The City at the Center of the World

Given as an orientation for the candidates of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem – Eastern Lieutenancy on 28 September 2007, at Holy Savior Church, New York.

The task given to me by our lieutenant, His Excellency Joseph Spinnato, is to provide you, the future of the Knights and Ladies of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, with an orientation. In reflecting how to accomplish this task, I considered that the best way to provide some kind of orientation would be a map. Indeed a map lets us figure out where we are, where we have been and how to arrive at a future destination. For reasons that will soon become evident I shall resort to maps of the Middle Ages.

Interestingly enough, the tops of the maps point not to the North, as ours do, but to the East. (This was done so that one could find directions using the path of the sun. One became “oriented” by facing the East or Orient.) Jerusalem was at the approximate center of the known world. During the Middle Ages, strong religious influences caused some mapmakers to deliberately place Jerusalem at the exact center or “navel” of the world. Such an approach was reinforced by Scripture; the prophet Ezekiel proclaimed, “The Lord Yahweh says this, ‘This is Jerusalem, which I have placed in the middle of the nations, surrounded with foreign countries.’ ” (Ezekiel 5:5)

This format was widely adopted after the Crusades and the consequent popular identification of Jerusalem as the primary spiritual center of all Christianity. Although Rome, Santiago de Compostela and Canterbury were all important centers of pilgrimage, Jerusalem was undoubtedly considered the holiest of ground, sanctified by the earthly presence of Jesus. It was in Jerusalem that Jesus was crucified and buried and rose from the dead. This visible representation of the world reflected the appreciation of Jerusalem in the Middle Ages; for Christians of that era it was geographically, spiritually and even visually the city at the center of the world.

With the advent of the Renaissance, new discoveries and improved geographic concepts changed the extent and shape of the known world and rendered Jerusalem-centered maps obsolete. However, the region has never really moved far from center stage. The land, its people and its problems occupy a disproportionate amount of diplomatic effort, military resources and media attention. The attention of modern society might be drawn more because of fossil fuels than religious devotion, but it still gets our attention.

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 A.D. 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 A.D. 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.

At the urging of his mother, St. Helena, and Jerusalem’s bishop, Macarius, a magnificent church was built with imperial funds and dedicated in 335. Actually the church linked three structures built over three holy sites: a great church, an enclosed colonnaded atrium built around Golgotha, and a rotunda that 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.

Muslim invasions beginning in the seventh century drastically reduced the circumstances of Jerusalem. 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 the Fatimid caliph, who dug out the church’s foundations down to bedrock.

While the 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. Despite this concession from the caliph, it was unbearable for Christians to accept that Jerusalem should remain in the hands of non-Christians.

In 1096, Pope Urban II called for a crusade to recapture the city of Jerusalem. As followers of Christ, we must never be afraid of the truth and the truth of the matter is that the Crusades cannot in any way be characterized as one of our proudest moments; there is something contradictory and even scandalous about a war conducted to regain a piece of land honoring the Prince of Peace. While historians have demonstrated that, especially in the First Crusade (there were seven Crusade initiatives), Christian devotion was a compelling motive for many crusaders, these initiatives included the slaughter of civilians — Christian, Jew and Muslim — profiteering and slave-trading. It will be our great challenge to seek the understanding and forgiveness of future generations for our incomprehensible deeds.

Pope Urban must have been a very powerful orator because he managed to convince Duke Godfrey of Bouillon (from the region in present-day Belgium) to take up the Crusader’s cross. I make this assertion because until then, Duke Godfrey had been an enemy of the papacy and had actually participated in a siege of Rome. Despite his personal history, Godfrey took up the cross and manifested unwavering dedication to the goal of the Crusade, that is, to regain the city of Jerusalem for the Christians. There is even a tradition that he swore he would never return from the Holy Land (and, in fact, he never did). Duke Godfrey also proved to be among the least self-serving of the European princes who went on the Crusade.

In 1099, the Crusaders captured their prize. On 17 July, with the smell of blood still thick in the air, the Latin (or Roman Catholic) princes of Europe gathered in council to decide who was to govern this conquest. A compromise was reached and the position fell to Godfrey. In deference to the religious importance of Jerusalem, Godfrey did not assume the title of King of Jerusalem, but instead, assumed the title of “Advocate of the Holy Sepulchre.” Laying his sword in front of the Holy Sepulchre, he pledged to defend it with his life and set up a contingent of his best knights to guard the site. These knights began to identify themselves as the Order of the Holy Sepulchre. It is here that our Equestrian Order finds its origins.

Duke Godfrey only lived for another year, succeeded by his brother Baldwin, who apparently had no great scruples about titles and called himself the King of Jerusalem. This Kingdom endured for almost two centuries. Parallel to the establishment of Christian secular authority in the region, the Catholic Church established a Latin patriarchate. Until that time all the Christians of the Holy Land were under the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem. When the last vestiges of the kingdom were finally conquered by the Muslim Mamluks in 1291, the Latin hierarchy was effectively eradicated. After 1374, the church continued to appoint titular patriarchs of Jerusalem, who were based in Rome.

And here, after discovering the distant roots of our order, let us leave medieval history and fast-forward to the 19th century.

In 1847, Pope Pius IX re-established the Patriarch of Jerusalem as a residential bishop, appointed Joseph Valerga to hold the position, and placed the Order of the Holy Sepulchre under the patriarch. The pope entrusted the responsibility of conferring a rank in the Order of Holy Sepulchre to the patriarch, who was to confer it only on those “who have been worthy in the cause of religion and who manifest other requirements for obtaining this honor.”

It was Pope Pius XII who in 1949, for the first time since the ages of the Crusades, gave a special mission to the Order:

  • The preservation and propagation of the faith in Palestine
  • Assistance to and development of the mission of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, providing for its charitable, cultural and social undertakings
  • Defense of the rights of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land

These are three big tasks. You came here this evening presuming that you were getting an honor, only to find out that you had been given a job! Today, we are not asked to die for, but to live for the Holy Land. We are being asked not to use arms, but to use every legitimate peaceful means to safeguard the rights and interests of the church in that holy but troubled place.

Today the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre includes 22,000 knights and ladies, organized into 50 lieutenancies and 2 delegations (quasi-lieutenancies). There are 9 lieutenancies in the United States. We can take pride in the fact that our Holy Father has recently appointed Philadelphia-born Archbishop John Foley as Pro-Grand Master of the Order.

One thing that has not changed since the Middle Ages is the news about the Christians in the Holy Land. The situation is still bleak.

Israel has a total population of 7.15 million people: 5.4 million Jews, 1.2 million Muslims, 150,000 Druze and 143,000 Christians.

The West Bank and Gaza have a total population of 3.1 million people: 2.75 Muslims, 300,000 Jewish settlers and approximately 50,000 Christians.

Jordan is made up of 5.6 million people: 5.4 million Muslims and 200,000 Christians.

Catholic Church
His Beatitude Michel Sabbah is the current patriarch. The Holy Father has appointed Coadjutor Archbishop Fouad Twal to succeed the current patriarch. The patriarchate, encompassing Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Cyprus, has a total Catholic population of 77,000 in 65 parishes. The communities are served by 79 diocesan priests, 293 religious order priests, 313 religious brothers and 1,144 religious sisters. As one might expect, the Holy Spirit has been working overtime in the area of vocations: there are 22 seminarians. There are also 166 schools and 37 charitable institutions.

The Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem is helping with all of this! Every year, the lieutenancies from the United States send $5 to $7 million to assist the patriarch with 44 elementary schools, the seminary and his pastoral programs. The order also assists Bethlehem University, a Catholic university administered by the De La Salle Christian Brothers, with scholarships and construction projects. Orphaned children are cared for at the Creche in Bethlehem, at the House of Peace in Jerusalem and the Home of St. Vincent in Bethany. The elderly are given a dignified home at Our Lady of Sorrows in Abu Dis, Jerusalem. Churches have been renovated and, through the generosity of a particular knight and lady, playgrounds have been built and furnished in (important respites of safety and peace in a land of tension and violence) Ramallah, Bethlehem and Gaza.

All of us are aware of complexity of the issues in that part of the world. Is the order going to solve all the problems in the region? Definitely not. However, the generous knights and ladies of the Equestrian Order can some day appear before God and say that they wiped a tear off a child’s face in the city in the center of the world.

1 Pius XII, apostolic brief Quam Romani Pontificis, 14 September 1949.

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