Entrance to the Holy Sepulchre (photo: Ernest A. Kehr, K.G.C.H.S.)
Interior of the Holy Sepulchre (photo: Ernest A. Kehr, K.G.C.H.S.)
On the 80th birthday of Cardinal Tisserant, Grand Master of the Order, Pope Paul received knights in a private audience following Pontifical Mass at St. Peter’s. (photo: Ernest A. Kehr, K.G.C.H.S.)
Knights of the Holy Sepulchre at Damascus Gate. (The author is second from left.) (photo: Ernest A. Kehr, K.G.C.H.S.)
The Order of the Holy Sepulchre arose out of devotion to the sacred tomb of Christ.
Anyone who ever has had the spiritual good fortune to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land will remember the five-fold red Crusaders Cross at all the Stations along the Via Dolorosa. And if they had visited during Holy Week or the Feast of the Nativity, they also saw the same scarlet cross emblazoned on the white woolen capes of many attendants to the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem in processions and ceremonies.
These crosses belong to the local and foreign Knights of the Equestrian Order of Jerusalem, the oldest of the Pontifical Military Orders in the history of the Catholic Church. Today, members of the Order are the elite of our laity, selected and knighted because of their devotion and dedication to the preservation of Christs tomb, either by physical defense in times of conflict, or by generous contributions to maintain its presence in the ancient city where our Lord passed the last days of his earthly life before his Passion, Death and Resurrection.
The origins of the Order of Knights are clouded by conflicting traditional tales, and subject to some historical controversy, but it is rather well established that its beginnings as a true Order came after Godfrey of Bouillon captured Jerusalem in 1099, during the First Crusade.
There are also those who trace the Order back another six centuries to the time of St. Helena when, in 451, the Bishopric of Jerusalem was made a Patriarchate. Others believe the Knights originated in the year 81 when Pope Anaclet is said to have assigned protection of the Tomb to a confraternity of hermits. In any case, the Order was, in the words of the eminent scholar, Guido A. Quarti, the cradle from which all other religious military Orders in the Holy Land developed
After many changes were generated during the ensuing centuries, the Order finally was placed under the leadership of the Franciscan Custos of the Holy Land in the 13th century, when these missioners were entrusted with the maintenance of churches, abbeys, convents, shrines, hospitals and schools within Palestine.
In 1847, when Pope Pius IX reestablished the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, he transferred the office of Grand Master from the Franciscan Custos to the Patriarch. In 1888, Pope Leo XIII approved the establishment of a feminine branch, designating such members as Dames of the Holy Sepulchre. Today the title is Ladies, and while women are entitled to wear the Crusaders cross on black silk capes, they normally do not actively participate in Holy Land ceremonies, except as spectators.
In 1906, Pope St. Pius X took upon himself the grand mastership, but delegated the Patriarch as his lieutenant, who would appoint knights and erect chapters in countries beyond Jerusalem.
The Order of Knights of the Holy Sepulchre has four classes of membership: Knight, Commander, Commander with a Star, and Knight with Grand Cross. While each knight vows, at the time of his investiture, to protect the Tomb and other holy places in Jerusalem, few officers and knights have actually had the chance to do so in recent decades.
One such occasion was on January 2, 1964, when Pope Paul VI arrived on the first day of his pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Approximately 20 knights from several distant lands had been invited by His Beatitude, Patriarch Alberto Gori, to serve in a Guard of Honor for the procession from the Damascus Gate to the Tomb of Christ, at which Mass was to be offered by His Holiness the first pontiff to visit the sacred spot since St. Peter.
As soon as Pope Paul entered the gate, a mad whirlpool of humanity eager to see and touch the Bishop of Rome engulfed him. Only the presence of the Knights (and a few Vatican security men) prevented the pontiff from accidental bodily harm. In an effort to protect the Pope, one of the Knights was thrust through a shop window by the crowd. The resultant wounds reddened his white cape, making him the first Knight of the Holy Sepulchre in centuries to shed blood in the performance of his volunteer duties.
This type of dedication, as well as devotion to preserving places made sacred by Christs presence, is what marks the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre as an important and necessary unit in the Christian Church.
Ernest A. Kehr is a Knight Grand Commander of the Holy Sepulchre.