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Knights of Columbus  90 years of presence in Rome

· Cardinal Bertone at exhibition at the Capitoline Museums ·

From Benedict XV to Benedict XVI: in the 90 years of their presence in Rome the Knights of Columbus “have worked with particular solicitude for the new generations, offering them possibilities for leisure activities and play, with recreation centres made available free of charge to parishes, schools, hospitals, rehabilitation centres, institutes for disabled people and for priestly formation”.

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Secretary of State, recalled all this on Wednesday evening, 9 June, on the occasion of the inauguration in the Capitoline Museums of the exhibition: “ Everybody Welcome, Everything Free: the Knights of Columbus and Rome, a celebration of 90 years of friendship”.

The title is inspired by the slogan “Everybody Welcome, Everything Free” with which the members of this fraternal Order welcomed young Romans to the structures opened in the Eternal City by the Order founded by Fr Michael J. McGivney (1852-1890), an American priest.

Also speaking at the ceremony in addition to the Cardinal were the Hon. Mr Gianni Alemanno, Mayor of Rome and Prof. Carl A. Anderson, Supreme Knight, with the participation among others of Cardinal John Patrick Foley, Pro-Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and of Mr Jim Nicholson, former Ambassador of the United States to the Holy See.

The Exhibition at the Capitoline Museums will be open to the public from Thursday, 10 June to Sunday, 31 October. It explains the Knights' role in the most varied areas: building and managing playgrounds for the city's children; funding restoration in the Vatican; as an unofficial channel between the United States and the Holy See before the official recognitionof diplomatic relations in the 1980s.

Photographs, documents, newspaper articles, art works and various objects are on display in an itinerary that passes through six rooms. “The Knights of Columbus” the Cardinal said, “have always shown deep attachment to the Christian faith and loyal faithfulness to the Apostolic See. Their presence in Rome dates back to the times of Benedict XV. “He had noticed the great charitable work done by the Knights, and in 1920 invited them to extend their activities to the Holy City”.

Recently, moreover, the Knights “have generously supported many restoration projects in St Peter's Basilica and have cooperated in the development of important sectors of the Holy See's social communications”.

Lastly, citing Benedict XVI's Encyclical Deus Caritas Est, in which he calls the Church's charities an “opus proprium” , the Secretary of State urged the Knights to continue “to transform society from within, to renew it in Christ and make it become God's family”.

The itinerary of the exhibition is set out in chronological order. The first room is devoted to the early years in which the protagonist was the Venerable Servant of God Michael McGivney, who founded the fraternal benefit society. The young priest, at the service of a parish in New Haven, Connecticut, that consisted largely of immigrants soon became aware of the need for an organization for aid to Catholic families that would provide for the maintenance of widows and orphans in a period when no social assistance existed and the heads of families often died young.

He chose the name of Christopher Columbus, a respected Catholic and a hero of American history. By 1897 the Order already existed in the United States and in Canada and rapidly spread to Mexico, the Philippines, Cuba and Panama. More than 125 years later, today it has more than 12,000 “Councils” and 1,750,000 members.

The second room refers directly to the slogan of the celebrations: “Everyone Welcome, Everything Free”. When the United States entered the First World War, the Knights of Columbus contributed their support to the troops through the Army Hut Program (military shelters).

In the Great War, they supplied a bit of everything: from food to books, to the sponsorship of sports and entertainment.

From New York to Siberia, the Knights created infrastructures for American soldiers modelled on those that already existed for Protestant and Jewish soldiers. Impressed by their work, Benedict XV asked them to build a “Hut” in Rome, which they did between 1918 and 1919.

The third room refers to the battle for freedom: in August 1920 the Knights made a journey through France and Italy. In Rome the delegation met with the Pope who asked them to remain permanently in the City. At that time the Urbe was recovering from the Great War and sports facilities for youth were few and far between. So the Order began to build sports grounds in various neighbourhoods, once again in the spirit of “Everything Free”.

In the meantime the Knights were exerting pressure on President Calvin Coolidge of the United States to find a solution to the crisis that was giving rise to a strong anti-Catholic persecution in Mexico. They were so persistent that Pius xi praised their effort in his 1926 Encyclical Iniquis aflictisque .

Moreover they continued to combat the restrictive immigration policies in the United States; and, at a time when racial equality was not an ideal shared by everyone in the country, the Order also engaged in a battle in this area.

The fourth room refers to the Second World War and to diplomacy in the Cold War period. Enrico Pietro Galeazzi, Director of the Rome office, who at the same time was also Governor of Vatican See, created a link between the Holy See and the United States. This is the reason why, in 1943, Pius XII dispatched him to Washington with a Letter for President Roosevelt in which the Pontiff asked that Rome be spared as far as possible from bombing by the Allies. The City had nevertheless suffered air raids like the one at San Lorenzo, after which Pope Pacelli himself visited the scene of destruction. Since the papal automobile was out of order, it was Galeazzi who accompanied the Pope.

The fifth room is entitled: “A lasting relationship”, and documents the bonds with the Holy See. In 1985, the Knights funded the restoration of the façade of the Vatican Basilica, of the statues of St Peter and St Paul and successively of many of the chapels and niches beneath the Basilica, of Maderno's atrium, the cupola of the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, and of the tomb of Sixtus iv.

The Knights also sponsored a documentary on the excavations beneath the Basilica that brought to light St Peter's tomb. Further, they have supported the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, the Vatican Film Library and the Vatican Television Centre, in the commitment to passing on to the world the Church's message.

Lastly, they strove to promote meetings between Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, Secretary of State, and the American President Ronald Reagan. These meetings took place in 1982 for the official establishment of diplomatic relations, which shortly afterwards became a reality.

The sixth and last room of the exhibition is called: “Ongoing Work”. The Order's programmes and activities are still linked to its original principles. In 2009, in response to the financial crisis, the Knights launched programmes for the distribution of food, clothing and items of basic necessity. In addition, as from the 1960s, they worked together with the organizers of the Special Olympics for the competitions for disabled athletes.

The safeguard of marriage and families is extremely important to the Knights of Columbus; they have equipped obstetric clinics with ultrasound machines to teach mothers about the child they carry in the womb.

They have also sponsored lectures on the effects of abortion and of divorce. Furthermore, in conformity with the line they have taken for the protection of religious freedom, they have also promoted lectures on this topic.

Lastly, it should be remembered that the Order acts quickly in emergencies.. After 22 September 2001, it provided financial support for families of deceased rescue workers. In 2005, when the Gulf of Mexico was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, the Knights sent 10 million dollars and countless volunteers for the rebuilding.

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Sept. 23, 2018

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