In Service to the Faith
For 75 years, the Order’s Catholic Information Service has been quietly spreading the teachings of the Church and transforming lives
By Andrew J. Matt
“I first came to know the work of the Knights of Columbus while incarcerated,” a former prison inmate wrote to the Order’s Catholic Information Service office last November. “I was blessed to learn many things about the Catholic Faith thanks to you all, and my life has been changed. It is with great pleasure that I am able to contribute this small donation of $25 to aid in your work. May God bless you.”
This is but one of the hundreds of letters received each year from people who have benefited from the Catholic booklets, correspondence courses and devotional materials published by CIS. The Knights of Columbus has been making these materials available at no or low cost for more than 75 years, ever since the Supreme Council adopted an innovative evangelization initiative in 1948.
The Order has distributed more than 10 million booklets in that time, and more than 1 million people have completed a CIS catechetical course. Today, the Catholic Information Service offers more than 80 booklets and devotional publications.
Catholic Information Service staff have also been busy developing new resources — including the Men of the Word Bible study — in support of Cor, an initiative to help Knights and others deepen their relationship with Christ through prayer, formation and fraternity.
“So much depends on our commitment to our mission,” Supreme Knight Patrick Kelly said in his annual report at the 141st Supreme Convention last month. “Will we be credible witnesses to a living faith? Will we stand for the truth without apology and without counting the cost? Our answer is the same as Father McGivney’s: Yes! … These new initiatives will further strengthen us in our Catholic faith, and they’ll complement the already robust offerings of our Catholic Information Service.”
‘THE TRUTH WILL SET YOU FREE’
The Catholic Information Service traces its roots to 1944, when two brothers with advertising expertise — Charles Kelly, a member of Marquette Council 606 in St. Louis, and his brother Virgil — proposed a novel way to disseminate Catholic truth and dispel anti-Catholic myths: buying advertising space in secular newspapers. Each ad would feature a short, engaging anecdote and explanation about a Catholic topic, along with a coupon to request a free pamphlet; the pamphlet in turn would come with an application for a free Catholic home study course by mail.
The Missouri State Council embraced the idea and quickly established a Religious Information Bureau, directed by Vincentian Father Lester Fallon, to oversee the new Catholic Advertising Program and correspondence course.
Beginning in June 1944, the program placed 52 ads in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The response exceeded all expectations. More than 12,000 requests for pamphlets were received, and more than 300 non-Catholics enrolled in the home study course. Momentum grew in subsequent campaigns, attracting interest and financial support from councils throughout Missouri.
Then-Supreme Advocate Luke Hart, who practiced law in St. Louis, gave his enthusiastic support to the campaign from the start. By 1947, he was advocating for the Supreme Council to adopt the program, and that year the Knights of Columbus Board of Directors approved funding for a nationwide test run.
The inaugural campaign ran for six months, from January to July 1948, attracting more than 100,000 requests for free pamphlets and inspiring more than 7,200 non-Catholics to enroll in the home study course.
When the question of whether to continue the program was considered at the 66th Supreme Convention that August, Hart made a rousing appeal: “We must ask ourselves: What greater service could the Knights of Columbus render the Catholic Church?” he said. “Nothing that we ever have done, in my opinion, has helped so many people, brought so much favorable comment to the Order, or done so much to dissipate false propaganda against our faith.”
The delegates gave their unanimous approval, and the board later passed an 80-cent annual per-capita assessment for the funding of the advertising program, which expanded to Canada in 1949.
A year later, Msgr. Giovanni B. Montini — the Vatican undersecretary of state who would later become Pope Paul VI — conveyed greetings of Pope Pius XII to the 68th Supreme Convention, noting, “It was a source of comfort and satisfaction for the paternal heart of the Pontiff to learn that the traditional record of the Knights of Columbus in defending Catholic doctrine and in disseminating Catholic truth has been maintained during the past year.” The Holy Father, he added, was particularly gratified to know that the Catholic Advertising Program, “so steadfastly and zealously conducted, has borne such rich spiritual fruits.”
Demand for materials accelerated during Hart’s tenure as supreme knight from 1953 to 1964. By the time he died in 1964, the catalog included publications for parishes, schools, seminaries and retreat houses, correctional facilities, military installations and VA centers, hospitals and nursing homes.
K of C historian Christopher J. Kauffman, comparing the evangelization campaign to the Order’s headline-grabbing purchase of the land under Yankee Stadium in 1953, later wrote, “The Yankee Stadium deal may have brought the Order international notoriety, but it was Hart’s championing of the Catholic Advertising program, the predecessor of the Catholic Information Service (CIS), which is his true legacy to the Order and the Church.”
The unprecedented breadth of the advertising apostolate demonstrated the power of Blessed Michael McGivney’s vision for the Knights and anticipated the Second Vatican Council’s emphasis on the role of the laity in the mission of the Church.
Supreme Knight John McDevitt noted in his first annual report, delivered in 1964, while the Council was in session, “The Catholic Advertising Program … continues to be the most far-reaching and successful contribution by laymen to the propagation of the faith.” Apostolicam Actuositatem, Vatican II’s decree on the apostolic work of the laity, was issued the following year.
In 1969, as the new Supreme Council headquarters building was completed, McDevitt announced that the bureau would relocate from St. Louis to New Haven, Connecticut, and come under the direction of Redemptorist Father John V. McGuire. The name of the evangelization program would likewise change, in 1971, to the Catholic Information Service.
EVANGELIZING AND RE-EVANGELIZING
During the tenures of Supreme Knight Virgil Dechant and Supreme Knight Carl Anderson, the catalog of CIS booklets was reorganized into two main series. The Veritas series examines particular aspects of Catholic belief and practice; the 30-booklet Hart series, commissioned by Dechant and written by popular author Peter Kreeft, presents the content of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in concise, reader-friendly form.
A New Evangelization Series was introduced in 2012, and another series, Building the Domestic Church, followed in 2016. That same year, CIS began distributing a study guide for Into the Breach, the apostolic exhortation to Catholic men by Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix.
CIS continues to expand its offerings each year and offers all its publications in print and digital formats. Many are available as audio books as well. The Order has also sought to reach a wider audience in the last two decades by translating CIS resources into Spanish and French; about half of the publications are available in French, and almost all are available in Spanish.
Deacon Tony Hogervorst made use of these resources in 2020, when COVID-19 struck the Diocese of London, Ontario, where he served as the diocesan migrant worker ministry specialist from 2018 to 2021.
“All of a sudden, nobody could go anywhere or see anybody,” recalled Hogervorst, who is a member of St. Isidore the Farmer Council 10141 in Watford, where he also runs a farm that employs migrant workers, primarily from Mexico. Looking for a way to serve the spiritual needs of the migrant worker community during the initial quarantine, Deacon Hogervorst turned to the Catholic Information Service.
“I’d heard somewhere about the Spanish booklets from Knights of Columbus, and I especially liked the fact that there were audio versions of most of them,” Hogervorst explained. “So, we included a CIS link on the diocesan website.”
As the pandemic began to subside, Hogervorst ordered copies of many of the booklets for distribution to the diocese’s Spanish-language ministry locations for the migrant workers, where Spanish Masses are held weekly or monthly.
“They bring in anywhere from 40 to 80 workers,” he said. “And at the dinners after Mass, the men and women who were interested grab up those booklets with thank-yous.”
Deacon Hogervorst also makes booklets available to the migrant workers on his farm, and currently is waiting for a back order of the Building the Domestic Church series to arrive.
“I just want to help them be loyal to their families while away from home,” he said. “If I make a difference, it’s for the sake of their families.”
While the Catholic Information Service continues its original mission to evangelize non-Catholics and inactive Catholics — for example, 56% of those enrolled in the Catholic correspondence course are prison inmates — regular Mass-goers can also benefit from the spiritual formation CIS offers, and many councils make CIS booklets available for free in their parishes.
In New Braunfels, Texas, Michael Parma said he has a hard time keeping the booklet rack at Sts. Peter and Paul Parish stocked with CIS materials, both in English and Spanish.
“What we ordered during COVID lasted two years, so when I put in the next order for 2,700 booklets, I figured it would last a while,” said Parma, who serves as CIS coordinator for New Braunfels Council 4183. “No — six months later we had gone through them all.”
Some books don’t even make it to the rack.
“I also have folks that raid the cabinet in the family room where we store all the books,” he said with a laugh. “I think there’s a priest who comes in and takes booklets to one of the hospitals when he makes his rounds.”
The titles that disappear fastest are Into the Breach, the Hart series on the Catechism, and Armed with the Faith, a Catholic handbook for service members that the Order developed 20 years ago with the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA.
“We’ve got a really strong military presence here, with four or five military bases outside of San Antonio,” Parma said. “So Armed with the Faith has been popular.”
A PROMISING NEW ERA
With Cor, the Order’s new initiative aimed at strengthening the spiritual lives of Knights and other men, Catholic Information Service will play a key role in providing new faith formation and evangelization resources.
Jason Staas, a K of C general agent in Columbus, Ohio, who participated in the Cor pilot program earlier this year, has seen the Into the Breach video series and study guide have a powerful impact on agents and other Knights.
“We’re better for being formed spiritually,” Staas said. “And that’s where, looking forward, the Catholic Information Service will be absolutely critical in making sure that we’re equipped and formed in our faith, so that we can truly become that strong right arm of the Church.”
CIS is currently preparing additional spiritual formation materials. Supplemental videos to accompany the newly released Men of the Word Bible study are currently in production. Discussion guides on Sacramentum Caritatis (Pope Benedict XVI’s apostolic exhortation on the Eucharist) and Evangelium Vitae (St. John Paul II’s encyclical on the Gospel of Life) will be the next installments of the new Cor Ecclesiae Series, which launched earlier this year with a guide on Patris Corde (Pope Francis’ apostolic letter on St. Joseph).
An audio version of the Luke E. Hart series on the Catechism titled The Practical Catholic will be released as a podcast in the near future. Finally, Vivat Jesus 2024, the personal prayer planner for next year, will be released November 2023.
Tony Boehk, the evangelization and faith formation director for the Maryland State Council, believes the forthcoming CIS resources will have a big impact.
“Cor is starting to gain ground in Maryland. More and more men, as they become aware of it, want to start it,” Boehk said. “We’re looking forward to the new CIS materials after we finish the 12-part Into the Breach series.”
Boehk was particularly excited to know that the Sacramentum Caritatis guide will be released during the National Eucharistic Revival, complementing other resources the Order has produced in support of the U.S. bishops’ three-year initiative, and that the Men of the Word Bible study would soon be widely available.
“I’m really looking forward to the fact that there’s a Bible study geared to men and to the Knights of Columbus — it’s going to be huge,” he said. “We’re going to be guiding our men toward these promising CIS resources.”
These new materials are designed to meet the needs of rapidly changing times. As Supreme Knight Kelly noted in his annual report, “The culture is growing more hostile to our faith. And the two institutions that are most essential to human flourishing — the family and the Church — are facing mounting threats.”
But just as it has done for more than 75 years, the Order will help equip Knights and others to respond to such challenges with compelling resources, clearly articulating the truths of the Catholic faith.
“CIS has helped millions of Catholics deepen their understanding of the faith,” the supreme knight affirmed. “And we will continue to take up the mission of evangelization — in our hearts and in our communities.”
For more information, and to order resources, visit kofc.org/shopcis.
ANDREW J. MATT is managing editor of Columbia and a member of Father Kuster Council 3037 in Chester, Conn.