by Nicholas Holoman, John Carroll University
As a young person in the Catholic Church, I am constantly reminded of the staggering numbers in which my peers are abandoning the faith. Recent trends reveal that a substantial percentage of these millennials (and younger) who disaffiliate with Catholicism come to self-identify as “religious nones” – an increasingly populous segment of the U.S. population According to Pew Research, “religious nones” comprise 26% of the U.S. population – this comes as a significant increase from only 17% in 2009. In the face of this discouraging reality, it easy for young people to despair about the future of our holy Church. I, undoubtedly, have fallen prey to such a temptation; but after attending the recent SLS20 conference in Phoenix, Arizona, I have renewed hope. This conference, organized by FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students), was a refreshing display of the vibrant life that exists among Catholic youth. Over the course of the week, I witnessed thousands of fellow Catholic university students gathering with excitement for daily mass, Eucharistic Adoration, and inspiring talks. Additionally, I was enamored by the amassment of young priests and consecrated religious who came to partake in the conference. The entire week appeared as a foil to the statistical narrative that is frequently retold about young people in the Catholic Church.
It seems that I was not the only one astonished by the youth of the conference. As one of the men working the Knights of Columbus booth, I encountered many attendees who were pleasantly surprised by the youth of the men who were there representing the knights of Columbus. In numerous conversations I heard things like: “I didn’t know there were Knights this young” or “all the Knights at my parish are much older.” With a booth manned almost entirely by men under the age of 40 (including 2 college students), we seemed to have left attendees wondering “where are all the old guys at?”.
While most people have heard of the Knights of Columbus, the caricature of the group that seem to occupy the popular imagination is that of an aged, feather chapeaux-clad man serving beer-battered cod. Such a caricature, while it may contain glints of truth, does not do justice to the youthful origins of the world’s largest Catholic fraternal organization, nor does it recognize the source of life and renewal that the Knights of Columbus are in the Catholic Church.
The Knights of Columbus was founded as a fraternal order in 1882 by 29-year-old Fr. Michael J. McGivney. Fr. McGivney founded the order, in large part, as a response to the virulent anti-Catholicism that prevailed in 19th century America. For many immigrant families in this era, being Catholic often resulted in being driven into dangerous and dirty lines of work (if offered any work at all). Additionally, Catholic men were frequently lured into joining masonic groups (In which the Church forbids membership) in exchange for preferential treatment on the job. Fr. McGivney witnessed the challenges of immigrant Catholics, and responded with youthful courage and ingenuity. He envisioned an order that would bind Catholic men together in the face of adversity in the service of Church, family, and community. Additionally, he pioneered a system of pecuniary aid for members that sustained families who would have otherwise been devastated by the death of the breadwinner – this laid the foundation for the life insurance program that exists to the modern day.
Fr. McGivney’s vision continues to inspire Knights of today who serve their parishes and families under the principles of charity, unity, and fraternity. His youthful drive and resilience in response to injustice is especially inspiring to the thousands of college Knights who make up approximately 150 college councils in the U.S and Canada. Just as Fr. McGivney stepped up to broach the challenges of his time, the college Knights of today are following in his footsteps. In the face their peers turning away from faith, college knights continue to multiply and carry out the New Evangelization on university campuses. According to the Knights of Columbus College Councils webpage recent years have yielded consistent increases of 10 new college councils per year. These college Knights are evangelizing on campus through bible studies, movie nights, retreats, love and responsibility weeks, and consecrations to Saint Joseph – to name a few common programs. Additionally they are carrying out the corporal works of mercy by raising money for devastated Christian communities in the Middle East, volunteering at pregnancy centers, and building homes with Habitat for Humanity.
These efforts come as a source of hope in a time that often feels dark for our Church. As a college Knight, I am inspired and challenged by the great work that I witness my brother Knights carrying out. I am challenged in that these men push me to be better as a Catholic man. As iron sharpens iron, so they hone me. This is the type of engagement that is crucial for addressing the challenge of young adults leaving the Church. While statistics often paint a grim image of the state of the Church, groups like the Knights of Columbus provide hope and reassurance. Through fraternity and fidelity to prayer the Knights are clearing a path of renewal that has been trod many times before. The young knights certainly have challenges set before them, but their legacy has poised them to act as leaders who are providing hope in a time of trial.