From ONE Magazine

Onward Christian Soldiers

The news media flood us with news of the peace process in the Middle East, the heart of which is the land we call holy, the land of the Bible, a land that has long been central to the history of the world.

A little known aspect of this history is the story of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem.

At the end of the 11th century Pope Urban II, who had proclaimed and enforced the “Truce of God” and the “Peace of God” to limit warfare in Europe, turned his attention to the Holy Land. The Seljuk Turks, who by this time had conquered most of the Middle East, harassed the Christians traveling there as pilgrims. Dismayed by these actions, the Pope proclaimed a crusade to regain access and control of the holy places. In 1099, Godfrey de Bouillon, Duke of Brabant (which is located in modern Belgium), leading a mixed force of noblemen, knights and peasants, conquered Jerusalem.

In an effort to secure the safety of the Holy Sepulchre, the shrine marking the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, Godfrey established a religious order of knights to protect the holy places and provide security for pilgrims. In 1113, Pope Pascal II approved the rules and constitutions of the order, which had adopted the Rule of St. Augustine.

Following the collapse of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1189, the knights were exiled to Europe. In exile, their standards of chivalry were directed toward charitable works: some served in hospitals while others cared for the poor and society’s outcasts. As a recognized religious order it survived until the end of the 15th century.

In 1847, Pope Pius IX restored the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, after a hiatus of some 400 years, and he reactivated the order with a mandate to practice “the virtue of charity [by] supporting and aiding the church and the Catholic Religion in the Holy Land.”

In 1888, in a move marked with much foresight, Pope Leo XIII authorized the extension of membership, with equivalent ranks and honors, to women. Today there are four ranks in the order: Knight or Lady, Commander, Commander with Star and Grand Cross.

Forty-one lieutenancies encompassing more than 16,000 members worldwide, almost one half of whom are members of the nine lieutenancies of the United States, make up this unique order, which includes clergy, laity and religious.

Today an order born out of adversity is working to imbue hardened hearts with the love of Christ. Pope John Paul II noted in May 1994, when meeting with the governing council of the order, that their “multiple activities have favored and contributed more than a little to the defense and promotion of peace and civil coexistence among the different peoples called to live side by side in the land where the Incarnate Word lived, died and rose for the salvation of all humanity.”

The origins of Christianity are in the East. However its growth and eventual rise to power in Europe, and the subsequent dominance of the European worldview, often blur this fact. The knights and ladies are asked to see things differently, to turn their attention to the East and to “promote the preservation and the propagation of the Faith in the Holy Land.”

These modern knights and ladies are called to share their material resources with the Arab Catholic community in the Holy Land, the cradle community of the Christian family.

To frame that presence properly it should be noted that, in Israel, in a population of 5.2 million people, there are 4.2 million Jews and one million Arabs, of whom 100,000 are Christian. In the Occupied Territories the population is roughly 1.8 million with 300,000 Jews and 1.5 million Arabs, of whom 50,000 are Christian. The Old City of Jerusalem, Christianity’s “home town,” has only 10,000 Christians, out of a total population of 160,000.

This Christian presence in the land of Jesus is declining. The order is called to assist in maintaining a living Catholic community in the Holy Land, not just to preserve church buildings and shrines.

Working with the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, the order provides funds to build and operate schools, churches, convents and a seminary. The order strives to maintain an infrastructure that will make life bearable for those embroiled in the political turmoil plaguing the region for most of this century.

Crucial to the maintenance of the Latin (Roman) Catholic presence is the seminar at Beit Jala. Here young men are trained to serve the Catholics of Israel, Jordan, Palestine and Cyprus. This far-flung archdiocese, the Latin Patriarchate, led by Patriarch Michel Sabbah, cares for the pastoral needs of an indigenous Catholic population whose families date back centuries.

When members of the order have the opportunity to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, they do more than visit biblical sites. They meet the people they serve and support.

In communities such as the parish in Karak, Jordan, the pilgrims meet the parishioners of the Catholic church. In Bir Zeit, the West Bank, they visit a parish school as well as the church. In Bethlehem, the knights and ladies visit the students who attend Bethlehem University. At the Ephpheta School for the Hearing Impaired, also in Bethlehem, they witness the great work of the Sisters of St. Dorothy. A journey to the Creche, an orphanage in Bethlehem operated by the Daughters of Charity, puts them in contact with children who have been abandoned or orphaned.

The Creche, and all the apostolates these people of goodwill have given both time and resources to support. are a testimony that Jesus’ message to “love one another” – especially the poor and weak – is still alive and well.

We use symbols to help identify our realities. The symbols of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, though rooted in the military reality of the 11th century, represent the ideals proposed in the Gospel. During public ceremonies, these modern knights and ladies wear white and black capes emblazoned with the Cross of Jerusalem in red, the insignia of Godfrey de Bouillon. The cross consists of one large cross and four smaller crosses signifying the five wounds of the crucified Christ. The garb and its insignia are ancient symbols linked intimately to the history of the Holy Land, a history that had its moments of glory with so many human endeavors, a history that had its tragedies.

Membership is not honorific. In his pre-amble to the orders constitution, Pope Paul VI defined knighthood as:

…self-discipline, generosity and courage. Whosoever does not have the firm willingness to develop and deepen these traits in his life will never be able to become a true knight. The zeal, for self-renunciation, in the midst of this society of abundance, generous aid to the weak and those without protection, courageous struggle for justice and peace are the characteristic virtues of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre.

Exemplary moral conduct and true Christian feeling are the prime requisites for admission to the order. The practice of Christian faith must be shown in the heart of one’s family at work in obedience to the Holy Father and in involvement in Christian activities both in one’s own parish and in one’s diocese.…

diligence of the ecumenical spirit, above all, by means of active interest in the well-recognized problems in Palestine.

The battle cry of those first crusaders, “Deus to vult,” God wills it, has been redirected by these modern Christian soldiers from a mission of might to the Gospel call, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Brother David, our Director of Educational and Interreligious Affairs, is a Knight Commander of the Holy Sepulchre.