During his many years as a Circuit Judge at Preston Crown Court, Michael Byrne never, he says, let his experiences "detract from my optimistic view of humanity as a whole". Today, as the recently installed Lieutenant of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre for England and Wales, he is seeking to help maintain a source of optimism in a place further afield: the Holy Land.
The Knights' modern raison d’être – as laid down by Pope Pius IX in the 1850s following the revival of an order first created during the time of the Crusades – is to support the Archdiocese of Jerusalem, and this support is needed more than ever.
"I cannot overstress this, we're not a political organisation at all, but we're operating in a very sensitive political region and there's no doubt there are political moves to encourage the Christian Palestinians to leave and there are various mechanisms used by the Israeli state to do that," says Michael. "Quite often the Christian population, which is now down to less than two per cent, are feeling very beleaguered and isolated so quite apart from the practical needs, a presence of support is very much appreciated."
Michael, who grew up in the Woolton area of Liverpool, still misses his work as a judge, having retired on his 70th birthday in December 2015. Yet he is now fully occupied with his commitments overseeing the KHS's England and Wales Lieutenancy, following his installation at St George's Cathedral, Southwark in June. Next month, he will help lead their latest pilgrimage to the Holy Land – an opportunity to visit the Beit Jala seminary in Bethlehem, which the order helps to uphold with donations along with twice-yearly visits.
"There was a heavy emphasis right from the beginning of our work on supporting the seminary and assisting them," he explains. "We always visit the seminary on our pilgrimages and one of the things we've developed is that every year a number of seminarians – students usually in their last year before ordination – come over to England, up to Lancashire, for the summer to see how parish life here is organised.
"We also make it an essential part of our pilgrimage to go into parishes and schools," he adds, "as it has become apparent to us, ever since the time of the second Intifada [Palestinian uprising from 2000 to 2005], that above all else what local people appreciate is presence."
A parishioner at St Bartholomew's in Rainhill, Michael has a wish to "increase the vibrancy of the Order" during his four-year tenancy as Lieutenant. "One objective is to increase membership," he says of an organisation with almost 600 members, Knights and Dames, in England and Wales, and around 23,000 worldwide. "Membership is not just a question of numbers and as with every other Catholic organisation there is the question of an ageing membership. Also, the time has come to be more outward-looking and make ourselves much more widely known in parishes and dioceses.
"People often say to me, 'What's the difference between the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre and any other fund-raising charitable organisation giving to the Holy Land?' What I say is, we're a specific order established by popes and maintained by successive popes with a specific purpose in mind and although we don't take vows at our installation Mass we take promises before the Blessed Sacrament to be devout and established practising Catholics. I always say you can't do your best work in the Holy Land without your spiritual base back home."
For further information about the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre, visit their website, khs.org.uk.