of the Knights of Columbus.
You’ve been a Knight of Columbus for a long time. What made you become a Knight of Columbus in the first place?
I joined the Knights a little bit later, when I was in my 30s. I saw the Knights really as an organization that was doing so much good at the local level. So, if you understand the Church’s concept of subsidiarity and the role of the laity after the Second Vatican Council, I saw the Knights of Columbus as the ideal Catholic organization for young men to be involved in. It gave you an opportunity for leadership, for charity, to be an active member of your parish, and to help your marriage and family. So I guess the reasons I joined are the same reasons why I’m committed to it today.
What would you say is the most single profound moment you’ve had as a Knight of Columbus? Was there a defining moment for you?
Let me answer it in two parts. The first part is, as supreme knight, the most profound moment, I think is the beatification of our founder, Father Michael McGivney. I prayed for this event for decades, all through my tenure as Supreme Knight. So to be there at Mass, and watch him proclaimed “Blessed” is the most profound, moving moment.
I would say, maybe at a personal level, slightly different than that: to have a pope look at you in a private meeting and say, “I wish the Knights of Columbus were in my country,” would be a defining moment as to the value of your work and the work of the Knights of Columbus.
That must have been an incredible experience. Going back to the beatification of Father Michael McGivney, what effect do you hope that has on the Knights of Columbus and the broader Church?
I hope the beatification of Father McGivney opens up to many brother Knights, and to many Catholic men, the idea of the Knights of Columbus as a path of Christian discipleship, calling men to lives of charity, unity, and brotherhood, and that this is a defining way by which they see their roles as husbands, fathers, parishioners, and citizens. That’s really what was in Father McGivney’s heart. We do a lot of fraternal activity. We do a lot of charitable activity, but I think with Father McGivney’s beatification, we see the Knights of Columbus as really a path of discipleship based on charity and unity, a brotherhood dedicated to that.
So with the Knights in good hands, what’s the next adventure ahead for you?
Well, I just published my latest book this year and I’m looking at maybe starting to write another one on the family and evangelization. As far as adventure, I think spending more time with my 11 grandchildren will be the adventure part in the near future.