Knights of Columbus lift veil of secrecy on century-old initiation ceremonies

Gus Bonnett was one of 10 men who became a Knight in a Jan. 28 ceremony in Maple Ridge, B.C. The initiation process for Knights was recently updated. (Photo by Agnieszka Ruck, The B.C. Catholic - CCN)

By Agnieszka Ruck, The B.C. Catholic

[Vancouver – Canadian Catholic News] – Gone are the days of secret, lengthy, and complex rituals for fledgling members of the Knights of Columbus.

In a bid to make the worldwide Catholic men’s organization more inviting to new members, the Knights of Columbus have simplified the initiation ceremony and for the first time now allow families and non-Knights to participate.

“The doors are wide open. Anybody can come and watch; they don’t even have to be Catholic,” said Marcel Renaud, state treasurer for the B.C. and Yukon district of the Knights of Columbus.

“We’re hoping men who are not yet members of the Knights can come and watch the ceremony and say: ‘Yeah, I want to be a part of that. This is what I am looking for.’”

Since the Knights of Columbus was founded in 1882, new members have had to participate in a series of confidential initiation ceremonies that were often more than an hour long, used heavy, “archaic” language, and could be spaced months or years apart. The First Degree focused on the Knights’ principle of charity; the second, unity; the third, fraternity. Later, a fourth degree was added: patriotism.

Each degree utilized its own, unique ceremony, which Renaud explained was only open to Knights so it would be an impactful, novel experience for new members every time.

“That was a great idea in the 1880s. Even in the 1980s. But not today. It tarnished us in that it gave people the idea that we were a secret society. We’ve never been,” said Renaud.

As of Jan. 1, 2020, all of that has changed. The first three degrees have been wrapped up into one 30-minute ceremony called the Exemplification of Charity, Unity, and Fraternity. The language has been updated to modern English and anyone can attend.

The first exemplification ceremonies in the B.C. and Yukon district were held Jan. 25 at St. Bernadette’s Parish in Surrey and Jan. 28 at St. Luke’s Parish in Maple Ridge, with a total of 74 men becoming third degree Knights.

“I would like to congratulate you for making a huge step as a Catholic gentleman,” said Ed Panes, the B.C. state secretary, at the Maple Ridge ceremony.

“We urge you brother Knights, and your families, to be involved with your parish, support the council and community by putting your faith in action. You are a member of an organization that will make a difference in someone’s life.”

The uniquely Catholic ceremony (which took about two years to update) included prayer, reflections on the three principles of charity, unity, and fraternity, and solemn presentations of new rosaries and pins to the men.

Making the quick transition to third degree Knights means the new members are already eligible to run for elected positions on Knights councils or to participate as a delegate in the B.C. state convention in April.

A Knight for 26 years, John Work said the new ceremony will take some getting used to.

“There were some special parts of the degree that I’m sorry aren’t there anymore,” he said. “There were beautiful degrees and after doing them for so long, it’s hard to let them go. I’m going to have those in my memory banks for the rest of my life.”

But, he added, “it’s time.”

Gus Bonnett was one of 10 men who became a Knight in the Jan. 28 ceremony, his wife Martha cheerfully watching from the sidelines.

The pair are active members of St. Luke’s Parish as adoration chapel coordinators and members of the local pro-life and migrant farm worker ministries. Martha also devotes some of her free time to bringing communion to the elderly and designing posters for parish events.

Gus said their strong Catholic faith motivates everything they do. “We really love Jesus,” he told The B.C. Catholic after the ceremony. “The meaning of life for us is Jesus and what we can do for his kingdom – and [joining the Knights] is a good way to do it. The Knights are a good example of charity.”

Bonnett has had the Catholic fraternal and charitable organization on his mind for the last 10 years.

“I’ve been called by different Knights in my parish asking me to join, but I felt I was too busy working in my job and I didn’t have the time to give what they expected me to give, but I always believed I was a Knight in my heart,” he said.

He retired in August of 2019, toured a bit of Europe, then started planning what to do next with his life. The Knights were near the top of his list.

“I believe it is a call of God,” he said. “For me, it was time to do it, and now I am happy and so excited and ready to respond to the call to do whatever they need me to do.”

Martha was enthusiastic about his decision. The couple attend daily Mass and has been particularly moved recently by a call to serve the Church. “Many homilies we’ve heard this year [were] about service, service, service. I think that also got to [Gus]. We need to answer our Lord. He gives us everything. We need to respond,” she said.

The Knights have also made other efforts to gain new members besides the rewritten ceremony. About two years ago, they launched online membership, giving men a chance to join the Knights with the convenience of their smartphones.

Renaud said those who joined online would receive regular emails informing them about various activities the Knights are involved in and a chance to join a local branch in person.

“For every three men who join us online, two will join a council,” he said. “That’s amazing. It’s another sign the Knights are stepping forward.”

Last year, the Knights updated their Fourth Degree uniform, replacing the familiar cape and feathered chapeau with a jacket and beret.

The Knights of Columbus has nearly 2 million members across the globe, making it the largest group of lay Catholic men worldwide.

Their activities include charitable works and fundraising (they gave $186.7 million to charities in 2018), volunteering at parishes, selling insurance, and supporting vocations to the priesthood.