The Knights of Columbus is the world’s largest Catholic fraternal service organization. Founded by Father Michael J. McGivney in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1882, it was named in honor of the mariner Christopher Columbus. Originally serving as a mutual benefit society to low-income immigrant Catholics, it developed into a fraternal benefit society dedicated to providing charitable services, promoting Catholic education and actively defending Roman Catholicism in various nations.
There are more than 1.85 million members in nearly 15,000 councils, with nearly 200 councils on college campuses. Membership is limited to “practical” Catholic men aged 18 or older. Membership consists of four different degrees, each exemplifying a different principle of the Order. The Order is a member of the International Alliance of Catholic Knights.
Councils have been chartered in the United States (including some territories), Canada, the Philippines, Mexico, Poland, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Panama, the Bahamas, the Virgin Islands, Cuba, Guatemala, Guam, Saipan, South Korea, and on US military bases around the world. The Knights’ official junior organization, the Columbian Squires, has over 5,000 circles and the Order’s patriotic arm, the Fourth Degree, has more than 2,500 assemblies.
For their support for the Church and local communities, as well as for their philanthropic efforts, Pope John Paul II referred to the Order as a “strong right arm of the Church”. In 2013, the Order gave over $170.1 million directly to charity and performed over 70.5 million man-hours of voluntary service. Over 413,000 pints of blood were donated in 2010. The Order’s insurance program has more than $90 billion of life insurance policies in force, backed up by $19.8 billion in assets, holds the highest insurance ratings given by A. M. Best and the Insurance Marketplace Standards Association, and has been named a World’s Most Ethical Company. Within the United States on the national and state level, the Order is active in the political arena lobbying for laws and positions that uphold the Catholic Church’s positions on public policy and social issues.
Degrees of Knighthood
The Order is dedicated to the principles of Charity, Unity, Fraternity, and Patriotism. A First Degree exemplification ceremony, by which a man joins the Order, explicates the virtue of charity. He is then said to be a First Degree Knight of Columbus; after participating in the subsequent degrees, each of which focuses on another virtue, he rises to that status. Upon reaching the Third Degree, a gentleman is a full member. Priests do not participate directly in Degree exemplifications as laymen do, but rather take the degree by observation.
Behind everything a Knight does is the vision of our founder, Venerable Michael McGivney, and the mission he left us as Catholic men united in faith. This holy and heroic parish priest founded the Order with a group of laymen in the basement of St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, CT, the city where the Order’s headquarters remains. Today, we ask for his intercession, pray for his canonization, and live out in our lives the principles he left us as Knights:
First Degree – new Knights start as First Degree Knights exemplifying Charity. This principle is the basis of all we do as Knights and as Catholics. “And now there remain faith, hope and charity (these three)”, writes St. Paul, “but the greatest of these is charity.”
Second Degree – exemplifies Unity. None of us is as good as all of us. United as brother Knights, our efforts in support of the Catholic Chirch and our fellow men are focused and multiplied. Nearly two million Catholic men and their families can do tremendous good. United as Knights of Columbus, our efforts have resulted in well over $1 billion in charitable contributions over the last decade.
Third Degree – exemplifies Fraternity. Venerable Michael McGivney founded the Knights of Columbus, in large part, to provide assistance to the widows and children left behind when the family breadwinner died; often prematurely. The Order’s top-rated insurance program continues to this tradition today, as do individual knights, who give millions of hours yearly to assist sick and disabled members and their families. In the Knights of Columbus, we watch out for and take care of one another
Fourth Degree – after taking their third degree, knights are eligible to receive their fourth degree, the primary purpose of which is to foster the spirit of patriotism and to encourage active Catholic citizenship. Fourth degree members, in addition to being members of their individual councils, are also members of Fourth Degree assemblies which typically comprise members of several councils.
Fewer than 18% of Knights join the Fourth Degree, which is optional, and whose members are referred to as “Sir Knight”. Any Third Degree Knight is eligible to join the Fourth Degree.
Fourth Degree Knights may optionally purchase and wear the full regalia and join an assembly’s Color Corps. The Color Corps is the most visible arm of the Knights, as they are often seen in parades and other local events wearing their colorful regalia. Official dress for the Color Corps is a black tuxedo, baldric, white gloves, cape, and naval chapeau. In warm climates and during warm months, a white dinner jacket may be worn, if done as a unit.
Baldrics are worn from the right shoulder to left hip and are color specific by nation. In the United States, Panama, and the Philippines, baldrics are red, white, and blue. Red and white baldrics are used in Canada and Poland; red, white, and green in Mexico; and blue and white in Guatemala.Service baldrics include a scabbard for a sword and are worn over the coat while social baldrics are worn under the coat.
The colors on a Fourth Degree Knight’s cape and chapeau denote the office he holds within the Degree. Faithful Navigators and Past Faithful Navigators are permitted to carry a white handled silver sword. Masters and Vice Supreme Masters, as well as Former Masters and Former Vice Supreme Masters, are also denoted by their gold swords.