We were at Mass one morning many years ago, at St. Michael Catholic Church in Remus, Michigan, when the local Knights of Columbus Fourth-Degree Honor Guard marched into the nave. I remember our son Brendan—only three or so years old at the time—watching with wide eyes as men in capes and feathered hats processed toward the altar, two by two, ahead of Father. They spaced themselves evenly on either side of the aisle, pivoted in unison to face the center, and drew and raised gleaming swords in salute to the cross and priest of Christ that passed between them.
After Mass, having watched the KCs process out again, Bren asked his burning question: “Why were there pirates in church?”
What else would a preschooler think? At that age, anything is possible, and the swashbuckling garb and blade spoke pirate more than knight (which, to a three-year-old, necessarily means full armor and helmet).
Brendan still remembers the impression they made, and he’s known about the KCs ever since. He also admits that he secretly looked forward to the day he could wear a hat and sword to church.
* * * * *
This week, the Knights of Columbus announced they are modernizing the uniform of the Fourth-Degree Honor Guard. Gone are the tuxedos, the capes and plumed chapeaus colored by rank. In their place: a blue blazer, dark gray slacks, a white shirt and tie, and a beret. The look, before and after, can be seen here. No word was included in the early articles about whether swords would be surrendered or not.
I am a longtime third-degree member with Knights of Columbus Council 4174 and have nothing but respect for the organization, my brother Knights, and all the good work the KCs do locally and worldwide.
That said, my honest first reaction to the new uniform? Boy scouts. My heart sank. The organization that St. John Paul II called the “strong right arm of the Church” stands ready to help you cross the street, ma’am.
I do not mean that to be demeaning to scouts. Indeed the saving grace that kept me from altogether hating the change is that, while in Poland last year, we learned that the Polish scouts, male and female, bravely resisted and fought against Nazi forces to preserve their homeland—and later, resisted Communism. But scouts, it seems to me, aspire to be something more: men of virtue and honor, defenders of dignity, and servants of the good.
They aspire to be knights, not the other way ’round.
A National Catholic Register article suggests that the new uniform better matches the service uniforms of other orders. Perhaps that’s so. And I can see certain advantages to the new uniform:
- When I join the Fourth Degree, I won’t have to buy a tuxedo and regalia (cape, chapeau, and sword)—it should cost less to get started.
- I will also not have to struggle to keep that a plumed chapeau upon my size 8 melon. (I wore a beret as a drum corps member in high-school marching band, so I know I can make that work.)
- Some men who simply won’t go in for the the cape and plumes may now join the Fourth Degree and the Honor Guard (although it is vanity that makes a man flinch from wearing such traditional garb—a vice that should not be encouraged).
Most, but not all, of the feedback on social media that I’ve seen has been negative. The beret does not bother me: that cover has adorned many of the best and bravest fighting men around the world. But coupled with a simple blazer and tie, you lose the sense of fortitude and flair that have always been associated with knighthood. Without the trappings of chivalry, you also lose the fascination of youngsters like my son. You blend in instead of standing out.
On the flip side, much of the feedback I’ve seen in favor of the change has centered on the dated appearance of the traditional regalia and the military/maritime connotations that no longer resonate with the public.
Forgive me, but isn’t that the point? The Knights of Columbus purposefully recall the role of both Christian knights and Christopher Columbus in defending and spreading the Catholic faith. It seems to me, that the organization’s ceremonial uniform should be old-school and naval in appearance. Of course it doesn’t resonate with the public—it’s counter-cultural!
* * * * *
Last night came the official announcement, via email—a recap of the 135th Supreme Convention, more than half of which was dedicated to the new uniform. The rationale was as I suspected (quoting from the email):
- “The cape and chapeau, while popular among some Fourth Degree members, have become dated and are increasingly cited as a reason that eligible Catholic men, especially young men, do not join the Knights of Columbus.”
- “Today there are nearly 2 million members of the Order, but only 358,000 of them are Fourth Degree Knights—less than 20 percent. The old regalia was one reason often given by brother Knights for why they did not want to advance to the Fourth Degree.”
The best news? “Ceremonial swords will continue to be part of the Fourth Degree” (although I’ve yet to see a photo that includes them).
The reasons make some sense, but Supreme’s constant focus on new members, insured members and advancement has been a personal frustration of mine with the KCs. Ours is a big council that does big things in the community. We built a new rectory for our priests, donated and helped to raise tens of thousands of dollars to establish the Options for Women/Cornerstone clinic in St. Michael, and give away more money and scholarships to support local youth than any other organization in the community. Yet the steady drumbeat from the district, state, and supreme officers is that we need to increase our numbers by a set percentage each year, get them insured, and participate in more official KC-sponsored projects if we want to be recognized or rewarded as a council.
Our active council members want to do good. They aren’t in it to earn the council another plaque. They’re knights.
I’d rather the KCs focused—and had the councils focus—on making good Knights and disciples rather than overall numbers. Knights who will pull their weight and more, because they are yoked with Christ. Knights who aren’t afraid to dress with a little swashbuckling panache, even at the risk of being laughed at or dubbed pirates. After all, as St. Therese said, “This world is thy ship and not thy home.”
But in the end, it’s just a uniform. The email closes with the following:
“Our choice of uniform, while important, has always been ancillary to the work we do carrying out the principles of charity, unity, fraternity and patriotism, and this should always be the case. … We commend all of the faithful Sir Knights who have proudly worn the Fourth Degree regalia, bringing much respect to the Order. With the new Fourth Degree uniform, recently approved by the Board of Directors, this honor and respect associated with Sir Knights will remain, and it will open the door more widely for a new generation to join their ranks. In a spirit of unity, let us assist with a smooth transition to this new uniform and encourage it to be worn with great dignity and pride.”
* * * * *
The ship has sailed. Our Fourth-Degree Knights, myself included one day, will dress in jackets and ties as some of us do for Mass; we will don our berets, process, pivot, and salute. God willing, the KCs will continue to do great work in parishes and communities the world over—such as the $2 million effort to save a Christian town in Iraq that was destroyed by ISIS, which was announced the same day as the new uniforms.
I believe, however, that councils will have to work harder to be visible in their communities and to capture the imaginations of boys and young men who will be their future. The Fourth Degree Honor Guard has been the most visible sign of the Knights’ active presence in parishes. Sure, the regalia was a bit colorful and showy. But in retrospect, I believe it was the right pomp for the circumstance. We need a little wonder—and even a little humor—in our faith lives.
Brendan joined the KCs once he turned 18, but he appears to have missed the boat in terms of fourth-degree piracy. Guess he’ll have to settle for being a Marauder!