The modern Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, which grew out of the Crusaders in medieval times, is a lay Order of the Church which was revived by Blessed Pope Pius IX in 1847 to support and maintain the newly established Patriarchate in Jerusalem. The Church had no structures, organisation or money, and needed to be supported in its establishment. Although our role has since modernised and developed, this still remains our core commitment. So we have a specific papal mandate, and are not therefore just a general charity. It is true to say that without the Order there would be no Church in the Holy Land.
There are 64 lieutenancies worldwide with approximately 35,000 members. There are about 600 Knights and Dames in the Lieutenancy of England and Wales, with priests and bishops as members to provide the spiritual dimension for the Lieutenancy’s eight sections. On formal occasions, to express our collective identity, the Knights wear robes consisting of a cream cloak with a Crusaders Cross on it and a black beret, and the Dames wear a black cloak with the same Cross and a veil. On admission into the Order we make promises during Mass to commit ourselves to the work of the Order, and we also promise allegiance to the Holy Father. So spirituality is very much part of our identity.
Our work takes many forms. In addition to supporting the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Lieutenancies adopt projects to support the Church in the Holy Land. Projects that we have undertaken or contributed to over the years include being the main sponsors of a youth centre in Nablus, refurbishing schools in Nablus and Jordan, and renovating the presbytery in Aquaba. Currently we are investigating a large building programme with the Seminary in Bethlehem.
We also directly fund and assist parishes and people at the grassroots level, under three headings: humanitarian aid, education, and pastoral care.
Last year we visited Syrian refugees in Jordan with Father Mario. Our pilgrimage spent over £2,000 at the refugee workshop he established, and then we were happy to pay for a good lunch at the restaurant he set up for male refugees to run. This is just one example of many, giving employment and bringing money into families that badly need it.
We contribute to the running of the Seminary in Bethlehem and all the schools, and we also operate a pastoral care programme for seminarian students who come over each year during the summer.
Like everywhere else, this year has been very difficult for people in the Holy Land, and in response to our Order’s appeal we sent out £250,000 to the Christians there for the basic necessities of food, medicines and domestic expenses. We never lose sight of people's needs in their daily lives.
Pilgrimages are an important part of our work. We normally visit the Holy Land, Israel, Jordan and Palestine twice a year, when we always visit the parishes and schools and give them donations. Our hosts always emphasise just how important such visits are. It is not just a question of material support – to be with the people in their parishes and homes demonstrates our solidarity with them, and we recently sent a substantial cheque to the parish priest in Gaza.
Obviously our 2020 pilgrimages had to be cancelled, so instead we are organising a virtual pilgrimage whereby we share in streamed Masses from the Basilicas of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the Annunciation in Nazareth, and have Zoom meetings with people there.
Although unable to be physically present with the Christians in the Holy Land, we can talk to them and continue to support them while they carry on difficult daily lives in the land where Jesus lived, died and rose again.