TORONTO, Canada — Carl Anderson is the 13th Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, the world’s largest Catholic fraternal organization with almost two million members worldwide. The Knights are gathered this week in Toronto for their 134th annual convention – it’s actually known as the “Supreme Convention,” illustrating the Knights’ ethic of never doing anything on a small scale.

Because of a successful life insurance program, the Knights have considerable resources at their disposable, which they deploy in a staggering variety of ways — from charitable giving, to supporting every type of Catholic enterprise under sun.

(For the record, Crux is one of those enterprises, with the Knights of Columbus as its principal partner.)

A lawyer by training, Anderson got involved in politics in the 1980s, working for a while as a legislative aide for U.S. Senator Jesse Helms and then in the Executive Office of the President during the Ronald Reagan administration.

He began working for the Knights in the 1990s, and was elected to the top job in 2000. He’s brought some of his political savvy to the post, helping to position the Knights as an effective force in Washington, D.C., on issues ranging from pro-life matters to anti-Christian persecution.

Recently the Knights were the prime mover in convincing the U.S. State Department to officially designate the slaughter of Christians and other minorities in Iraq and Syria as a “genocide.”

On Monday, Anderson appeared on “The Crux of the Matter,” a radio show affiliated with Crux that airs Mondays at 1:00 p.m. Eastern on the Catholic Channel, Sirius XM 129. Among other things, on religious freedom and the fight against the Obama administration’s contraception mandates, Anderson said “you must put conscience at the center of your culture, not on the margins where it doesn’t matter.”

The following are excerpts from the Crux conversation.

My granddad cherished the Knights – it was one of the most important things in his life. What explains that kind of devotion?

I think it’s the genius of our founder, Fr. Michael McGivney, who was a young parish priest and founded the Knights in 1882 on the principles of charity, unity and fraternity – by that he meant brotherhood. For hundreds of thousands of men, and we have almost two million members, the brotherhood part really is important. It becomes of the central parts of their living their faith.

I’m happy to hear what you say about your grandfather, and I’m not surprised, because there’s a lot of men in the Knights who feel that way. Their best friends, the people they can rely on the most, the men they want to be associated with in their parish, are all Knights of Columbus.

It’s not just rhetoric …

I think for a lot of our members, it’s not just rhetoric.

Give us the Reader’s Digest version: What are the Knights of Columbus, and what do you do?

We’re basically organized on the three principles I mentioned, and we’ve added patriotism. Our councils, our local units, are almost all affiliated with parishes, so we try to work very closely with a local parish priest. To join the Knights, you have to be a Catholic man 18 or older, committed to the Catholic faith and living your life according to the faith with some seriousness.

In terms of projects, this year we’ve given $175 million to charity through our local units. We’ve put in over 70 million hours in volunteer service. Our men dedicate almost one work week a year to volunteer service, and when you add the value of that [to the financial contributions], then you’re talking about over $1 billion. You’ll see us with the Special Olympics, or Habitat for Humanity, and so on.

We have a whole new initiative on the domestic church, strengthening Catholic families. Our men are very committed to the pro-life cause. We’re announcing tomorrow that we have a new partnership to put new ultrasound machines into crisis pregnancy centers. As of last month, we placed our 700th machine in a crisis pregnancy center.

If you think those machines are going to save one or two babies a week, 700 times 50 times 2, and then multiplied by the next four or five years, thousands of kids are going to be alive because of just that one initiative of the Knights of Columbus.

We’ve just returned from Krakow covering World Youth Day, where one of the highlights for English-speaking pilgrims was the Mercy Centre you sponsored in a downtown arena. Why is it important to the Knights to be involved in World Youth Day?

We started supporting World Youth Days back in 2002, when it was held here in Toronto. That was the first one I participated in, although my two sons had gone to the World Youth Day in Denver [1993] when they were younger. Since that time, we’ve been active in all of them.

People look at World Youth Day and say, ‘This is the future of the Church.’ I don’t think that’s right. It’s the Church now …

It’s the present of the Church …

Yes, it’s the present.  We have to realize that, and we have to empower Catholics of this age to take more responsibility in the Church and to understand that they are not alone. This is really a global Church, and there are millions of Catholics just like them.

That’s one of the big take-aways, I’ve found. People come to World Youth Day and they look around and say, ‘I’m not alone. I may be alone in my neighborhood, or in my workplace or my school at times, but the Church really is big. There really is a solidarity, and there’s a newness because the Gospel is new.’

We see many, many vocations. We brought the Sisters of Life with us this time, and it’s a great partnership we’ve been having with them. They have so many vocations coming out of World Youth Day, and that’s one of the things we wanted to highlight at the Mercy Centre.

Many of the speakers were alumni of previous World Youth Days, because we wanted to impress that every single Catholic has a vocation. It may be to the laity, it may be to the religious life, it may be in marriage, but we all have one, and we need to get in touch with what it is and be faithful to it.

Speaking of big Catholic events, you’ve got one going on right now with the 134th Supreme Convention of the Knights here in Toronto. Can you give us a preview of coming attractions?

This is our annual international meeting …

How many people will you have?

We’ll have about 2,000 at the dinner tomorrow night. There are about 475 delegates and an equal number of alternates. We have about 100 members of the hierarchy who will be with us, including 10 or 11 cardinals.

Here’s a couple of highlights. First, we have a new jurisdiction where we’ve active, which is Ukraine. We have many Knights from the Latin rite and also the Greek Catholic Church coming in with a spirit of unity, really working in that country. That was the result of the Patriarch coming to one of our conventions in Chicago some years ago and begging us to come into the country and help them overcome the devastation of so many years of Communist domination, trying to suppress the Church. It failed, but there are still tremendous challenges.

The other highlight is what we’re doing for persecuted Christians, especially in the Middle East. We will have a number of bishops and archbishops from that region talking about the plight of Christians there. We’ve been trying to do a lot to help them, and we’ve been working very hard on this whole question of ‘genocide’ of Christians, how Islamic extremists are targeting Christians to exterminate them in the Middle East …

It was a report prepared by the Knights that moved the ball across the goal line in terms of the U.S. State Department recognizing what’s happening as a ‘genocide.’

We’re very proud of that work, and we had some very dedicated people involved in it. I do think we made the difference.

The conclusion to that should be, if Catholic laity get energized and committed and decide we’re going to do something, whether it’s 700 ultrasound machines, helping persecuted Christians in another part of the world, or going to the government and saying ‘this isn’t right, you’ve gotta do something about it,’ we can produce results.

There are a lot of Catholics, and if we can stand together with a certain solidarity, when we know something is right, and take action, we can get results.

Anti-Christian persecution seems a natural issue for the Knights, because you were born in a time in the 19th century when being a Catholic in America wasn’t always a walk in the park. Is it sort of in the Knights’ DNA?

We have a museum in New Haven about the Knights of Columbus, and I just purchased an item for it. It’s an 1892 cartoon from Harper’s, a Puck cartoon, and it shows the first papal representative to the United States, what we call now a nuncio, casting a shadow over the country, with the caption, ‘The new American pope.’

There was an editorial with it in which Harper’s Bazaar said, ‘This new action of having a nuncio will make it even more impossible to be both a good American and a good Catholic.’ That’s ten years after our founding and it was one of the real reasons we were founded, to demonstrate that we can be both and we can be faithful to both.

You’re also very engaged on domestic religious freedom issues. I’ve often said that raising consciousness about persecuted Christians around the world, places where people take their lives in their hands every time they go to Mass, will help us with our domestic issues, because it shows where societies can end up when they start eroding religious freedom protections. Do you agree?

Yes, exactly, because in so many countries of the world, Christians are treated as second-class citizens, and that’s the breeding ground for persecution and tragedies such as genocide.

The United States is founded on the very important principle of the sanctity of the human conscience. You look at our First Amendment, including freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, it all boils down to one’s conscience being decisive in human dignity.

When you erode that, when you say you can have freedom of conscience unless it contradicts what we want to do in government, as we’ve seen with the HHS [contraception] mandate, then you take it away.

This is what Pope Francis has been saying – you must put conscience at the center of your culture, not on the margins where it doesn’t matter. The First Amendment is important when you’re in the minority … when you’re in the majority, you don’t need it.

That’s why we have to be so careful and determined to protect a broad understanding of conscience. When you don’t have it, as in so many other countries, you end up with persecution.