It was, I think, at Westminster Cathedral that I encountered the Order of the Holy Sepulchre: it was the mantillas that did it for me. The knights and dames of the order process in churches on solemn feasts and the spectacle of them in their white and black cloaks, emblazoned with the cross of Jerusalem in red, and the dames with their black lace mantillas, was quite captivating. There are very few occasions for dressing up in modern life and this order, with its dress recalling the medieval chivalric order on which it is based, was a splendid, stirring presence in procession.
The individual knights and dames may have been individually bankers, army officers and accountants, and mature in years, but together they recalled the knights of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, dubbed at the Holy Sepulchre, the Tomb of Christ, itself. As for the dames, whose black capes are especially striking, they have no obvious medieval precedent; they are a way for women to share the crusader knightly calling which has been quite unfairly reserved for males. Pope Leo XIII, an improbable feminist, was responsible for their inclusion in the order in 1888.
The Order now has some 30,000 members throughout the world, lay and ordained. Its modern incarnation was created in 1848, a year after the re-establishment of the Latin Patriarchate in the Holy Land. The function of the original chivalric order was to safeguard the Holy Sepulchre, the Tomb of Christ, in Jerusalem; the modern order does something analogous in supporting the Christian and Catholic presence there – the living stones, if you like.
In fact, there is a thread of continuity between the medieval order and its reincarnation in the middle of the 19th century. The Franciscan Custos or Guardian of the Holy Sepulchre had the right to create knights from among noble visitors to the Holy Land, and the dubbing of knights and dames of the order today recalls those ceremonies. In England, knights and dames are not dubbed with a sword on the shoulder – that’s reserved for the Queen; instead, they touch the sword of the order. Rather disappointingly, they do not spend the night beforehand in prayer before the altar but they do gather for a vigil service the evening before, usually in Southwark Cathedral, this year in St Chad’s, Birmingham.
The order is one of two – the other the Knights of Malta – which are under the direct governance of the pope. The Grand Master of the Order is a cardinal of the Roman Curia, at present Fernando Filoni. Pius IX, who restored the order, placed it under the rule of the Latin Patriarch and in 1868 he specifically commissioned it to support the Patriarch’s work in maintaining and advancing the Catholic faith in the Holy Land. The Patriarch is the Grand Prior of the Order; at present the Franciscan, Pierbattista Pizzaballa.
There are a number of national lieutenancies of the Order, established at different times; the English lieutenancy was created in 1954 and has some 600 members; the present Lieutenant for England is Michael Byrne. So , what are the duties of the knights and dames, other than looking magnificent in processions, which they do at least twice a year?
Their role is summed up, according to the Westminster Section president Ralph Harrisson, in three Ps: prayer, pilgrimage and presence. So, members of the order must pray for the Church in the Holy Land, they must go there on pilgrimage (ideally every year) and they must support the Christians of the Holy Land by their own presence there, and by oblations – financial contributions to the pastoral and spiritual work of the Latin Patriarchate. How much might that amount to? About £500 a year or more, according to Mr Harrisson. That, and the cost of the robes – over £400 – and of the pilgrimages means that the order isn’t for the cash-strapped. Then again, the original knights had to support their journey to Jerusalem and their maintenance there from their own funds; it was a formidable commitment.
Michael Byrne, the Lieutenant of the Order, is keen to point out that it isn’t just an almsgiving charity, a Rotary Club with flummery. “The papal mandate from 1868 is to support the work of the Latin Patriarchate. We don’t just fundraise. We are the only [national] lieutenancy that goes to the Holy Land twice a year in normal circumstances. Actually to go there yourself makes a real difference; you understand the significance of personal local connections. When you go there, they tell you that other lieutenancies don’t come and visit.”
Incidentally, the Equestrian bit of the title doesn’t imply that the knights and dames own horses, though it would be charming if they did; it refers to the equites or Roman word for cavalry and by extension, knights. The privileges of the original Order as recorded in the 16th century included the legitimisation of bastards, the right to wear silk vestments, to pardon prisoners on their way to the scaffold, to ride a horse into church and to fight against the infidel. The second last one sounds like fun; the last has been rescinded.
Who gets to be a member? In some of the continental lieutenancies, many military people unsurprisingly gravitate to the Order – at a recent investiture in Nice, there was apparently quite a lot of mon colonels, and mon generals. Here, according to Mgr Jim Curry, an ecclesiastical knight who is currently prior of the Westminster section, “the Order reflects the make-up of the Church in England”.
You are invited to become a knight or dame, though many people find a way to express an interest. Some are in business, some are former soldiers, some have very ordinary jobs and backgrounds. What they all have in common is fidelity to the teachings of the Church and a commitment to the Church in the Holy Land.
The obvious characteristic of the knights and dames is that they are mature in years, considerably more than the minimum age of 25. “We established a working party on membership”, says Mr Byrne, “and we set out to see the bishops and make ourselves as visible as possible in the parishes; the best people to identify future candidates are parish priests. About 18 months ago we started going into university chaplaincies – there we find young people who are a sympathetic audience. We’re working on a voluntary approach, whereby a couple of people from universities will join us on pilgrimages at our expense to see what we do, and talk about it.”
The order was generous to the work of the Latin Patriarchate during the Covid crisis: the English Lieutenancy raised £250,000 in 2020. The priority was to help families in desperate need and the Order supported over 20 parishes in Jordan and Palestine, reaching over 800 households. There were funds too for families who lost work to pay for children’s schooling; the Order already supports the 1,390 mostly Christian teachers in Jordanian and Palestinian schools.
It also finances a dozen projects, including the construction of a church in Jubeiha, in Jordan. The accounts are supervised externally; modern knights and dames are keen on transparency. The Order also supports the Patriarchate’s seminary in Jordan and in normal circumstances some seminarians come to spend two months in Lancashire parishes each summer, to extend their experience. Michael Byrne is keen to extend the remit of the Order into other parts of the Middle East.
The Order’s biannual Masses are usually followed by a very good lunch. But knights and dames take seriously the commitment to pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Normally, on their first pilgrimage to Jerusalem, they are met at the Holy Sepulchre by the Franciscan Custos, or guardian. Last year, this was impossible, but the Order conducted a remarkably successful online pilgrimage, which featured Masses streamed from around England, from Rome and from the basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and from Nazareth; and meetings with Christians from the Latin Patriarchate. It was a retreat cum pilgrimage.
What the Order does is rework the crusading commitment of the original knights for the modern age by supporting beleaguered Palestinian Christians, a dwindling presence in the Holy Land. Helping the communities of the Latin Patriarchate through prayer, pilgrimage and presence, is a noble work. And if it means dressing in fabulous regalia, so much the better.
Melanie McDonagh is senior leader writer at the Catholic Herald
This article appears in the May issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe now.
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