[dropcaps] W [/dropcaps] hen I became your Lecturer, I was told that this organization has three major components. First, it is a charitable organization. Second, it is a service organization. Finally, it is a fraternal organization. The first two were simple enough, but the third was not as easy to understand. The fraternities that I was familiar with were generally of the college variety. You know, the “let’s have a party and get drunk” type. At least that was their apparent function on my college campus. Maybe if I stayed with it longer, I’d have learned differently. Then I recalled that I was a member of a different fraternity. We didn’t live together. We never had a party that I recall, so then what is a fraternity? What does a fraternity do, and why is it one of our principles?
According to my old American Heritage Dictionary, a fraternity is composed of people having similar backgrounds, interests of professions.
Human beings have existed in one form or another for more than 4 million years. Although physically and mentally they have significant differences, they all share some traits that define them as humanoid: an upright gait, a means of sharing information between individuals, a means of passing learned information from one generation to the next and, like many species, a social organization that, in our society, the basic building block is the family unit. The primary unit for the last several centuries has been composed of a father, a mother and the children. Several of these primary units join together to form the “extended family,” which includes aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, grandchildren, etc.
Within the family, the children mature physically, mentally and socially. They grow in size and shape from a totally dependent infant to an almost mature adult. I say almost mature because at about the age of 15 or 16 years, most of us begin the process of forming our own family unit. First, there are the dating years – looking for someone who fits the several criteria we have come to expect in a mate. These expectations come from many sources but usually from our family expectations and the interactions of our parents that we have observed. We tend to search for someone who has traits similar to those existing in our own family. We search for people who also share the values we have learned.
The marriage ceremony has some very meaningful words. “This is why a man leaves his mother and father and takes a wife, and the two become as one.” The love of a husband and wife is sacred to our faith, but it is not enough for us as human beings. As I have said before, the Greeks had at least four words to describe “love” depending upon the relationship described. The Greeks recognized that we need something beyond the love we have for our spouses. Part of what makes us human is a need to be accepted beyond our family unit, a need to belong to a larger community.
Is it any wonder that the greatest proliferation of fraternities and sororities exist on our university campuses? Those social organizations take the place of the family that their members have just left. They furnish the companionship and support that young men and women feel a need for once they can no longer get it from home. When we do return home, we are somehow a guest. Our place at the family dinner table has been claimed by someone else. Our stuff has been packed away – somewhere. The security we enjoyed in that family unit has been eroded. We can always go back to the house where we grew up, but we can never really “go home.”
Father McGivney recognized this “need” to belong, and he realized that something had to be done to tighten the bond between the members of his fledgling group into a closer relationship if the Knights were to survive.
In the late 1800s, hundreds of similar groups were formed all over the United States for similar purposes. A few years ago, there was a TV program that traced the ancestry of celebrities. One program dealt with a black entertainer; I think it was Lionel Richie. Whoever it was is not important; what is of interest is his grandfather was instrumental in forming a low cost insurance program for his community. Each week, the policy holders would make a contribution to the fund and when the need arose, they would receive funds to sustain them until they could get back on their feet. That organization survived for about 30 years. It was a “charity” organization composed of people with similar backgrounds and similar interests, much like the Knights of the 1880s. What they failed to have was the bonding principle of fraternity that the Knights had. Our founders recognized that we had a need to belong, a need for brotherhood and that without that bonding we could easily fail as the circumstances that led to our founding changed and faded into history.
The Knights have a great insurance program. When it was founded, it was the only insurance program available to the community that it served. Today, there are hundreds of insurance programs available to us. Catholics and the Irish were subject to discrimination when it came to employment and social services. Today, we have laws that prohibit discrimination based on race, religion, age, gender or national origin.
The one thing that has not changed over the last 100 years plus is the need to belong, the need to be accepted and the need for mutual respect. We have a group of officers who can run this council. They can direct our various charity programs. They can plan and conduct our various social programs. They can do it all without input from the general membership. And over the course of a few years, this council would probably cease to function. We meet once a month because we are a fraternity. We need the mutual support of those meetings to continue to function under the third principle.
I have heard it said several times in this very room – the exact words might differ, but the message is – “I never felt like I belonged until I joined the Knights.”
Jim Russell, Lecturer