For many people, the Knights of Columbus may conjure up images of older men leading a Church processional decked out in plumed hats and swords. Maybe we think of their pro-life work or their incredible charitable giving. Or perhaps the first thing we think of is the local K of C hall. 

One image that probably doesn’t come up is “college student.” But across the country and beyond, the fraternal order of Catholic men has made inroads into college campuses. And nowhere has its higher education initiative been more successful than, of all places, Harvard University. 

Hostile environment 

Although it was only chartered in 2006, the Harvard council, the John Paul II Council 14188, was named outstanding collegiate council in 2009. 

That’s quite an accomplishment when you consider the campus culture, several Knights told Our Sunday Visitor. 

“Unfortunately, here on campus, the environment is hostile to religious and Catholic thought,” said Fermin Mendez, deputy grand knight of the council. “Anything considered to be nonsecular is rooted out as either offensive or nonsensical. Religious matters are seen as a waste of time by some.” 

Ironically, the atmosphere at Harvard may have laid the groundwork for the council to flourish, as it gave a small group of orthodox Catholic students a way of sailing against the tide.  

“The culture becomes one of greed in many matters, such as the pursuit of a career or the pursuit of the opposite sex,” he said. “I believe the Knights have been able to strike a counterbalance. We maintain the dignity of the human person in all stages of life, and promote a reasoned and strong faith. Most importantly, we demonstrate the necessity of virtue.” 

The K of C council is not an “official” Harvard club because it “discriminates” against women and other faiths in its membership. As such, it receives no official university support. Nevertheless, it is attracting new recruits regularly. 

Spiritual hunger 

Juan Carmona, a charter member who is now grand knight, noted that the membership has been growing each year to its current 67, helped by its “Don’t go Greek, go Roman!” recruitment campaign. 

“For many of us, the secular and liberal setting at Harvard fuels a desire to find a group of individuals who take their faith seriously and desire to invest time in solid formation, both personal and spiritual,” he said. 

Carmona, a postdoctoral student-fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health, is one of several Harvard Knights with plans to pursue a religious vocation. In Carmona’s case, he hopes to be accepted into the Dominican order. The council’s activities reflect his strong pro-life views. 

“Given the strident secularist and pro-abortion culture on the Harvard campus, the council, in collaboration with other pro-life groups at Harvard, both sectarian and nonsectarian, is striving to expand its life ministry and seeking ways to improve its visibility in the academic community,” he said. 

Among the council’s founders is Michael Brewer, who now works for the K of C national office as college council coordinator, where he is charged with visiting college councils as well as helping to charter new ones. 

In his time as an undergraduate, Brewer told OSV there was a spiritual hunger among the Catholic male student population that was not being satiated. It’s a situation not uncommon on college campuses across the country, where drinking and “hooking up” have become the primary extracurricular activity. 

“We noticed that many college men attended the student Mass on Sundays, but they weren’t involved in other campus ministry activities. Several Catholic men were involved in Harvard’s ‘final clubs’ — private male social clubs, with an unsavory reputation for hazing and binge drinking,” Brewer told OSV. “A few Catholic men, unaware of the Church’s teaching, had accepted invitations to join a local Masonic lodge. We wanted to offer an opportunity for fraternity that was consistent with Catholic values, and that would strengthen the student community at St. Paul’s [the Harvard Square parish associated with the university.]” 

Vocation of service 

Whether Harvard or any other college, the Knights’ campus outreach goal is the same, Brewer told OSV.  

“A college council provides a supportive environment where Catholic men can grow spiritually and be affirmed in virtue by their peers. So often, in college life, we hear about negative peer pressure: binge drinking, drug abuse, hazing, hook-up culture,” he said. “We seldom hear about the positive contributions that Christian fraternity can make in the lives of young men.  

“We hope to help young men recognize that they have a vocation of service. It’s about faith in action. The faith is meant to be lived, to inspire service and good works. It’s not meant to sit on a shelf collecting dust.” 

Dennis Poust writes from New York.

Campus Knights (sidebar)

There are 250 Knights of Columbus councils based at colleges, 160 of them in the United States. Some of the most active K of C college councils include Texas A&M University, The Catholic University of America, the United States Military Academy at West Point, the University of Notre Dame, the College of the Holy Cross, the University of St. Thomas, Benedictine College, St. Anselm College and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.