It’s a lay institution with a medieval-sounding name, with roots that tradition dates back to 1009 and the First Crusade. “The Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem has an almost thousand-year history,” Pope Francis affirmed at an international gathering of the group’s leaders last September. “Yours is one of the oldest charitable orders that is still active.”
The first Knights undertook to defend the sacred sites of the Holy Land and to ensure access for Christian pilgrims. The order’s present-day mandate, which stems from an 1847 reorganization under Pope Pius IX, is twofold: to grow as disciples of Jesus and to bring spiritual and material support to the “living stones” of the Holy Land, its beleaguered and dwindling Christian population.
With nearly thirty thousand members in thirty-five countries, the Order of the Holy Sepulchre is led today by Cardinal Edwin O’Brien, who was appointed to the post of Grand Master two years ago by Pope Benedict XVI. “Our main job,” says Cardinal O’Brien, “is to support the Latin patriarch [archbishop] of Jerusalem in all his efforts to keep the faith alive.” In practical terms, this means sustaining Church institutions and activities throughout the Holy Land: in Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Cyprus, and—since 2009—projects in Lebanon and Egypt.
The Knights and Ladies offer support through their prayers, personal visits, and financial contributions. Thanks to their generous donations, churches and parishes remain open, the seminary can train new priests, Catholic schools are able to serve some eighteen thousand students, and people in need receive health care and social services. Many of these outreaches are available to everyone, notes Cardinal O’Brien. “Our schools, for instance, are about 60 percent Christian and 40 percent Muslim. The goodwill and understanding that this creates for the Church is incalculable.”
Called to Care. While membership in the order is by invitation, all Catholics are called to solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the Middle East. As Pope Francis said last November, “We cannot resign ourselves to thinking of a Middle East without Christians, who for two thousand years have professed the name of Jesus.”
How can we help? According to Cardinal O’Brien, one way is to give as generously as possible to the traditional Good Friday collection for the Church in the Holy Land. “This helps the Franciscans who staff so many shrines and basilicas there. It also addresses the needs of local Christians” (see www.custodia.org).
Since many of the Knights and Ladies live in North America, Cardinal O’Brien also encourages us to invite them to “come and share about the Holy Land at a school or parish function. Perhaps there’s a special project they could use help with.” (To find out if there are any near you, check the website below.)
The Easter season naturally turns our attention to the places where the great good news of the resurrection first burst forth. Let’s take it as a reminder to pray for the Middle East—for its Christians and all its peoples.
More information about the Order of the Holy Sepulchre is available at www.holysepulchre.net. Photos courtesy of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.