Location, Location, Location

Delivered on 29 September 2006 at Our Saviour Church (Park and 38th St.) to the new members of the Northeast Lieutenancy of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre.

One might describe the history of Manhattan as a history of real estate deals. In fact, Manhattan entered the history books when it was sold by the Indians to the Dutch for approximately $24 in beads. Anyone at all familiar with real estate knows that the value depends on three factors: location, location, location.

My reflection this afternoon will treat three locations that have witnessed world-changing events for the past three millennia and continue to be in the headlines today: the Holy Land, Jerusalem, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Holy Land

For believers in Christ, in whom there is no east or west, north or south, to speak of a certain land as holy is almost blasphemous. Yet all who look to Abraham as their father in faith refer to a certain piece of land as being holy because it was the place, described in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and the Quran, in which the divine plan of salvation unfolded.

The Holy Land today is comprised of Israel and Palestine, Jordan (the land of the Temple of Solomon, the earthly ministry, the crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus), Egypt (the land from which Moses would lead God’s Chosen People and to which the Holy Family would take refuge), Iraq (the homeland of Abraham), Syria (where the conversion of Paul took place), Turkey, Greece and Crete (the lands of the preaching of Paul). An expansive interpretation of the notion of “holy land” could also include Italy, because the apostles Peter and Paul preached and suffered martyrdom in Rome.


The second location is Jerusalem. We all know that everything started in Jerusalem. It was in Jerusalem that our Lord instituted the sacrament of the Eucharist; it was in Jerusalem that he was crucified and rose from the dead; it was in Jerusalem that the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples. That Jerusalem should have been selected by Divine Providence as the focus of salvation history for the three Abrahamic religions is in itself a mystery of faith because the city was always insignificant from the perspective of politics, commerce and culture. At the time of our Lord, Jerusalem was the land-locked capital of a very troublesome, backwater province in the Roman Empire. To be sent to represent Imperial Rome politically or militarily was no great reward.

As foretold by Jesus, Jerusalem was not to survive for very long after his crucifixion. Because of civil disturbances Roman armies led by Titus sacked the Temple in the year 70 (the spoils of that military venture were used to pay for the Coliseum in Rome). After another rebellion, the city was totally destroyed in 135 and rebuilt by Hadrian as Aelia Capitolina. By the time Christianity was recognized by the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great in the fourth century, the Jerusalem known by Jesus and his followers was little more than a city of ruins and memories.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The last location I would like to speak about is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. (Incidentally, this is the Catholic name for the building; the Orthodox churches refer to the same building as the Church of the Resurrection. It is interesting that the two titles reflect the two different aspects of our salvation history: the death and the resurrection of Christ.)

The Church encompasses both the site of the crucifixion and the tomb of Jesus. Although today it is in the heart of the Old City’s Christian quarter and overflows with visitors, Golgotha was once a bald, rocky hill situated outside of the Jerusalem walls. In a cemetery nearby, a wealthy Jewish follower of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea, had prepared a tomb for himself; this tomb was to be the burial site of Jesus of Nazareth. Destined to become the most venerated of Christian sites, Golgotha and the sepulcher of Jesus were lost to the Christians only a century after the crucifixion. When Emperor Hadrian rebuilt Jerusalem, he covered the area with dirt and built a shrine dedicated to Venus on the site.

Constantine I, the first Roman emperor to embrace Christianity, held an ecumenical council in 325 in Nicea to discuss the nature of Christ. Present at that council was the Jerusalem patriarch, Bishop Macarius, who urged Constantine’s mother Helena to restore the sites connected with the life of Jesus. They soon toured the Holy Land together. St. Helena is credited with locating Jesus’ birthplace in Bethlehem, the Mount of Olives grotto where Jesus prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem, the site of the crucifixion at Golgotha, the cross on which Jesus was crucified, and the tomb in which the body of our Lord was placed.

By 335 a magnificent church was built with imperial funds. Actually the church connected three structures built over three holy sites: a great church, an enclosed colonnaded atrium built around Golgotha, and a rotunda which contained the remains of the cave identified as the burial site of Jesus. The surrounding rock was cut away and the tomb was encased in an edicule (Latin, small building) in the center of the rotunda.

The Constantinian church was repeatedly ravaged and repaired over the next 400 years. It remained a Christian place of worship under the Muslim rulers who protected the city’s Christian sites, prohibiting their destruction or conversion to other uses. Despite these efforts, the doors and roof were burnt in 966 during a riot and the original building was completely destroyed by Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, who dug out the church’s foundations down to bedrock. Christendom’s response to the destruction of the most important site of our faith was illogical and world-shaking. For example, a Benedictine monk in France, blamed the Jews and called for their expulsion from the kingdom. It was the destruction of the Holy Sepulchre that ultimately gave impetus for the pope to call for a Crusade.

While holy places were under Muslim control, Byzantine emperor Constantine IX obtained permission (i.e., paid for) from the caliph to build a cluster of small chapels on the site in 1048.

The rebuilt sites were taken by the knights of the First Crusade on July 15, 1099. The First Crusade was envisioned as an armed pilgrimage; no crusader could consider his journey complete unless he had prayed as a pilgrim at the Holy Sepulchre. Crusader chief Godfrey of Bouillon, who became the first crusader monarch of Jerusalem, decided not to use the title “king” during his lifetime, and declared himself Advocatus Sancti Sepulchri, “Protector (or Defender) of the Holy Sepulchre.”

The Crusaders decided to unite all of the holy sites under one roof and erected the Romanesque church that one sees there today. It took 50 years to build the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which was consecrated in 1149.

Jerusalem fell to Saladin’s Army in 1188. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was closed and the doors were opened only to those pilgrims who paid well!

The Franciscan friars renovated it further in 1555, as it had been neglected despite increased numbers of pilgrims. A fire severely damaged the structure again in 1808, causing the dome of the rotunda to collapse, smashing the edicule’s exterior decoration. The rotunda and the edicule’s exterior were rebuilt in 1809-1810 in an Ottoman Baroque style. Modern renovations began in 1959, including a restoration of the dome from 1994-1997 that was quietly financed by a generous American Catholic member of the Equestrian Order and supervised by the Pontifical Mission.

Since the renovation of 1555, control of the church oscillated between the Franciscans and the Orthodox, depending on which community could obtain a favorable decree from the Ottoman Sublime Porte at a particular time, often through outright bribery. In 1767, the Porte issued a decree that divided the church among the claimants, with the intention of preventing the sometimes violent conflicts that erupted. This was reiterated in 1852 with another decree that made the arrangement permanent, establishing a status quo of territorial division among the communities.

The primary custodians are the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Apostolic and the Roman Catholic Franciscans. In the 19th century, the Coptic Orthodox, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syriac Orthodox acquired lesser responsibilities, which included shrines and other structures within and around the building. Times and places of worship for each community are strictly regulated in common areas.

Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre

Please indulge my return to the analogy of geographic locations. It is a common practice for cities, bridges and buildings to be named after famous people: Roosevelt Island, the George Washington Bridge, and Rockefeller Center are all examples of this practice. In the case of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, the exact reverse approach is the case: we are named after a building, the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem.

In 1070, Seljuk Turks conquered Jerusalem and either sold into slavery or murdered Christians who were making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. In 1095, Pope Urban II called for a Crusade to liberate the holy places with the battle cry, “Deus lo vult.” – God wills it. A millennium later, Christians are still taking inspiration from this cry to carry out the will of God: to worship Him in the places sanctified by His earthly ministry, to protect and promote the Catholic faith, and to work for a just peace so that Christian, Jews, and Muslims can live side by side in love of God and each other – because God wills it.

The Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem can trace its origins to Godfrey de Bouillon of the first Crusade, who gathered around him a group of knights who were entrusted with the protection of the religious Chapter of Canons who were present at the Holy Sepulchre of Christ. For 20 years, these knights and others who joined them protected the Holy Sepulchre. The group was officially recognized in 1113 by Pope Paschal II. In 1122 Pope Callistus II established them as a lay religious community with the mandate to guard the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

Defense of the Holy Sepulchre became impossible, however, as the Seljuk Turks continued in the efforts to conquer the region. The knights fled to the protection fortress of St. John in Acre and remained there until the fortress fell to the Seljuk Turks in 1291. Many of the knights of the Holy Sepulchre remained in the region while others returned home to Europe.

The work of the order in Palestine shifted from the knights to the religious Order of Franciscan Friars Minor, which had custody of the monastery of Mt. Zion. In 1330, Pope John XXII named the prior of the Franciscan house Custodian of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre. The custodian served as deputy to the Pope, who reserved to himself governance of the order; nevertheless it was the custodians who were effectively responsible for all aspects of the order’s growth and governance.

In 1489, Pope Innocent VIII, with the intention of suppressing the Order, decreed that it was to be merged with the Order of St. John (Malta). The uneasy arrangement lasted for seven years until Pope Alexander VI restored the Holy Sepulchre to independent status. Alexander VI also decreed that the Order of the Holy Sepulchre would no longer be governed by the office of custodian, but the senior post of the order would henceforth be raised to the rank of grand master and reserved to the pope.

The darkest period of the order’s history began shortly after the pontificate of Alexander VI, when little is recorded of its work or activity. It was not until 1847, after four hundred years of vacancy, that Pius IX restored the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem and, revived with it, the Order of the Holy Sepulchre. The ecclesiastical superior of the order was then vested in the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, who eventually assumed the title grand prior. The office of grand master still remained vested in the papacy.

In 1949, Pope Pius XII restructured the Order once again and relinquished for himself and his successors the position of grand master, assigning a cardinal to the role.

The headquarters of the order are housed in this palace of Pope Julius II, a part of which was set aside as a hotel (now the Hotel Columbus) to earn income for the order and to house pilgrim knights. The offices, chancellery, and residence of the grand master are housed here. The church of the order is the very small, ancient Chapel of St. Humphrey (S. Onofrio), under the care of the Friars of the Atonement.

The Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem is an organization with non-religious (men and women) and religious members; it has approximately 21,000 knights and ladies all over the world, grouped into 54 Lieutenancies of Magistral Branches. The order is recognized by 25 countries. The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem has the title of grand prior of the order. Lieutenants are appointed by the Grand Master to run the Lieutenancies.

What is the purpose of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre? What does it do? The new constitution of the order was promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1977 sets forth its mandate.

  1. The first purpose is to foster in each of its members a deeper awareness of what it means to be a Christian and then to put this awareness into practice. This is the most important task of all because it involves our very salvation.
  2. The second purpose is to preserve and protect and foster the spreading of the faith in Palestine. The Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre is the main source of support for the Latin Patriarchate, the tiny Catholic Church still present in Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Cyprus. Like any church, the Latin Patriarchate is responsible for the operation of churches, schools and other charitable institutions, but because of the political, social and economic turmoil, it needs help.
  3. Lastly, the members of the order are to be the champions in the defense of the rights of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land. This defense of the rights of the Catholic Church is perhaps an aspect of the work that is not given much attention in the United States, where separation of Church and State has lately been construed to mean that Catholics have no right to speak about their faith in public. It is not possible to be a champion and remain silent when we witness injustice. We must speak the truth in charity – no matter the offence to any government, political party, or political correctness.

This is the work of the Order, the task to be taken up be each one of us. It is not a small task, but Lord has given us all of the resources necessary to carry it out. After all, God wills it.

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