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Missionary Conversion: What It Means for You and Me, Knights of Columbus State Deputies Meeting

New Haven, CT

I. Introduction

A. I am always grateful for the opportunity to address this gathering of State Deputies, those of you who continue in your role of leadership and service to the Order and those of you who are beginning your service as State Deputies. Thank you for all that you do to advance the mission of the Knights of Columbus in your State Jurisdictions as well as your dedication to the Order as a whole. We are here this weekend because we truly believe that the Knights of Columbus is a providential means for advancing the Gospel of Jesus Christ in our times, in our countries, and in our particular jurisdictions. We are here because we believe that the Venerable Father McGivney founded not only an excellent vehicle to provide for families and loved ones in time of need, but indeed the largest and greatest fraternal organization in the Church and in the world. And he did this for one reason that should be the motive of every priest and pastor: he did it for the salvation of souls, in particular, for Catholic men and their families.

B. We have not only inherited Father McGivney’s groundbreaking work, we have also been given responsibility to carry his mission forward, in our time and place and in conditions different from those he encountered when he founded our beloved Order in 1882. Advancing the mission and the work of Knights of Columbus certainly means paying close attention to Fr. McGivney’s teaching and example; it means remembering the heroic work of brother knights who have gone before us, especially those who attained great holiness and gave their lives for Christ; advancing the mission of the Knights certainly requires us to know the history of the Order and to understand and cherish its traditions, its procedures, and its practices.

II. The Call to Missionary Conversion for Individuals

A. Yet, if we are serious about moving ahead with what God has given us through the ministry of our founder, Father McGivney, then we will recognize that more is required of us than reverence for the past. We need to see how the role which the Knights are called to play in the Church’s life has not remained stagnant but rather has expanded and grown more dynamic. For we, along with the rest of the Church, have been called by Pope Francis to undergo what he calls “a missionary conversion”. He calls upon each member of the Church, in our specific vocations, to undergo a missionary conversion. He calls upon every parish, every school, and every Catholic social service agency to undergo a mission conversion. And he is calling upon us, the Knights of Columbus, to experience an ever deeper missionary conversion.

B. In general this means that, as Catholic Christians, we need to be shaken out of our complacency. It is all too easy for us and our fellow Catholics to take our faith for granted. And when we take our faith for granted, we are in danger of losing our faith. How many people do we know in our own families who have done just that? All of us know people who were raised Catholic, educated in Catholic schools, and whose families went to Mass every Sunday… but now they might go to Mass only at Christmas or Easter or when a niece or nephew is being confirmed or there is a family marriage.

C. To be sure there are disaffected Catholics and those who have had bad experiences in their parishes – but most of the Catholics we are losing are not militantly marching out of the Church – instead, they just are drifting away. When asked in a recent survey conducted in the Archdiocese of Baltimore why Catholics are most frequently absent from Mass on Sunday – the answer was not a lack of belief or anger with the Church – not even boring sermons – the number one reason was sports events. The number two reason was work and school related. When asked about the place of Jesus Christ in their lives, only 67% answered that Jesus Christ was the center of their lives. Perhaps the respondents thought it was a trick question – who knows?

D. So when Pope Francis speaks about a missionary conversion for individuals, he means we truly need to open our minds and hearts to Christ and experience his presence in our lives through the Holy Spirit – such that our faith in Jesus is not at the periphery of our lives but at the center – such that we are no longer complacent Christians but rather true followers of Jesus and active members of the Body of Christ. I think this is what Father McGivney wants us to be!

III. The Call to Missionary Conversion for Institutions

A. Pope Francis is not merely calling for us as individuals to be revitalized in our relationship with Christ and in our witness to the faith. He is also calling upon all the institutions in the life of the Church to experience a missionary conversion – most especially parishes.

B. Our own experience can confirm the truth and wisdom of what the Pope is asking for. Some parishes are clearly alive and vibrant. They are growing in numbers. The preaching is good. Parishioners truly participate in Mass. The sacrament of reconciliation is alive and well. Parishioners of all ages are being formed in the faith, and the parish reaches out to the poor and vulnerable not only with generosity but with a keen appreciation for their human dignity. And let’s face it: other parishes that aren’t there yet and more than that, some don’t seem to be on the road to revitalization. It’s business as usual, even though the book of business diminishes week by week as more and more parishioners drift away…with no one asking why. What’s more, parishes like that are often run by tight-knit groups that don’t really want new members and new ideas. And the prime mission of such parishes is simply to survive – against the day when the bishop might have to call to the question. I think this is what the Pope means when he decries parishes and institutions that are self-referential – i.e., – more concerned about themselves than their mission.

IV. The Missionary Conversion and the Knights of Columbus

A. So what does all this have to do with us, the Knights of Columbus? After all our membership numbers, in some jurisdictions, are growing and there can be no doubt that under the leadership of our Worthy Supreme Knight the Order is focused as never before on the Church’s mission of evangelization – in much the same way as the Holy Father and the bishops in union with him are totally focused on the Church’s mission of spreading the Gospel. The Order gives us not only direction but also tools for helping our state jurisdictions and our local councils to be that vehicle for spiritual growth and evangelization that Father McGivney envisioned as a parish priest here in New Haven.

B. And indeed, as I travel from parish to parish in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, I encounter local councils that are firmly rooted in the life of their parishes, councils that are contributing to the growth and vitality of these parishes, councils comprised of men, including younger men, who truly take their faith seriously and try to live their faith in their role as husbands and fathers and in their professional and working life. These are the councils that participate in Knights of Columbus initiatives such as the Building the Domestic Church Program. These are the men who are always ready to volunteer, always ready to step up to the plate – and always ready to offer help to those who are in need. Not surprisingly, these are the Councils that are growing. As State Deputies, you will experience the same happiness I experience when I meet with the leadership and membership of such Councils.

C. But let’s face it: that’s not always the case. Just as there are individual Catholics whose faith is truly alive and others less so; just as there are parishes that are alive and well, and others that are dying; so too there are K of C Councils that are, for what of a better term, “freeze-dried”. They are not open to new initiatives or even to new members and who do not see or understand their role they are to play in the revitalization of the Church’s mission. It’s business as usual. And, along the way you will find councils that are somewhere in between. Possibly they could come alive and possibly they could just rumble along. I think our job is to make as many councils as possible come alive. But what does that mean? What does a K of C council fully alive look like? What does it do?

V. Men’s Spirituality

A. To answer that question let me tell you a brief story. Some time ago, I offered Sunday Mass in one of my parishes. After Mass the young priest stationed in that parish introduced me to a parishioner who told me that he and about dozen other men had just started a men’s group and that they were meeting in the church hall underneath the Church. (His words had a familiar ring to them!) This man had also done a booklet on the Rosary in which he reflected on each of the mysteries of the Rosary as a way for men to grow in the virtues they need to be good husbands and fathers. The founder of this group told me that it is growing rapidly and he was hoping that I would give this brand new effort my blessing. And the young priest who introduced me to the founder of this group earnestly said to me, “Maybe Columbia could do a story about this!”

B. Sadly, this group is not part of us, at least, not yet. It was begun side-by-side with a Knights of Columbus Council. It was founded in recognition of the deep spiritual needs that many men experience in today’s world. And indeed there are a lot of men’s groups springing up in parishes, some of which meet early in the morning on Saturday’s for fellowship and prayer. Some of these are part of the Order and some are not.

C. If we are serious about experiencing at the local level in each of our jurisdictions the missionary conversion that Pope Francis is calling us to, then I think we have read the signs of the times – we have to pay close attention to the serious spiritual needs of men, especially younger men who have completed their formal education, who are beginning new jobs and careers, and who are either recently married or thinking about getting married. We have to pay close attention to still-young men who are farther down those paths but experiencing headwinds in living their faith and in living their vocations – men who might otherwise walk away from their faith without ever having really found it. These men are looking for something solid. They are looking for guidance and direction in a world that is mixing up the roles of men and women – making them competitors not cooperators. They are facing the daily onslaught of a secular culture bent on destroying virtues and values and structures as fundamental as the family. They are in the battle but without the armor of faith and without really being part of a battalion.

D. That is why we all need to pay close attention to Bishop Thomas Olmstead’s Pastoral Letter addressed to the men of his diocese – an exhortation entitled, “Into the Breach.” When I began reading his letter I couldn’t put it down. It is perfectly suited to the mission of the Knights of Columbus as envisioned by Father McGivney – to bring about the conversion and spiritual growth of ourselves & our fellow knights. Bishop Olmstead has given us a guide on what it truly means to be Catholic man who follows Christ, who pays attention to the witness of the saints, to understands what he is called to be and to become, and who is willing to engage in the spiritual warfare necessary to be a good husband and father and a good disciple who spreads the Gospel by word and by example. This letter, I would suggest, will go a long way in helping all of us guide the Order in our local jurisdictions in the ongoing process of missionary conversion so essential if we are to continue fulfilling our role as the premier fraternal organization in the life of the Church.

E. With such guidance, our council meetings can become more than business meetings, more than a time to organize projects, but also a time when men can pray together, read Scripture, grow in their understanding of the faith, be strengthened in virtue, and thus fulfill their vocations and live as true missionary disciples.

VI. Conclusion

A. So I thank you for your willingness to lead and serve the Order. It is a privilege to serve side-by-side with you and I pledge you a daily remembrance in my prayers. I pray that our beloved Order at every level of its life and in its every activity may indeed be a light brightly visible – a light that shines in the world aglow with the light of Christ – for the glory of God and the salvation of souls.

B. May God bless our beloved Order and keep us in his love. Vivat Jesus!