Onward Christian Soldiers

by Brother David Carroll, F.S.C., K.C.H.S.

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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.

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