WASHINGTON — Patrick Kelly’s formal installation as the 14th Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus is still off in the indefinite future because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but he officially began his new job March 1 at the Knights’ headquarters in New Haven, Connecticut.
Kelly was elected by the board of directors Feb. 5 to succeed Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson, who held the post for over two decades and retired Feb. 28 upon reaching the organization’s mandatory retirement age of 70.
Kelly’s former job as deputy supreme Knight, which he held since his election in 2017, has been taken by Paul O’Sullivan, past state deputy Knight of Massachusetts.
“I don’t think anyone aspires to be supreme Knight,” Kelly reflected. “I think the Lord leads you from one step to another.”
Kelly, a father of three daughters with wife Vanessa, is a third-generation Knight. A grandfather joined in 1915 shortly before the organization’s immense expansion during World War I, and Kelly joined the international fraternal and charitable organization in 1983 while a student at Marquette University.
But his hereditary ties weren’t the largest factor, he said. “It was that strength of friendship. It was the opportunity to be friends with men who took their faith seriously.”
The Knights currently have 1.3 million members in the United States out of 2 million worldwide.
Kelly, a graduate of Marquette University Law School, also likes to cite his years in the Navy. On active duty for six years, he retired with the rank of captain in 2016 after serving 20 years in the Navy Reserve Judge Advocate General’s Corps. Handling courts-martial, he dealt with the fallout of youths without real direction in their lives.
“A lot of these young people in the military … lacked values. They lacked father figures, (had) very little faith,” he recalled.
The experience spurred his interest in theology and “grasping with the larger questions.” Immediately after retiring from the Navy, he entered the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America, where he received a master’s degree in theological studies in 2001.
“The Knights have always been good at reading the signs of the times,” he said. “I think there’s a crisis in fatherhood today and I think the Catholic family is under a lot of strain. I think the Knights have to be there for that man and help him do that.”
To that purpose, Kelly helped launch the Knights’ “Into the Breach” series of videos “to show men what an authentic Catholic man looks like.”
Kelly’s diverse other posts have included being a senior adviser to the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom at the U.S. State Department and executive director of the St. John Paul II National Shrine in Washington. He was the state deputy in the District of Columbia from 2012 to 2013 and was named the Knights’ vice president for public policy in 2006.
The devastation of the pandemic on social organizations won’t be known for months, but in the meantime, supported by their Leave No Neighbor Behind Fund, the Knights in February sent more than 250 concentrated oxygen and personal oxygen concentrator devices to the Amazon regions of Brazil and Peru to help Indigenous populations after appeals from archbishops there.
Two years ago, the Knights began a series of donations to the Texas dioceses of El Paso and Laredo to help supply border shelters for mothers and children seeking asylum who arrive over the southern border.
“That was really a very moving experience for me,” Kelly said. “Assisting the vulnerable and the marginalized taps into something that is important for the Catholic man. Not to be served, but to serve.” Kelly wants to “tap into that yearning for connection.”
Mass attendance, the key to recruiting new members, is expected to return slowly. Kelly said he knows he has “to work to get parishes back on their feet and people back in the pews.” He’s particularly interested in expanding Hispanic membership in the Knights.
“It’s a people business,” he added. “We’re really looking forward to being able to meet again in person.”
In a video message to the Knights made on his first day in office, Kelly reminded them they’re “set apart and set above. We have what men need. We are what men want: a community of purpose, a brotherhood of faith, a force for good for the things that matter most.”