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Mysteries of the regalia revealed

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You've seen the men in black tuxedos, plumed hats, capes, white gloves and drawn swords at important diocesan or civic events. Often they're there to escort Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde or other diocesan dignitaries down the aisle of a church or cathedral. The men in the plumed hats are a special division of fourth-degree Knights of Columbus called the color corps.

A third-degree Knight in good standing can become a fourth-degree Knight - also known as the patriotic degree - and some of those Knights elect to become members of the color corps. The color corps exemplifies charity, unity, fraternity and patriotism.

Fourth-degree Knights belong to assemblies, joining Knights from several councils in a district.

Past faithful navigator Tom Fahey of the Potomac Assembly 220 in Alexandria, has been a Knight for 42 years and a member of the color corps for eight.

"(I joined) to bear Catholic witness for our country," said Fahey.

You can't wield a sword - even a ceremonial one - without training, so every assembly has a color corps commander responsible for the training and practice of color corps members. A part of that training is found in the Color Corps Drill Manual that gives specifics of dress and ceremony. In Virginia, color corps members are certified every two years to ensure they can perform the drills.

The regalia requirements for a fourth-degree Knight are unambiguous: black tuxedo, white tuxedo shirt, black bow tie, tuxedo studs and cuff links, black cummerbund and black shoes. A social baldric, or sword sash, is worn under the jacket. The regalia are worn at formal events.

A color corps member adds to the standard fourth-degree dress with a cape, colored to signify office, and a black chapeau, or hat, that's worn with a colored plume also representing the official color of the office. For example, an assembly commander would wear a purple cape and a chapeau with a purple plume. White gloves and a service baldric, a belt worn to carry a weapon or a drum, are also required.

The regalia are only one part of the color corps requirements. The use of swords is dependent on diocesan policies, so there are procedures for the color corps with and without swords.

The sword is an important part of the Knights' uniform. In the middle ages, the code of chivalry required knights to carry swords to defend their God, their church and their country. Fourth-degree Knights of Columbus carry swords to honor Christ and His apostles, and to encourage active Catholic citizenship and patriotism.

A separate Manual of the Sword explains the minutiae of sword protocol, including how it's removed from the scabbard, how it's presented and carried and even how it should rest when the Knight is sitting.

The order of precedence for processions and recessions are detailed in the Color Code Protocol. The removal of the chapeau before Mass, its resting place during Mass, and its placement on the head after Mass are explained in the manual. Particular requirements for ceremonies like wakes, Eucharistic adorations, laying a cornerstone and funerals all require attention to specific protocols. It's considered an honor to be chosen for the color corps.

Bob Dannemiller is a past faithful navigator of the Commodore John Barry Assembly 1163 in Arlington who has been in the color corps for eight years. He had a personal reason for joining the color corps.

"It's a family tradition," he said. "I'm using my father's sword."

Whether it's an ordination, a funeral or church dedication, the Knights of Columbus color corps brings a certain flair and pride to the occasion. When you see these elegantly dressed men in the plumed hats remember that they are there to honor God and country - and they know how to use a sword.

Borowski can be reached at dborowski@catholicherald.com or on Twitter @DBorowskiACH.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2014