Order of the Holy Sepulchre

Order of the Holy Sepulchre
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The Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem (lat.: Ordo Equestris Sancti Sepulcri Hierosolymitani, OESSH) is a Roman Catholic order of knighthood under the protection of the pope. It traces its roots to Duke Godfrey of Bouillon, principal leader of the First Crusade.[1] In 1496, Pope Alexander VI created the office of Grand Master of the Order, and the office vested in the papacy. The office of Grand Master remained vested in the papacy until 1949. Since then a cardinal has been grand master. The Pope is sovereign of the Order, and it enjoys the protection of the Holy See and has its legal seat at Vatican City.[2]

Crusader period

Five major orders were formed in the Holy Land between the late 11th century and the early 12th century: the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre (circa 1099), Knights Templar (circa 1118), Knights Hospitaller (circa 1099) (St John), Knights of the Hospital of St Mary of Jerusalem (Teutonic Knights) and Knights of St Lazarus.

Templar knights who contracted leprosy were sent to the care of the Order of St Lazarus. These knights trained the brethren of St Lazarus in the military arts and were responsible for transforming the Order into a military one. William, Archbishop of Tyre, as well as other historians of the period, appeared unaware of the difference between the Orders of Saint Lazarus and Saint John, referring to them in their accounts simply as 'Hospitallers'. The latter were, and still are, called Hospitallers as they began as an Order of monks running the Hospital of St. John in Jerusalem shortly after the First Crusade. They had become militarised by the 1130s, and went on, with the Knights Templar, to become one of the two largest and most influential Military Orders. Indeed, Godfrey de Bouillon - the uncrowned ‘king’ of Jerusalem - was so impressed with the dedication of these hospital workers under its leader Gerard and with their work toward the sick and the wounded that 'king' Godfrey de Bouillon supported and gave them funds and facilities.

Pilgrimages to the Holy Land were a common if dangerous practice from shortly after the crucifixion of Jesus to throughout the Middle Ages. Numerous detailed commentaries have survived as evidence of this early Christian devotional. While there were many places the pious visited during their travels, the one most cherished was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, first constructed by Constantine the Great in the fourth century AD. It is said that a local tradition, begun long before the Crusades, provided for the bestowing of knighthood upon worthy men by the custodians of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Following the capture of Jerusalem at the end of the First Crusade in 1099, the Order was first formally constituted as an Order of Canons, the successor of which is the modern Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. It is considered among the oldest of the military orders of knighthood. It was recognized by Papal Bull in 1113.[citation needed]

End of Crusader period

The ultimate fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem to the Muslims in 1291 did not suspend pilgrimages to the Tomb of Christ, or the custom of receiving knighthood there, and when the custody of the Holy Land was entrusted to the Franciscan Order, they continued this pious custom and gave the order its first Grand Master after the death of the last King of Jerusalem.

Holy Sepulchre floor plan

The official arrival of the Franciscan Friars Minor in Syria dates from the Bull addressed by Pope Gregory IX to the clergy of Palestine in 1230, charging them to welcome the Friars Minor, and to allow them to preach to the faithful and hold oratories and cemeteries of their own. In the ten years' truce of 1229 concluded between Frederick II of Sicily and the sultan Al-Kamil, the Franciscans were permitted to enter Jerusalem, but they were also the first victims of the violent invasion of the Khwarezmians in 1244. Nevertheless, the Franciscan province of Syria continued to exist, with Acre as its seat.[citation needed]

The monks quickly resumed possession of their convent of Mount Sion at Jerusalem. The Turks tolerated the veneration paid to the tomb of Christ and derived revenue from the taxes levied upon pilgrims. In 1342, in his Bull Gratiam agimus, Pope Clement VI officially committed the care of the Holy Land to the Franciscans. (The restoration of a Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem by Pius IX in 1847 superseded the Franciscans.) Consequently, as early as 1336, the Franciscans were enrolling applicants among the lay Order of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre, in ceremonies frequently mentioned in the itineraries of pilgrims. Those pilgrims deemed worthy of the honour were received into the Order with an elaborate ceremonial of ancient chivalry. In the ceremonial of reception, the role of the clergy was limited to the benedictio militis, the dubbing with the sword being reserved to a professional knight, since the carrying of the sword was incompatible with the sacerdotal character.[citation needed]

From 1480 to 1495, there was in Jerusalem a German knight of the Holy Sepulchre, John of Prussia, who acted as steward for the convent and regularly discharged this act reserved to knighthood. It was also of frequent occurrence that a foreign knight, present among the crowds of pilgrims, would assist at this ceremony. However, in default of other assistance, it was the superior who had to act instead of a knight, although such a course was deemed irregular, It was since then also that the superior of the convent assumed the title of Grand Master, a title which has been acknowledged by various pontifical diplomas, and finally by a Bull of Benedict XIV dated 1746.

In 1489, Pope Innocent VIII suppressed the Order and ruled that it was to be merged with the Knights Hospitaller. In 1496, Pope Alexander VI, restored the Order of Holy Sepulchre to independent status. Alexander VI decreed that the Order would no longer be governed by the office of custodian and further decreed that the senior post of the Order would henceforth be raised to the rank of Grand Master, reserving this title for himself and his successors.[3]

Flag of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre over the Palazzo della Rovere, the Order's international headquarters

Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem

Pius IX re-established the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem in 1847 and re-organized the Order. Pius X ordained that the Order's cape or mantle, as worn by the original knights, be a "white cloak with the cross of Jerusalem in red enamel." Pius X assumed the title of Grand Master. The title of Grand Master is now held by a cardinal of the Roman Curia who is resident in Rome at the Palazzo della Rovere, the 15th century palace of Pope Julius II, immediately adjacent to the Vatican. It serves as the Order's international headquarters.

There are several grades of knighthood, and except for the highest grade, these are open to both men and women:

  • Knight of the Collar
  • Knight / Dame Grand Cross (KGCHS / DGCHS)
  • Knight / Dame Commander with Star (KC*HS / DC*HS)
  • Knight / Dame Commander (KCHS / DCHS)
  • Knight / Dame (KHS / DHS)

In some jurisdictions the term "Lady" is used rather than "Dame". There is also an award of merit and those knights and ladies making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land receive the Pilgrim's Shell from the Latin Patriarch. The Vatican Secretariat of State, in the pope's name, approves all knighthoods and officially seals each diploma of appointment.

In ecclesiastical heraldry, the Order of the Holy Sepulchre is one of only two Orders whose insignia may be displayed in a clerical coat of arms. (Laypersons have no such restriction.) Knights and Ladies of the Order display their arms in the badge of the order, while Knights and Ladies of the rank Grand Cross surround their shield with a ribbon. Other ranks place the appropriate ribbon below the shield and may also display the red Jerusalem cross behind their shield. In the territory of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, reinstituted in 1847, the Franciscans have 24 convents, and 15 parishes.[4]

The Order is now primarily honorific. Its principal mission is to reinforce the practice of Christian life by its members in absolute fidelity to the Popes; to sustain and assist the religious, spiritual, charitable and social works of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land; and to conserve and propagate the faith in the Holy Land and the rights of the Catholic Church there. As it is a papal honor aspirant members must be practicing Catholics of good character, recommended by their local bishop with the support of several members of the Order, and are required to make a generous donation as "passage money" (echoing the ancient practice of crusaders paying their passage to the Holy Land) as well as an annual financial offering for works undertaken in the Holy Land. There is a provision for the Grand Master to admit members by motu proprio in exceptional circumstances and also for the officers of the Grand Magistery to occasionally recommend candidates to the Grand Master.[5]

Grand Masters of the Order

Arms of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre

In 1496, Pope Alexander VI created the office of Grand Master of the Order, and the office was vested in the papacy. The office of Grand Master remained vested in the papacy until 1949.[2] Since that time, the following cardinals have held the office:

On 29 August 2011, the Most Reverend Edwin Frederick O'Brien was appointed Pro-Grand Master by Pope Benedict XVI, succeeding John Cardinal Foley who resigned the office in February 2011, due to ill health and reaching the age of 75, at which age all bishops must offer their resignation to the Pope. .[6]

Other current officials


  • Raymond Teatum, Lieutenant USA Eastern
  • Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, Grand Prior USA Eastern
  • John J. Monahan, Lieutenant USA Northeastern
  • Sean Cardinal O'Malley OFM Cap, Grand Prior USA Northeastern
  • Charles Foos, Lieutenant USA Northcentral
  • Francis Cardinal George OMI, Grand Prior USA Northcentral
  • A. J. Capritto, Lieutenant USA Southeastern
  • Archbishop Alfred C. Hughes, Grand Prior USA Southeastern
  • Dennis M. Malloy, Lieutenant USA Southwestern
  • Daniel Cardinal DiNardo, Grand Prior USA Southwestern
  • Ron Precup, KC*HS, Lieutenant USA Middle Atlantic
  • Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien, Grand Prior USA Middle Atlantic
  • William H. Davidson, M.D., Lieutenant USA Western
  • Roger Cardinal Mahony, Grand Prior USA Western
  • Donald Drake, Lieutenant USA Northern
  • Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann, Grand Prior USA Northern

See also



  • Blasco, Alfred J. (1998). The Modern Crusaders. PenRose. ISBN 0-9632687-7-5. 
  • Noonan, Jr., James Charles (1996). The Church Visible: The Ceremonial Life and Protocol of the Roman Catholic Church. Viking. p. 196. ISBN 0-670-86745-4. 
  • Bander van Duren, Peter Orders of Knighthood and of Merit
  • Sainty, Guy Stair. Order of the Holy Sepulchre [2]
  • Sainty, G. 2006. Order of the Holy Sepulchre. World Orders of Knighthood & Merit. Guy Stair Sainty (editor) and Rafal Heydel-Mankoo (deputy editor). United Kingdom: Burke's Peerage & Gentry. 2 Vol. (2100 pp).

External links

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

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