Immaculate Conception Parish welcomes back Michael McCusker, new state deputy for the Knights
By Bill Brewer
There was a homecoming on July 26 for Michael McCusker.
As the new state deputy of the Tennessee Knights of Columbus took his place at the lectern inside Immaculate Conception Church, he surveyed the historic nave and recalled members who have died who were IC pillars or made an impression on his Christian formation, including his parents. He remembered where they sat each Sunday and how they interacted with his family, which joined IC in 1979.
It was a jog down memory lane that he shared with his Knights of Columbus family in attendance for the installation of new district deputies for East Tennessee, one of Mr. McCusker’s first acts as state deputy.
Immaculate Conception was a central part of Mr. McCusker’s Catholic upbringing, the backdrop for learning life’s lessons and how catechism influenced those lessons. That formation would lead him into the Knights of Columbus and accompany him as a husband, father, and assistant district attorney with the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office.
And just as Father Jim Haley, CSP, pastored Immaculate Conception during Mr. McCusker’s formative years growing up, the Paulist father and Knights Council 645 chaplain celebrated the Silver Rose and District Deputy Installation Mass, during which he welcomed Mr. McCusker back to IC as the new leader of the Tennessee Knights of Columbus.
Father John Orr, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Athens and former state chaplain for the Knights of Columbus, and Father Bart Okere, pastor of St. Henry Parish in Rogersville and St. James the Apostle Parish in Sneedville and current associate state chaplain, concelebrated the Mass. Deacon Doug Bitzer assisted.
“In a special way, we welcome home Michael McCusker. Michael grew up here at Immaculate Conception, and he first became a Knight in Council 645 here at IC. Welcome home, Mike,” Father Haley said.
“Seventeen years after the [building] of Immaculate Conception [Church], and 20 years after Father Michael McGivney began the first council of the Knights of Columbus in New Haven, Conn., a group of 56 Catholic laymen, members of Immaculate Conception Parish, wishing to further express and give witness to their Catholic belief and practice, banded together to form a local council of the Knights of Columbus,” Father Haley continued. “It was on Feb. 9, 1902, under the leadership of Grand Knight Edward O’Hearn, that 56 men were granted the charter for Council 645 of the Knights of Columbus. I am happy to say after 117 years, Council 645 continues to this day, now under the leadership of Grand Knight Troy Cantrell.”
Father Haley wondered aloud what the thoughts, hopes, and dreams of those 56 men were as they started the 645th Knights council following the first one at the Church of St. Mary in New Haven in 1882 begun by Father McGivney.
“They wanted to give expression to their Catholic life through the four-fold pillars of the Knights: charity, unity, fraternity, and patriotism. These four basics can, I believe, be boiled down to three words: faith in action. As Christians, we are followers of Christ, which means we are to have Christ as the center of our personal lives. Yet it does not rest there, but this faith must manifest itself in a life of service toward others.
“It is the basic Catholic belief that it is not just ‘me’ and God, but true Catholicity is expressed in ‘us’ and God. Thus the need for community, and we come together in order to support and strengthen one another. A brother Knight is always united with brother Knights in a fraternal community. Yet the Knights of Columbus is not just, or merely, a fraternal organization.
“We are not just another social group, or community group, or support group. We are not a social club. We are a group of Catholic men who bind together in unity and fraternity to express our own personal belief in Jesus Christ, and proclaim that belief by the way we share not only among ourselves but also by opening ourselves to the broader community. The Knights exist so that together we might first of all strengthen our own faith, and then bring that faith to fruition in service of others,” Father Haley said.
Citing St. Paul in 2 Corinthians, Father Haley quoted “I believe, therefore I spoke” and then told the Knights attending the Mass that personal belief is hollow unless it is expressed in service. “James, in his letter, states, ‘faith without works is dead.’”
“We are both individually and as a council invited to hear the call of Christ in our lives and respond to that call by our service. … Like Samuel, God is persistent in calling our name. We respond to this call by our faith and by putting that faith in action. It is our individual faith that must be the basis of all that we do. It is our own deep personal faith in Jesus Christ that carries us and motivates us throughout our lives,” Father Haley said.
“… We are not in it for ourselves. Who we are as individuals and as councils is not an end in itself. We are called to mirror God’s presence within us by our outreach to others,” he continued, reminding the Knights that James and John wanted to be the center of attention, but Jesus responded by saying to be a follower means sacrifice and a life of service. “To be the greatest we must excel in humble service. ‘I have come not to be served, but to serve.’”
Mr. McCusker echoed Father Haley’s point that the Knights of Columbus must continue to emphasize its ministry of service to the Church and those most vulnerable.
He noted that in recent years the Knights in many areas of the country let a reputation as a social organization eclipse its mission. That trend is reversing, he said assuredly.
“One of the things Tracy Staller (immediate past state deputy) did was to ask us to re-examine our why. Why are we Knights of Columbus? Why are we drawn to give up our time to serve in councils, to serve as district deputies, to serve as state officers? The why always has to be Jesus Christ,” Mr. McCusker said.
He quoted Knights of Columbus Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson, who asked, “if not the Knights of Columbus, who?”
“Who is better organized, better structured to defend our Church, especially at a time like now when we are under attack? Who is going to be there to defend our priests? Who is going to be there to help guide our children into adulthood in their Catholicism because one of the biggest statistics you’ll see is that between ages 18 and 24 we are losing so many of our children from the Church,” Mr. McCusker said.
“The Knights of Columbus are an excellent example of faith in action, of supporting our churches, of supporting the widows of deceased brothers, of supporting the people who are on the fringes of our society, of supporting people with disabilities, our Tootsie Roll drives, our M.R. Foundation, supporting our schools and ensuring that Catholic education stays strong, by building our domestic Church, and taking an active role in helping our priests who fulfill their vocations. There are so many aspects of the Knights of Columbus,” he added.
The Knights intend to be a continuing spiritual force for good within the Catholic Church, according to Mr. McCusker.
“For Tracy, when he helped us re-identify that we are called first to be priests, prophets, and kings in the catechism of the Church and to embrace Jesus Christ and seek His guidance for our vocations as Knights, we’ve started to see success beyond compare in the last year and a half. We want to build on that,” he said.
Now that Mr. Staller has asked the Knights of Columbus why, Mr. McCusker wants his mission as state deputy to ask a new question.
“Now that we’ve answered why, we need to ask what’s our how. How do we continue to serve the Church?” he asked.
Mr. McCusker believes it will be up to all Knights across the state to help answer that question. “We have to go back to our theme: to serve and to love. To follow the example of Christ.”
He said it is as important for the Knights of Columbus leadership to follow that theme as it is for the membership.
“It is easy when you get into positions of leadership to focus on who is in what role and who wants to be a state officer, who wants to be a district deputy, or who is the state deputy now and who is coming up to be state deputy. Those things don’t matter. It’s like the sons of Zebedee. Who will be at the left and who will be at the right? None of that matters. Each of us as Knights of Columbus needs to be willing to get down on our knees, to take the water, and to wash the feet of our brothers and sisters. We are called to serve and give everything that we have.
“If you look at these men and you look at our council, for whatever reason when we ask God what is it you want us to do, with this group He says, ‘I need you to be Knights of Columbus.’ And that is our vocation. Our vocation is not about position, it’s not about membership. It’s about this is what God has called us to do, to love and to serve. And to give everything we have to His Church. This is how we’re trying to do it.”
Mr. McCusker said the Knights of Columbus must recruit younger Catholic men, noting that the average age in many councils is over 60. But he noted that the organization is making strides in attracting more youthful members.
He pointed out that the key to growing membership is also the key to growing the Church, first making sure younger generations remain in the Church. He said that begins with families, and his is no different.
He and his wife, Theresa, also an assistant district attorney in the Hamilton County DA’s office, are raising their three children to be strong in their Catholic faith, and they pray their children will follow that path throughout adulthood.
Mr. McCusker, recalling his childhood, said it was his mother, Catherine, who made sure he and his siblings attended Mass regularly and that his father rarely went to church. However, that changed when the family moved south to Seymour from Philadelphia. And when Catherine McCusker died in 1982 at the age of 40 from breast cancer, his father, Jack, made sure the children regularly accompanied him to Mass. He said his father also joined the Immaculate Conception choir and became a district deputy in the Knights of Columbus.
The McCusker children are Madeleine, 17, Joseph, 15, and Meredith, 12.
“Because we lost our mother so young, God gave us the gift of our father into our late 40s. He became the foundation of our Catholicism. I think all young people need to look at their parents and see them engaged in the Catholic faith. By seeing that, we build our foundation. At some point, though, you have to let them leave. My wife says the foundation is there, and they have the toolbox with them,” Mr. McCusker said.
He wants the Knights to help ensure all Catholic families have a solid foundation and their children are equipped with a good toolbox by helping priests fulfill their vocations.