Supreme Knight Carl Anderson: ‘We Must Live the Gospel’
An exclusive Register interview
Supreme Knight Carl Anderson has a message to deliver to the Church, both around the world and here at home in the United States: It’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work.
During a day dedicated to “Work and Mission” at the recently concluded “Convocation of Catholic Leaders” in Orlando, Florida, the leader of the Knights of Columbus gave a keynote talk emphasizing the necessity for Catholics to reach out locally as well as globally to the world’s spiritual and material peripheries.
The Register conducted an interview with Anderson by email two weeks before the Knights’ Aug. 1-3 annual convention in St. Louis.
In recent years, the Knights have taken a leadership role in helping persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Your address at the convocation touched on the importance of defending religious freedom around the world. What are some practical things that Catholics can do to help that effort?
Catholics can do three things to support Christians suffering from persecution and its effects in the Middle East: First, pray for these suffering people. Second, help raise awareness about them and urge our government to take humanitarian action on their behalf, since, too often, they don’t receive any direct support from our government’s aid programs. Third, help us support them financially by giving at ChristiansAtRisk.org. We take no administrative fees, so all money donated goes to this cause.
According to the Pew survey, Christians are the most persecuted group in the world. We should take a lesson in the value of our own faith from those who have suffered so much for theirs, and in addition to acting on their behalf, we should redouble our efforts to treasure and defend religious freedom here at home.
In your address, you noted that the most difficult challenge of witnessing to the joy of the Gospel may be “reaching out to our own neighbors, going to this periphery. It requires us to go beyond our comfort zone to do more.” What did you mean by that?
The Knights of Columbus was founded 135 years ago precisely to respond to local peripheries. This meant supporting the faith of Catholics who were looked upon with suspicion, or helping widows and orphans who risked losing everything, including each other, in 19th-century America. Today this mission continues not only around the world, but in our own families, parishes and communities. Works of mercy begin at home, begin locally. If we have someone near us who needs temporal or spiritual support, we need to consider how to help them. A kind word, a prayer or an invitation to prayer, a helping hand are all meaningful. Even small gestures can move someone from the periphery to the center. We may be called to help around the world, but we must never stop helping those quietly suffering near us.
What are your thoughts on the convocation? Did it accomplish what you were hoping? Will it make a difference going forward?
The convocation was historic and a gathering of Catholic Americans unique in our lifetime. The Knights of Columbus was an early financial supporter of the convocation because we understood its potential to energize Catholics throughout the United States. I had hoped it would bring Catholics together in a spirit of unity to celebrate our faith and that it would transmit to the attendees the joy of the Gospel in a way that they could in turn share in their own families and communities. I think it succeeded in doing just that.
I also think it highlighted the enormous gift the Church in America has been given. We are uniquely diverse. We are led by excellent bishops and pastors. We should be leading the way in showing the Church to be authentically “catholic” — that is, universal — by better appreciating the rich tapestry of histories and traditions of the many racial and ethnic communities that are part of the Church in the United States.
If we take up the message of the Gospel with joy, if we live and witness to it without fear, the impact of the convocation will be enormous.
You mentioned the words of Pope Francis — that we are to be “an evangelizing community filled with joy, a community in a permanent state of mission.” How can we best accomplish that?
To do this, we must embrace the Gospel in every aspect of our life. We must not compartmentalize our faith into just one aspect of our life; it must permeate every aspect. We can be in a permanent state of mission most importantly by the witness of our life. The Gospel should motivate us to live in a way that is noticeably different, and we should keep in mind the words attributed to St. Francis on this matter: “Preach, and if necessary use words.” In other words, our actions should be a window into the joy of the Gospel for all around us.
As part of internalizing the Gospel message, it is important that each of us realizes that every issue and every action has a moral dimension. As such, every issue and every action also has a moral consequence. This, of course, is true whether one is a Christian or not. But if one is a Christian, one has a special responsibility to emphasize the moral dimension of decision-making. Something either brings us closer to God or it does not. It is either consistent with Gospel values or it is not. If we would have and preach the joy of the Gospel, then we must live the Gospel.
How have the Knights’ mission and activities changed over the years since Venerable Michael McGivney founded the order?
The Knights of Columbus was founded to support the Catholic faith of our members and to provide charity, particularly through the support of widows and orphans of members’ families — in other words, to provide evangelization and charity to those on the margins of 19th-century New England society. Our commitment to spiritual and corporal works of mercy has continued ever since. If today those on the peripheries of society are the unborn, the elderly, the intellectually disabled and the poor, then you will find the Knights of Columbus serving them. If Catholic men and their families need spiritual support at home and in their parishes, again, you will find the Knights of Columbus there, as well.
Since 2000, when you became Supreme Knight, the order has made major strides in charitable work and giving. Looking over just this past year, what do you see as one of the major charitable accomplishments of the Knights of Columbus?
I have been privileged to be a part of some great charitable projects during the past 17 years. Certainly, we have been involved in major and successful efforts on behalf of Christians in the Middle East. Prior to that, we were on the peripheries of this hemisphere, helping Haitian amputees hurt in the 2010 earthquake there. After Hurricane Katrina and subsequent natural disasters, Knights were on the front lines of the relief effort in terms of funds and volunteer hours. In 2001, we were the first organization to provide emergency cash to the family members of first responders killed in the 9/11 attack. We have been tireless supporters of Special Olympics since the very beginning in 1968, standing with the intellectually disabled, and we have stood with the unborn who needed our voice and their mothers who needed our support.
Each of those projects captured headlines, but I have been equally moved by our members’ tireless efforts at the local level. In communities worldwide, our members seek out the margins and peripheries and bring the joy of the Gospel there through concrete acts of love of neighbor.
Pope Francis recently reappointed you to the Pontifical Academy for Life. The Knights have been visible defenders of the sanctity of life. Would you share one or two of the ways the Knights’ pro-life involvement has made a difference?
I look forward to working with Pope Francis and the Pontifical Academy for Life in supporting an authentic human ecology and building a culture of life based on a proper understanding of the right to life and the dignity of each person.
I think that the K of C work on the issue of life has been very successful, and I would point to two key aspects of our work. First, our ultrasound program has placed more than 800 ultrasound machines in pregnancy-resource centers throughout the country. These machines save lives every day and help save mothers from a lifetime of regret at the same time. If each of those machines saves just two children a week, that is more than 80,000 children saved each year. A picture is worth a thousand words, and it makes an incredibly convincing case to an expectant mother unsure of what choice she should make.
Second, I would point to our annual polling on abortion with Marist. We have discovered something amazing with that. Our country, contrary to popular belief, is not divided on the issue of abortion. Instead, majorities of Americans — from both parties — overwhelmingly support abortion restrictions. Year after year, the surveys show this. Four decades of legalized abortion have made Americans overwhelmingly want more, not fewer, restrictions on abortion.
So you might say we approach the abortion issue in a twofold way. First, by reaching out to women in a caring, nonconfrontational way, in order to truly help them during a very difficult moment in their lives. And, second, trying to get people to rethink a very divisive issue by showing them that a majority of Americans are much closer to the pro-life position than many in the media would lead us to believe. In other words, real advances in pro-life policies are politically realistic today.
The order’s work with the military goes back to World War I — and even before that, as the latest exhibit in the Knights of Columbus Museum highlights. How are the Knights supporting our military today?
In World War I, the Knights of Columbus sought to support troops in two ways — spiritually and charitably. Today that work continues as we bring active-duty troops and veterans to Lourdes each year on pilgrimage. It continues with our printing of prayer books for our troops and in our support of the vocations of those seeking to become military chaplains. And it continues with our support for veterans at VA [Veterans Affairs] hospitals and in projects like those in which we partner with Gary Sinise to build smart homes that change the lives of wounded veterans. We also support our military and their families through the activities of the Knights of Columbus councils that are active on military bases throughout the country.
The Knights have also been involved in vocation work. How are the Knights helping dioceses that are desperately in need of vocations?
Knights have provided $75 million since 1981 in vocations support, helping to financially support more than 100,000 seminarians and religious in formation. We were founded by a parish priest, and we understand the great good a parish priest can do, and the even greater good he can do when supported by his current or future parishioners. Our founder, Father McGivney, would never have been able to finish his seminary studies without external financial support. We have not forgotten this lesson, and we are honored to help future priests complete their studies in that same spirit.
What are your goals for the Knights this upcoming year?
Let me mention one overarching goal. As you know, the convocation focused on how Pope Francis’ document Evangelii Gaudium can help guide the Church in our time. You quoted from the document earlier, but in another section, the Pope calls on all Catholics to share “a fraternal love capable of seeing the sacred grandeur of our neighbor.” And then he writes, “I especially ask Christians in communities throughout the world to offer a radiant and attractive witness of fraternal communion. Let everyone admire how you care for one another and how you encourage and accompany one another.” As the pre-eminent Catholic men’s fraternal organization in the world, my goal for the Knights of Columbus is that we lead the way in demonstrating how to offer this “radiant and attractive witness” through our principles of charity, unity and fraternity. And I think we can do it.
The Christian Refugee Relief Fund has raised more than $12 million for persecuted Christians in the Middle East, especially in Iraq and Syria. How has this helped those Christians? And what is your vision for extending this help in the coming year?
It is important that we not allow Christianity to be erased from the region of its birth. Quite simply, now that ISIS is retreating, we must ensure that we continue to provide humanitarian relief to the displaced Christian communities, and that, where possible, we help them to rebuild. We must not allow ISIS to accomplish its goal of eliminating Christianity from the region through the world’s indifference. This will require not only private philanthropy, but also U.S. government assistance. It is important that government money finally reach communities like those in Erbil that have received no direct U.S. financial support to date. Bills like H.R. 390 are a good step in this regard, but our relief agencies themselves must also take action on this. There is absolutely no reason why we should accept that the United States government ignores the plight of these Christians.