Secret no longer: Knights of Columbus open doors to long-hidden initiation ceremony

A man receives his rosary as he is initiated into the Knights of Columbus during a ceremony March 1 at St. John Neumann Parish in Canton. Historically, the initiation ceremony for new Knights was a secret, closed-door affair, but in an effort to attract younger men and encourage family participation, the 138-year-old organization recently opened the ceremony to the public. (Photos by Naomi Vrazo | Special to Detroit Catholic) 

Streamlined exemplification process attracts younger men, involves families in Knights’ community, state and local council leaders say

CANTON — The Knights of Columbus has always been an organization that’s “out there.”

From organizing coat drives and distributing Tootsie Rolls in the streets to working parish cookouts and donating to pro-life causes, the Knights serve the public in a very visible way, in the tradition of Venerable Fr. Michael McGivney, who formed the Catholic men’s fraternal organization in 1882. 

But despite its public nature, the Knights always kept one element secret: its orientation. 

Like many fraternal societies, the Knights for decades kept the initiation of new members hidden from the world — a special moment only for members. 

Earlier this year, however, the Knights began to throw open the curtains, allowing family members and friends to witness the moment a man becomes a Knight.

Men receive their rosaries during a ceremony at St. John Neumann Parish in Canton. New Knights receive a rosary, Knights of Columbus pin and a cross, and are educated about the organization’s four “degrees” of charity, unity, fraternity and patriotism.

“We’ve been trying for years to be known as a family organization,” William Chasse, Michigan Knights of Columbus state deputy, told Detroit Catholic. “We wanted to open up the exemplification ceremony to the family; we don’t want to take dads away from the family. On top of that, we’re opening the doors to everyone; we want the public to see our ceremonials, to see what it’s all about.”

The changes to the exemplification ceremony and “degree program” are part of an effort to boost enrollment among younger members, as well as to make it easier for men to join the Knights and move up its ranks. 

Historically, Knights of Columbus are initiated through four “degrees,” each representing one of the organization’s four principles of charity, unity, fraternity and patriotism. Most men are initiated through three degrees; the optional “fourth degree” includes Knights who, among other things, can participate in the visible color guard who are present at many civic and church functions. 

The new exemplification ceremony inducts new members into the first, second and third degrees at the same time, where they are entrusted with a rosary, a Knights of Columbus pin and a cross. The ceremony takes about 30 minutes, as opposed to being broken up into three parts and taking 2 ½ hours.

New Knights raise their hands to pledge adherence to the organization’s Catholic and family values.  

Men also are invited to watch a 10-minute video narrated by Baltimore Archbishop William Lori, the Knights’ national chaplain.

“What the Supreme Council (of the Knights of Columbus) is doing is taking what we would be teaching in the three degrees and putting together videos to go online for members to watch on their own time,” said Eugene Murawski, the state ceremonial director.

There has been some pushback to the newer, more streamlined ceremony, Murawski said, but other members have expressed appreciation.

“The new exemplification still goes back to the starting days of the Knights of Columbus, showing how the organization started,” Murawski said. “It talks about what charity is, what unity is, what fraternity is. As the state ceremonials director, I think it’s important for them to know what they’re getting into.”

In honor of the coming beatification of Fr. McGivney, who will be named “blessed” by the Church on Oct. 31, the Knights are offering free membership to anyone who joins during the month of August, Fr. McGivney’s birth month. Members who join online can use the promo code MCGIVNEY2020. 

One benefit to the new initiation ceremony is that it allows family members to be present, involving children and spouses and encouraging greater awareness of the Knights’ mission and values. 

The Knights also offer online memberships, hoping to attract younger Knights.

State membership director Jim Kraus said the Knights reformed the degree and exemplification program to make the organization more open and accommodating to men with young families.

“Some of the men felt uneasy by the secrecy,” Kraus said. “They were hampered that families couldn’t be involved, that families didn’t seem welcomed at the Knights of Columbus.”

The origin of the secret supplication dates back to the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic sentiment that was prevalent in parts of the country in the 1800s, Kraus said.

“In the past, you went through the first degree to join, and then at a point in time later, you spent a half-day going through the second and third degrees,” Kraus said. “The thought process (with the new program) is that everyone is busier, and a commitment like that is more difficult in this day and age. So now a man can complete the journey to full knighthood, the third degree, teaching him the core messages and allowing him to be an officer in his council.”

Charles E. McCuen III, state warden for the Michigan Knights of Columbus, prepares rosaries to be given to new Knights at St. John Neumann Parish in Canton on March 1.

Philip McKay of St. John Neumann Parish in Canton joined the Knights in February and was pleased his family got to witness his exemplification.

“It’s an awesome feeling that they are allowed to be there for the ceremony, to see the fellowship in action as well as the different stages of the ceremony,” McKay said. “When I got the cross, the rosary, the pin, my kids were asking me what they were for, what it all meant.”

Michigan has an estimated 65,000 Knights of Columbus across 430 councils, but with an average age of 62, the new exemplification ceremony is a way to entice younger men to join.

In addition to ensuring the future of the organization, younger members also bring an energy and vitality that keeps the Knights strong, Kraus said.

“Younger members might be more likely to participate in a work project, maybe building a handicap ramp at the parish, or helping the pastor with something that requires manual labor,” Kraus said. “It’s easier for a 30-year-old guy to get involved in that type of work than a older gentlemen who can’t do that physical type of work any longer.”

New Knights smile during their initiation ceremony on March 1 at St. John Neumann Parish in Canton. Pictured is Fr. Paul Ballien, center, St. John Neumann’s pastor and the Michigan Knights’ new state chaplain.  

McKay agrees the open, less time-constrictive elements of the new exemplification ceremony will make it easier for younger men like him to join. 

It will also be part of his own recruitment strategy to entice fellow young men who seek faith, fellowship and service to join. 

“The time factor has a lot to do with people joining, so shortening the ceremony down from two hours to 30 minutes or a bit longer is a big two thumbs up for me,” McKay said. “I think it will help draw a younger crowd in. Men will see us younger active members, and they will want to be involved in the Knights of Columbus, seeing what we do and thinking to themselves, ‘That’s something I want to be a part of.’”