Pope Benedict shared his wisdom and offered his support many times during his long friendship with the Knights of Columbus
Before, during and after his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI addressed the Knights of Columbus numerous times — at different points expressing his gratitude for the Order’s support of the Church, encouraging Knights in their work and prayer, and reflecting on Father Michael McGivney’s legacy.
Supreme Knight Virgil Dechant wrote to then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in June 1986 upon his appointment to oversee the drafting of a new universal catechism. Supreme Knight Dechant congratulated Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and assured him of the Order’s prayers; the cardinal replied with thanks, writing, “Your prayerful support and encouragement is deeply appreciated.”
A few years later, Cardinal Ratzinger was invited to speak to the Washington, D.C., session of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, which the Knights helped establish in 1988.
His January 1990 lecture was attended by Supreme Knight Dechant and other Supreme Officers, together with students and faculty, including Carl Anderson, who served as dean until his election as supreme knight in 2000.
In the lecture, titled “Jesus Christ: Today, Yesterday, and Forever,” Cardinal Ratzinger expounded upon a key theme of the Second Vatican Council that he would later emphasize as pope — that human beings can only fully understand themselves and the meaning of their lives in light of the life and mission of Jesus Christ (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 22).
The esteemed theologian wrote Supreme Knight Dechant later that month to share his appreciation for the Institute and the Order: “The Knights of Columbus are to be commended for the fine work they do in behalf of family life not only through the Institute but in so many other ways as well.”
Cardinal Ratzinger, who was over 60 years old at the time, had expressed during his visit a hope that it would be his last time making the long trip to America. The Holy Spirit, of course, had other plans. After his election to the See of Peter in 2005, Pope Benedict XVI would travel again to the United States in April 2008 — just one of more than two dozen pastoral visits outside Italy.
It was shortly before his 2008 apostolic journey that the pope approved a decree of heroic virtue for the Order’s founder, Father Michael J. McGivney, giving him the title Venerable. During his homily at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City during the trip, Pope Benedict cited Father McGivney as an “exemplary American priest” whose vision and zeal contributed to the impressive growth of the Church in the United States.
At times, Pope Benedict directly addressed the Knights of Columbus — as in 2007, when he sent his greetings to the 125th Supreme Convention in Nashville, Tennessee. In a letter that he personally signed, the pope praised the many ways “the Knights of Columbus have actively built up the Kingdom of God on earth,” adding, “I know you will continue to devote your energies and your apostolic zeal to promoting the Church’s mission wherever you may be.”
The Holy Father also reminded Knights to constantly ground their work through prayer in a personal relationship with God. “I urge you to be ever mindful of the need to draw sustenance for the missionary endeavor from your fidelity to prayer,” Pope Benedict wrote. “As Blessed Teresa of Calcutta taught her followers, time devoted to God in prayer not only does not detract from effective and loving service to our neighbor, but is in fact its inexhaustible source.”
At other times, the pope’s teachings for the universal Church had a special bearing on the Order’s mission. His first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love), was particularly meaningful. “Living Deus Caritas Est” was chosen as the theme of the 124th Supreme Convention in 2006, and Supreme Knight Carl Anderson said of the encyclical: “One can hardly imagine a document more relevant to the Knights of Columbus, dedicated as we are to the principles of Charity, Unity and Fraternity. Pope Benedict is not only speaking to us, he is in so many ways speaking about us.”
Supreme Knight Patrick Kelly echoed these sentiments in a statement following Pope Benedict’s death: “Deus Caritas Est remains a guiding light for the world — and for the Knights of Columbus specifically, since one of our founding principles is charity, and our global charitable work is at the heart of our activity as Knights.”
Pope Benedict personally addressed the Knights of Columbus Board of Directors at the Vatican in October 2008. “I express my appreciation of your efforts to provide a solid formation in the faith for young people, and to defend the moral truths necessary for a free and human society, including the fundamental right to life of every human being,” he affirmed. “With these sentiments, dear friends, I assure you a special remembrance in my prayers. To all Knights and their families, I cordially impart my Apostolic Blessing, as a pledge of lasting joy and peace in our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Nor did Pope Benedict’s friendship with the Order end after resigning the papacy in 2013. Later that year, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI made an unsolicited gift to the Knights of Columbus: one of his white cassocks and a zucchetto worn while pope, for the Knights of Columbus Museum. In anticipation of Pope Benedict’s 90th birthday in April 2017, Supreme Knight Anderson focused his Columbia column on Benedict’s legacy of teaching and his authentic Christian witness.
In a personal letter, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI then thanked the supreme knight for his kind words and “especially for the prayers of the Knights of Columbus on the occasion of my 90th birthday.”
“The witness to Faith offered to the world by the Knights of Columbus around the world is a source of joy to me,” the pope emeritus added. “May the risen Lord continue to guide you all on the journey through this life, keeping your hearts burning like those disciples of Emmaus and persevering you in the firm hope that He has prepared an everlasting Easter for us.”