Beginning in the Middle Ages, many Christians in Europe wanted to travel to the Holy Land, but were unable to because of increasing violence in the region. In the 11th century a knight from France named Godfrey de Bouillon took up the call to provide safe passage for pilgrims and went to Jerusalem to stabilize the region.
The campaign was successful, and after completing his mission in Jerusalem he established the “Order of Canons of the Holy Sepulchre.” This would later be called the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, and according to their website, was initially composed of “Regular Canons (Fratres) but also the Secular Canons (Confratres) and the Sergentes. The latter were armed knights chosen from the crusader troops for their qualities of valor and dedication; they vowed to obey the Augustinian Rule of poverty and obedience and undertook specifically to defend the Holy Sepulchre and the Holy Places, under the command of the King of Jerusalem.”
These knights eventually returned to their homes in Europe and developed local “priories.” As the centuries went by there was no longer a need for military knights to return to the Holy Land to protect pilgrims, and instead the organization was converted into a “chivalric” order whose main mission was to support the holy sites in Jerusalem and provide general awareness of the plight of Christians in the Holy Land.
Their current mission is laid out in their Constitution.
- To strengthen in its members the practice of Christian life, in absolute fidelity to the Supreme Pontiff and according to the teachings of the Church, observing as its foundation the principles of charity which make the Order a fundamental means of assistance to the Holy Land.
- To sustain and aid the charitable, cultural and social works and institutions of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land, particularly those of and in the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, with which the Order maintains its traditional ties.
- To support the preservation and propagation of the Faith in those lands, and promote interest in this work not only among Catholics scattered throughout the world, who are united in charity by the symbol of the Order, but also among all other Christians.
- To uphold the rights of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land.
There are currently around 30,000 active members scattered throughout the world, including both men and women. Many dioceses have local “sections” who meet on a regular basis to discuss ways in which they can fulfill their new mission.
With the constant instability of the Holy Land, their work is ongoing, and members do all that they can to ensure the sites of Jesus’ life are protected for generations to come.
Chivalry truly isn’t dead: Here’s where knights and dames still exist
The lasting impact of the Crusades on Jerusalem