San Antonio – We Americans have become a people of convenience. We watch as our fellow citizens abandon positions, even on fundamental issues, because it’s easier than having to make the case, in mixed company, for, say, marriage as we’ve known it. We all too often want to be agreeable and will cast principle aside in order to do so.
The buzz at the Knights of Columbus convention here in San Antonio is about a group of missionaries in the Philippines. The Knights’ Marikina Valley Council in Luzon traveled by foot for an hour and a half, each way, to establish, despite the physical and linguistic challenges, what would become a long-term relationship with the indigenous Dumagat tribe living in the mountains of Antipolo, remote and isolated, accessible only by foot.
Severo S. Del Rosario, head of the council, doesn’t really understand what the big deal is. They were just doing what good Christian men do, he explains, helping, sharing their goods and skills, and spreading their faith. Offerings of food and clothes — the Dumagat men and women were walking around largely exposed — soon began a deeper sharing between the communities.
As the tribe started learning about Catholicism, they wanted more. Some wanted to get married, others wanted to at least have their children baptized — thinking, If this is for real, it is not something to deprive one’s child of. When the Knights built a small chapel for the Dumagats, at their request, “they were overjoyed,” Del Rosario tells me, expressing himself partly in English and partly with the help of a Tagalog translator. A missionary priest visits the Dumagats routinely, and two catechists will be spending days at a time living in their village to talk with those who are asking to know more. “They are hungry for lessons on our faith,” Del Rosario tells me, especially for their children.
What the Marikina Valley Council is doing, says Arsenio Isidro G. Yap, the Knights’ state deputy for Luzon, is an “integral part” of Christianity, of a Catholic’s “calling.” It “is common to go to poor places, where people are in need and where the faith is not being taught,” he says, explaining what his brother Knights are up to. They started with food and toys, and “eventually the need for a chapel emerged.” In Manila, Yap’s council works to help pregnant women and families with more children than their income can support — if they even have any regular income. Most recently, they helped a small fishing village with a no-interest loan; the new resources changed the community’s output and potentially the lives of the villagers.
As members of the world’s largest Catholic fraternal organization, Yap says, the Knights consider this charity work to be not just about helping their neighbors, but part of a calling that ought to be transformative for all involved. He sets as a goal doing his part to make sure men who are Knights under his leadership “become better Catholics, better men, better husbands.” Sometimes a new member will come in satisfied with being a confession-once-a-year, Mass-on-Sunday kinda guy, Yap continues, but it is our duty to help a brother see that those sacraments should transform him. Charity and catechesis are not just about helping neighbors in need, but about opening hearts to the countercultural call of Christianity.
I happen to be at the Knights of Columbus convention this year as a luncheon speaker; I addressed Pope Francis’s recent comments on a “theology of women,” and the need for the world to know what it is the Church lovingly and compellingly proposes on this front. It’s actually a great portrait of the life of the Church. When I showed up at the beginning of the week, I was the lone female and lay voice at a Mass for state chaplains — all priests. The main celebrant, Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, who is the chaplain of the Knights and their families throughout the world, warmly welcomed his sister, as we are co-workers with Christ in a mission that requires many different vocations, and women and men working in complementary ways. We gathered, too, on a Marian feast day, the Feast of the Dedication of St. Mary Major; that’s the basilica in Rome that Pope Francis regularly visits, asking for prayers for his papacy, most recently prayers in thanksgiving for a successful World Youth Day in Rio. His very first day as pope began with a visit there. In no small way this is a reminder of what reverence Christianity has for women; God Himself asked a young woman to be the mother whose son would change all of human history.
Here in the U.S., the Knights are increasingly into disaster relief — helping those devastated by Hurricane Sandy, for example, and the tornadoes in Oklahoma. In San Antonio, they celebrated the tender guidance of Msgr. Robert Weiss, the pastor of St. Rose of Lima Church in Sandy Hook, in the wake of unspeakable horror and heartache. They celebrated too the stalwarts of generous relief (in 2012, Knights in the U.S. donated a total of $167,549,817 and volunteered 70,113,107 hours).
Not only more than a few good men, the Knights are doing the work of civic responsibility, at a time when America’s future in this regard is an open question. In his annual report to his brother Knights, Carl Anderson, head of the worldwide organization, brought up the Department of Health and Human Services’ abortion-drug, contraception, and sterilization mandate as “only one of many legal and regulatory challenges that threaten the free exercise of religion in the United States and elsewhere around the world.” He pointed to the relentlessness with which some people attempt to “persuade the courts to stand the First Amendment on its head and give it a meaning completely contrary to its original intent.” In the face of “those who would banish religion from the public square,” he said the Knights, and Christians more broadly, “must lead by the good that we do” and “must not be silent in speaking up for our rights,” “show[ing] the world that it is love that motivates us to help and protect the poor, the widow, the orphan, the intellectually disabled, the cold and the hungry. And it is that same love that motivates us to work to help and protect families, marriage and the unborn.”
As we face some decision points as a culture and a country, challenges about who we are as a people and whom our soul, individually and as a nation, belongs to, it’s a great blessing to have some brothers leading the way, providing prayer and charitable leadership and partnership.
We are never meant to be alone. And with more than a few good men, some of them walking footpaths and clothing the near-naked, this becomes harder to forget.