Almost a thousand years after its founding, an order of crusader knights remains active in the Holy Land. Its mission is not armed battle but the carrying out of the order’s original ideals: personal holiness, evangelization, defense of the weak, and charity towards all. Its members also pledge to support the upkeep of the shrines where Christ was born, prayed, mounted his cross, and rose from the dead.
Founded soon after the First Crusade, the pontifical Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem currently has some 28,000 clerical, religious, and lay members across the globe. While the order’s titles, regalia, and ceremonies of investiture come with great honor and dignity (and a rigorous nomination process), membership comes with a lifetime pledge of spiritual and worldly support for the Holy Land. As a result, the order offers countless prayers and millions of dollars annually to build, operate, maintain, and expand schools, youth centers, hospitals, seminaries, homes for religious, pre- and post-natal clinics, and the only Catholic institution of higher education in Israel, Bethlehem University.
“Our primary aim is personal sanctification,” stresses Cardinal Edwin O’Brien, Grand Master of the worldwide order. “I am convinced that with this focus on holiness, the charism [to support the people and shrines of the Holy Land] comes into full bloom.”
The charitable order grew out of the need to govern Jerusalem after Godfrey de Bouillon and his crusaders freed the city from Muslim control in July 1099. The resulting “Order of Canons” included knights who had exhibited noticeable leadership skills and Christian charity. These soldiers-turned-protectors would take the Augustinian Rule of poverty and obedience and swear to defend the Holy Sepulchre (the site of Christ’s resurrection) and other Christian shrines.
Over time, many of the knights returned to Europe and Muslim armies retook Jerusalem. But with the aid of political and ecclesial encouragement, the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem founded priories throughout Europe that kept alive its original oaths and charitable goals. With the restoration of Jerusalem’s Latin Patriarchate in 1847, Pope Pius IX placed the order under the full protection of the Holy See. A century later, Pius XII ordered that a prince of the Church would hold the role of the order’s Grand Master. Subsequent pontiffs brought even more structure.
What has not changed, however, is the order’s commitment to the Bishop of Rome and to Jerusalem’s Latin Patriarch. The order thus serves as a bridge between the Church in the West and the people in the Middle East—especially Christians, who often find themselves caught in the midst of the regional political, social, and economic difficulties.
“The Christian minority living in the Holy Land increasingly faces the challenge of practicing their faith in the midst of conflict and turmoil,” said Cardinal Sean O’Malley, OFM, Cap., archbishop of Boston and Grand Prior of the order’s Northeast United States Lieutenancy. He added that in nations like America, Catholics can “take for granted the ability to go to a church to pray, to attend the celebration of Mass, to openly live our faith. These freedoms are not so readily available to our brother and sisters in the Holy Land. As members of the family of the Church we are called to provide them assistance, encouragement, and support.”
In light of such realities, Cardinal O’Brien stresses that the work and very presence of the Equestrian Order helps Christians in the Holy Land remain in their ancestral homes. “But,” he adds, “it’s an ongoing effort.”
These efforts take many forms. But primarily, the order focuses on prayer, fundraising, and the distribution of collected funds for particular projects. The order does not offer direct assistance to individuals as the culture of the Holy Land discourages such “handouts.” Instead, it performs specific functions—mostly construction and maintenance projects as well as donations of medical equipment and supplies.
For instance, the order finances construction and operations for 40 patriarchal schools in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan, which educate some 19,000 students, from nursery school through secondary grades as well as vocational schools. About 60 percent of the students are Christian and 40 percent are Muslim.
The order also contributes to the operational costs of some 60 parishes within the Latin Patriarchate, as well as orphanages, clinics, seminaries, and housing for young Christian families.
Specifically, the order’s 2011 annual report notes that projects funded (in part or full) by the Equestrian Order include the complete renovation—including the installation of computer and science laboratories—of a school in Kerak, Jordan (which is attended by some 300 children from kindergarten to Grade 3); a fire prevention system for the Daughters of St. Anne Institute in Nazareth (which shelters more than 80 children, ages 3 to 18, that are victims of sexual abuse, drugs or alcohol use, physical violence, or psychological trauma); the installation of new radiological diagnostic equipment for a 38-bed hospital in Jordan (which is operated under the supervision of the Comboni Missionary Sisters and includes three operating rooms, two intensive care rooms, and three dialysis stations, all serving the poorest people, especially the Bedouins and the Gorani of the Dead Sea, as well as refugees from Iraq); and the renovation of a youth center at the Latin Parish of St. Justin in the Palestinian city of Nablus, which serves as refuge from political instability and violence for young people.
In large part because of the work of the order, Cardinal O’Brien says that Catholics “are the leaders in presence and interest” in the Holy Land. These efforts, he adds, are met with “great gratitude.”
Cardinals O’Brien and O’Malley stress that the work of the Equestrian Order is to a great extent accomplished by its local “Lieutenancies,” which act rather like dioceses within the global organization. Lieutenancies increase membership, raise funds, and educate their local churches about the needs of the people in the Holy Land.
In particular, Cardinal O’Malley demonstrated what happens within the world’s Lieutenancies by calling attention his own: “[T]hrough the dedication and generosity of the men and women of [the Northeast] Lieutenancy, support is provided for educational programs in the Holy Land for children adults, clergy, and religious, and for the maintenance and open access of the biblical shrines in Jerusalem.” He noted that the Lieutenancy under his charge “sponsors seminars concerning the history of the Holy Land and current events there, and days of prayer, retreats and pilgrimages, all for the purpose of deepening the members’ understanding of our spiritual connection to Jerusalem.”
Michael La Civita is a knight commander in the order’s Eastern United States Lieutenancy. For over two decades he has worked for the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), a North American-based charitable provider that regularly partners with the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. La Civita describes the work done in the Holy Land by the order as “mind boggling.”
In speaking of how the order’s local Lieutenancies partner with CNEWA, La Civita said that “whatever problem there is in the Holy Land, there is a lay person or priest or religious to heal, care, and nurture people who absolutely need it.”
La Civita is especially pleased with the sponsorship of American seminarians for two-week pilgrimages to the Holy Land. The future priests pray, study Scripture, and learn first-hand about the social and economic hardships of Christians and all people in the Middle East.
Cardinal O’Brien highlighted these pilgrimages as a model for other Lieutenancies and seminaries to follow. He stressed that all Catholics—not just those in priestly or religious formation—can benefit from learning more about the Holy Land and the hardships and dedication of the Christians living there.
“Sometimes we [Catholics] can look in on ourselves,” he noted. “More people should know of the heroism of these Christians.”
He suggested that pastors speak regularly about the struggles and achievements of Christians living in the Middle East. He also urged special collections that can assist the Church’s charitable efforts—and so increase the work of organizations like the Equestrian Order of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre.
Such efforts would help Catholics everywhere grow in faith and personal holiness—and expand their sense of communion—through a greater familiarity with what Cardinal O’Brien describes as “the joy, the enthusiasm for their faith, and the mutual support” exhibited by Christians in the Holy Land. “This witness is something that can benefit all Catholics,” he says.
Both cardinals also urged Catholics to remember their brothers and sisters in the Holy Land as they have celebrated the liturgies of the Easter Triduum and continue to celebrate Easter. Collections taken on Good Friday in particular are traditionally offered for the needs of the shrines and the people of the Holy Land.
“It is my hope that on Good Friday all Catholics [took] the time to reflect on the historical significance the Holy Land holds for our faith,” said Cardinal O’Malley, “and to generously support the Christians who worship there today.”
For Cardinal O’Brien, local parish collections and the year-round generosity of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem have a more subtle but vital task, one central to the founding of a universal church by Christ: In maintaining a presence in the Holy Land—through pilgrimages and other efforts—“the order helps Christians living there know that they are not alone.”