The Holy Land – it’s where Jesus was born, where He was raised by Mary and Joseph. It’s where our Lord lived and preached, where He died, was buried and rose to new life. It’s where He instituted the Eucharist, and where the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.
It’s also a place where Christians continue to be persecuted.
Accounting for only 1.9 percent of the total population, Christians in the Holy Land today endure a high cost of living and lack of employment; are subject to high taxes, eviction and border blockages; and suffer from a lack of basic human rights.
Fortunately, there is a worldwide order dedicated to the care and support of the people and the Catholic Church in the Holy Land.
Known as the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, the lay institution has upwards of 30,000 members in 40 nations – including members here in the Diocese of Harrisburg.
“The whole purpose is really to support the Church in the Holy Land, through prayer, financial support and encounters with its people through pilgrimage,” said Father John Bateman. Having served as secretary to the Grand Master of the order in Rome for three and a half years, he is currently the Diocesan liaison for the order. He is pastor of St. Patrick Parish in York, Director of the Diocese’s Deacon Formation Program and a Canonical Consultant in the Tribunal.
In the Diocese, the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem is working to recruit new members. On October 25 several Knights, Dames and priests of the order gathered at the Diocesan Center in Harrisburg, celebrating the Feast of Our Lady of Palestine, under whose patronage they work. They joined in the celebration of Mass with Diocesan staff members and gathered for a presentation about the order’s work to support the people of the Holy Land.
“If we want Christians to remain in the Holy Land, we must help them,” Father Bateman said during the recruiting event.
From Protecting the Sepulchre to Building Peace
The history of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem can be traced to the time of the first Crusade, when its leader, Godfrey de Bouillon, liberated Jerusalem. The first documented evidence of an investiture was in 1336. Knights vowed to defend the Holy Sepulchre (the place of Christ’s burial) and other holy places.
The order died off after its military origins, but was restored in 1868 by Pope Pius IX. Women were able to join the order as Dames in 1888, during the pontificate of Pope Leo XIII.
“Today, the order has lieutenancies around the world. Just as the first Knights were to protect Jerusalem and protect the pilgrims, so too is what we continue today,” Father Bateman said.
The work of the order supports Christians in Israel, Jordan, Palestine, Cyrpus, Syria and Egypt. Projects and ministries include 44 schools for nearly 20,000 students, including “co-existence schools” that educate Christian and Muslim students together in a peace-building effort. Through the work of the Patriarchate, the order also supports families who lack healthcare or employment, as well as centers for children and for people with disabilities.
“The Patriarchate of Jerusalem would not be able to function, were it not for the work of the order and all that we do: helping to support seminaries so they have priests; providing for humanitarian issues; helping the orphaned, the neglected and the elderly; and helping parishes with building projects,” Father Bateman said. “I think one of the crown jewels of the order’s work is really in the education of Christian and Muslim students. Not one Muslim student in their school has been radicalized. Having students learn and play together is a step in building peace.”
Father Luis Rodriguez, pastor of San Juan Bautista Parish in Lancaster, is a Knight in the order. He joined after making pivotal pilgrimages to the Holy Land, well before learning about the Equestrian Order.
“The pilgrimages to the Holy Land are life-changing experiences,” he told current and potential members of the order during his presentation at the Diocesan Center.
“We had dinner in the homes and apartments of Palestinian Christian families. I remember a woman breaking down and crying in front of me, and being so grateful. She said, ‘Thank you for not forgetting us.’ Proceeds from the trip ensured they would have extra income, and it made the pilgrimage much more personal than we realized,” he said.
During one of his early pilgrimages, Father Rodriguez was able to celebrate Mass in the Church of Holy Sepulchre.
“I was celebrating the Eucharist in the chapel that has the chamber with the Lord’s tomb. As I was leaving, something said to me, ‘You must join the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre,” he recalled. He made contact with Father Bateman, who was serving the order in Rome at the time, and joined in 2018.
“As Christians and followers of Christ, we have to mission, we have to do the work to sew the seeds of peace in many hearts,” Father Rodriguez said.
He will make his seventh pilgrimage to the Holy Land in January.
“This is about real lives. Jesus is alive, and He wants us to have that encounter with the people of the Holy Land,” he said.
Encounter through pilgrimage is a defining work of the Knights and Dames, in addition to support through prayer and financial contributions.
“When you make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, the encounter you’re able to have with the people there is transformative,” Father Bateman remarked.
Dames Dory Szeles and Jeannie Ishman joined the order in 2005.
“On the pilgrimage, a visit to a children’s home spoke to me in a special way,” said Szeles, who, with her late husband Alexander, founded Delorosa House, a home for mothers and their children.
“I’ve always had that drive and urge to help women and children, and I was so touched by what the Church was able to do in that home under the conditions in the Holy Land,” Szeles said.
Ishman, who has worked in healthcare, was “so moved in visiting one of the schools during the pilgrimage. I saw first-hand the need that was there. Knowing that we were participating in helping them was what moved me even more.”
Those who want to learn more about the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, or who are interested in membership, are encouraged to contact Father Bateman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“There’s an impression that you have to do something really extraordinary or be really rich to be part the order. That’s not true,” Father Bateman said. “You just need to have a love for the people of the Holy Land and a desire to dedicate yourself to support them; that’s all.”
(Photos by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness