The life of Christians in the Holy Land is not an easy one.
“They live always persecuted,” said Father John Bateman, the local contact for the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. “The people of the Holy Land need us.”
Father Bateman is the pastor of St. Patrick Parish in York, Director of the Diocese’s Deacon Formation Program and a Canonical Consultant in the Tribunal. He is also a passionate supporter of the Holy Land and the local contact for the order, which is a worldwide lay institution that provides assistance to support Christians in the Holy Land.
Without the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, Father Bateman said, the Church in the Holy Land would cease to exist. It is his knowledge of the area and his enthusiasm for the very origins of the faith that lead Father Bateman to encourage more involvement in the order.
Father Bateman worked in Rome for three years as the secretary to the Grand Master of the order, and had many experiences around the world. Before he held that job, he thought that people involved in the order had to do something “stupendous,” but he said that is not true. They do have to be invited by the bishop to join, but order members are regular people who have a deep desire to help.
“People join the order because they love the people of the Holy Land,” he said. Whereas the Franciscans deal with the physical structure of the Holy Land, Father Bateman said the order deals with the living structures – the people. The order involves itself with the geography of Palestine, Israel, Jordan and Cyprus.
Father Bateman said the order has three primary purposes in the Holy Land: education, human causes/service and pilgrimage.
The Equestrian Order has Catholic schools which provide education to everyone who wants to be there, regardless of religion, he said. It is encouraging to see different faiths coexisting peacefully, particularly in that part of the world.
“If kids can learn and play together, they’re not going to see each other as monsters when they grow up,” he said. “We really see education as the path to peace.”
It is important that the work the order does in the Holy Land has real benefits for the people living there. Father Bateman referenced a “baby warehouse” which was supposed to serve as a childcare facility, but did not have many of the practices in place that would be considered healthy and supportive. The Equestrian Order worked to make it a better daycare facility. He said they also work on homes for children who are abandoned and on physical buildings to help parishes.
The third significant part of the order experience is making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Father Bateman said the pilgrimage really serves two purposes – it lets those in the Holy Land see the members so they can feel connected with the real people behind the good deeds, and it also gives the members a chance to live out their holy lives in a unique way. The opportunity to see the tomb where Jesus was buried, to visit Calvary and see the anointing stone are great journeys of faith, he said.
Father Bateman said order members can make a pilgrimage as much as they want; he had been there three times before he joined, and four since.
When he was working in Rome, his parents came to visit and his mom wanted to go to the Holy Land, so they did. They attended Mass in the tomb where Jesus was buried.
“Every day is Easter Sunday inside the tomb,” Father Bateman said, explaining that the Scripture reading doesn’t just say the women ran to the tomb, it says they went to this tomb. Father Bateman said his mom cried from the experience.
“Every time, it’s a different impact,” he said, noting his visits to the Holy Land have brought him a deeper understanding of the land and world religion.
“If we want Christians to remain in Jerusalem, we need help,” he said. As the order’s liaison in the Diocese of Harrisburg, Father Bateman is happy to talk to anyone who is interested in learning more about the order – how to help or how to become a member. He said there are 30,000 members of the order in 45 countries; half of those are in the United States.
The U.S. has seven lieutenancies; Pennsylvania is in the Eastern Lieutenancy, which also includes New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
Bishop Ronald Gainer celebrated a Mass for Diocesan members of the order at Good Shepherd Church on Oct. 25, the Feast of Our Lady of Palestine, under whose patronage the order works.
Father Bateman pointed out that the order is one of the few lay associations that has been open to women from its beginnings, and noted that it recently revamped its investiture rites to make them more egalitarian.
Men are referenced as Knights, and women as Dames, or Ladies, once they receive investiture into the order. Dr. Carol Houghton previously served in the local coordinator position Father Bateman now fills, and is a Dame in the order.
She said she first heard about the order many years ago when she first came to know Judge Genevieve Blatt, who was a Dame in the order and someone Houghton very much admired. She worked to learn more about the order and was honored in 2007 to be asked to become a member by Bishop Kevin Rhoades.
“I couldn’t believe it!” said Houghton, who is the former Chancellor of the Diocese of Harrisburg. “I was extremely honored and humbled that he would think of me for this special favor. It was really overwhelming for me.”
Houghton said her membership in the order has allowed her to grow in her spiritual life, particularly because she feels a part of the universal Church and a special connection with the Holy Land.
“I am directly connected to the land and people where our Lord was born, lived, died, and was raised to new life,” she said. “I am given opportunities to serve others in the Holy Land that I otherwise would not have.”
Houghton said she is honored as a member to financially aid the maintenance of the holy sites, especially the Holy Sepulchre (the place where Jesus was buried), so that pilgrims will be able to continue to visit those sites.
(Lisa Maddux is a freelance reporter for The Catholic Witness.)
(Photos by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness.)
By Lisa Maddux, Special to The Witness