Protectors of the Holy Land
A look at the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, the oldest chivalric order in the world.
Knighthood is alive and well.
The Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, the oldest chivalric order in the world — founded 914 years ago — is stronger than ever. Its members live worldwide, with many in the United States.
The order was formed in 1099 by Godfrey de Bouillon, a zealous Christian and leader of the First Crusade that returned Jerusalem to the Christians.
De Bouillon established religious canons and dubbed knights who directly served the new king of Jerusalem at the Holy Sepulcher in the City of David.
These knights protected the Christian presence at the Holy Sepulcher, taking as their banner what is known as the Jerusalem Cross.
Eventually, when the knights returned to their homelands, in order to keep alive the order’s ideals, they formed European priories.
Today’s Knights of the Holy Sepulchre continue to be active with Holy Land ministry, but they have traded their old military armor for what St. Paul describes as "the armor of God — righteousness as a breastplate … faith as a shield … the helmet of salvation … and the sword of the Spirit" (Ephesians 6:13-16).
The reason is simple: The order’s goals are "to strengthen its members in the practice of Christian life in absolute fidelity to the Supreme Pontiff and according to the teachings of the Church; sustain and aid the charitable, cultural and social works and institutions of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land, particularly those of and in the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem; support the preservation and propagation of the faith in those lands; and uphold the rights of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land."
There were 10,000 original knights under de Bouillon’s care.
Now, according to the order’s official headquarters at the Palazzo Dela Rovere by St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, there are 23,000 active knights and ladies of the Holy Sepulchre worldwide; over half of the members are American. Members are part of 52 lieutenancies (divisions) throughout the world, and both laity and clergy are members of the order.
The grand master of the order was the Holy Father himself until 1940, when Pius XII decided that cardinals would assume the duty. The current grand master is Cardinal Edwin O’Brien.
Knights and ladies work together in what is the Vatican’s only lay institution entrusted to provide for the needs of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, which supports the Christian presence in the Holy Land.
All the money the order raises through annual member obligations and other means goes to the Rome office and then on to the Holy Land.
Invigorating the order in modern times began in 1847, when Blessed Pius IX restored the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem and issued a new constitution for the order, placing it under the direct protection of the Holy See. In 1967, Paul VI revitalized the constitution.
Then, in 1977, Blessed John Paul II approved some new statutes. Members promised to "revive in modern form the spirit and ideals of the Crusaders, with the weapons of faith, the apostolate and Christian charity."
John Paul also placed the order under the care of Our Lady, Queen of Palestine and raised it to a public association of the faithful.
Members make a lifetime commitment to work fervently and wholeheartedly for these ideals in every respect.
"The support of the holy sites in Jerusalem and of the Christians there and personal spiritual development are the outstanding hallmarks of being a member of the order," explained A.J. Capritto III, who holds the rank of knight grand cross and has distinction as a lieutenant of honor for his eight-year leadership of the U.S. Southeastern Lieutenancy, one of the order’s territorial divisions.
"In my 27 years in the order," he emphasized, "I have grown in my faith — it has helped me in my personal spiritual development."
"You really experience the spiritual nature of the order," said Jim Myers, who has been a knight for 12 years.
For instance, members attend particular Masses as well as the annual installation for those entering the order. These devotions "remind you of your spiritual responsibilities and that you have an obligation to lead an exemplary life," he said.
The order’s "Principles of Conduct" begin: "Being a model in one’s community by an exemplary Christian life and testifying to Christian love by supporting the Catholic works in the Holy Land: These are the main attributes that identify the members of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem."
That’s why Father Brian King, episcopal secretary to Bishop Gerald Barbarito of Florida’s Palm Beach Diocese and a member of the order for 14 years, clarifies that this is not a social club: Helping Holy Land sites and people is a big priority, but the primary focus is the "practice of your faith. They want somebody who is committed and not afraid to share that faith with people around them."
Myers points out that everyone must be "a good member of their parish and their diocese" in order to be focused on "living up to the standard expected of a knight of this ancient order of chivalry. In a way, it’s a rather heavy obligation, but a welcome one."
In terms of protocol, prospective members must be recommended by another member, his or her parish priest and the local ordinary of the diocese. Final approval lies with Rome.
Officially vested knights and ladies wear the Jerusalem Cross. There are other earned medals and decorations, too. Members can rise in rank — for example, to knight commander or lady commander.
In 1888, Leo XIII formally confirmed that women could be admitted to the order in all degrees of rank, just like the men.
"This is the first chivalric order in the world to admit women," affirms Myers, "even before there were dames of the British Empire." His wife, Christina, is a lady commander, and Capritto’s wife, Eileen, is a lady grand cross.
Holy Land Projects
The order’s projects include rehabilitating a seminary and the residences of priests and nuns, building schools and churches, creating a children’s playground and working with orphanages.
"We try to help the Christians in the Holy Land, who are shrinking in number every year," Myers said.
The Christian population varies by locality, from just 2%-4%.
Father King pointed out that, through the order’s work, "we can be united with them in prayer as well as financially offering assistance running hospitals, schools and other economic developments."
"There is a rich Christian heritage in the Holy Land," Father King affirmed. "It’s not just a Church that existed in the history books, but is a real, living Church. We’re still there in the Holy Land."
According to the order’s Vatican headquarters, since the end of the 19th century, the order has constructed 42 primary and secondary schools in Israel, Palestine and Jordan and has funded all upkeep costs. The order also supports Bethlehem University, which is run by the Christian Brothers.
The order-sponsored schools serve approximately 19,000 students, from preschool through elementary, middle and upper grades, including technical schools.
"These schools are not restricted only to Catholics [and Orthodox]," points out John Herrick, vice chancellor of the Southeastern Lieutenancy.
On average, students are 60% Christian; the rest are mostly Muslims, although there are some Jews, too.
"The long-term benefits are wonderful," Herrick said. "The young people learn to live and work together. The hope long term is for no more wars over there, because the young people love each other."
At the same time, the order funds the running costs of the patriarchate and its 68 parishes, the patriarchal seminary, orphanages and clinics, as well as new projects like building homes for young Christian families.
Eileen Capritto brings up one more important aspect of the order: sponsoring pilgrimages.
"It gives people a real connection to the Holy Land," she said. "Not only do they come back enriched in their spiritual life, but they have a better understanding of the hard life these Christians live in the Holy Land: Being a Christian in the Holy Land is a hard life. You don’t come back as a tourist."
Anthony Capritto explained that, when members go to the Holy Land and visit the sites where Jesus Christ lived and walked, "it brings a whole new dimension to your thinking when you hear these things" during the Gospel at Mass.
Last January, Scott and Kimberly Hahn, who are both order members, led a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and met with His Beatitude Fouad Twal, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem.
As Scott Hahn described the experience online, "It’s a great honor to belong to the Order of the Holy Sepulchre and to support our brothers and sisters in Christ who live in the Holy Land — amidst much suffering and conflict."
Joseph Pronechen is the
Register’s staff writer.