We have gathered from all over the country and, indeed, the world, to build peace through faith and dialogue. I am privileged to come before you as a Cardinal of the Catholic Church and the Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem,
an ancient Order charged with supporting and promoting the Christian presence in Jerusalem and throughout the Holy Land. I share with you the deep desire for peace in the Holy Land. Allow me to tell you a little about how I try to accomplish that through the work of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. First, however, allow me to reflect on the importance of Jerusalem and the Holy Land.
We all know why Jerusalem is important:
- Abraham went there to sacrifice Isaac.
- David established it as the capital of Israel.
- The Jewish people built a temple that was destroyed twice.
- Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead.
- Followers of Mohammed believe that he was raised up there for a heavenly vision.
The present-day Jerusalem has a very long and important history! In fact, the present city of Jerusalem is the twelfth city on that spot!
But, it has been the center of controversy for thousands of years. Even before David made it the capital of Israel, even before Abraham traveled there to sacrifice Isaac, it was important because it guarded one of the few passages from the Far East to the Mediterranean Sea. That is why Saul – not the Saul of the New Testament but Saul, the first king of ancient Israel – wanted to defend it against the Philistines some three thousand years ago! That’s why David slew Goliath and made it the capital of Israel! And, ever since, there has been a conflict between the Jewish people, the descendents of the Israelites, and the descendents of the Philistines – the modern-day Palestinians!
As Mohammed was trying to discover the one, true God, he made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem because it was there that he had heard the people worshiped one God. Tradition has it that it was while he was in Jerusalem that he was taken up in rapture to a vision of heaven. And so, even until today, the Muslims hold Jerusalem high in esteem, considering it their third most holy city, after Mecca and Medina.
For us Christians, Jerusalem is particularly important because that is where we started! That is where Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead! Remember, as St. Paul wrote, “If Jesus has not been raised from the dead, our faith is in vain!” But, in fact, Jesus did rise from the dead! If they ever find his body, I am out of a job and all Christians will have to find another religion. But, they won’t find his body because he has truly risen from the dead! And, not only has he been raised from the dead but he has ascended to heaven where he has prepared a place for each of us. So, his resurrection, which occurred 2,000 years ago, is important to each one of us – whether we are Christian or not – since it affects our daily lives and our eternal destiny!
Ever since the resurrection, followers of Jesus have felt the urge to go to the very place where it all began – the Holy Sepulcher. Even popes want to go there! I had the privilege of being with Pope Benedict XVI just last May when he made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. And, I was especially privileged to be with him as he came to worship before the Holy Sepulcher. The hairs stood up on the back of my neck as I heard him say, “I come to stand before the empty tomb. Like Peter, the first pope, I stand here and worship at the tomb where Jesus died and, like Peter, I witness to the resurrection!” Before the pope arrived at the tomb, I had a few moments to meditate and pray there and I remember feeling like the women who ran to the tomb on that first morning after Jesus had been buried. I could not help but marvel at what they experienced, especially the angel who appeared and declared, “He is not here! He has been raised!”
So, you can see why it is important for Christians — this is where it all began!
Godfrey of Bouillion, one of the leaders of the First Crusade, helped to take back Jerusalem from the Muslims in 1109. And, wanting to assure safety for Christians who would want to come and worship before the tomb, he established the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher, who were charged with providing the protection of the Holy Sepulcher and safe passage for pilgrims. Over the centuries, this order of knights has come and gone – although it has continued to exist uninterrupted in a certain town in Spain!
Meanwhile, the Franciscans came to the Holy Land and took over the care of the sacred places there, including the Holy Sepulcher. They, along with the Greek Orthodox and the Armenians, continue to care for the Holy Sepulcher and welcome thousands of pilgrims every day who go there to marvel at the empty tomb!
In 1847, however, the pope reestablished the Latin Rite Patriarchate in Jerusalem. In order to assist the Patriarch, he also reestablished the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem and charged its members to assist the Latin Rite Patriarch in his work as the bishop of Jerusalem.
Today, the Order of the Holy Sepulchre has members in 53 lieutenancies – local chapters – around the world! There are knights and ladies of the Holy Sepulchre throughout Europe, South America, the Philippines and even Australia. In fact, I just
returned from a three-week tour across Australia, visiting Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney, to invest new knights and ladies into the Order.
The country with the largest number of knights and ladies is ours – the USA! About half of the knights and ladies – some 11,000 of the total 23,000 members of our Order – live right here in the United States of America! And yet, many people, perhaps even a few of you here, have never heard of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem because it has such a specific focus and its members do not ordinarily ask for assistance from non-members. But, the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem is only one of two Orders of Knights that the Church recognizes. The other one is the Knights Hospitalers of St. John, also known as the Knights of Malta. This is a much smaller order – about half our size – but it is better known because it provides assistance for institutions – mostly children’s hospitals – around the world.
Our Order, on the other hand, charges its members with two tasks: personal holiness and spiritual and financial assistance for the Christians living in the Holy Land. The knights and ladies of the Holy Sepulchre are called to live exemplary Christian lives as they live and work in the everyday world. And, they are called to help the followers of Christ living in the Holy Land through spiritual and financial support.
Both tasks are especially challenging today! In this fast-paced and very prosperous world, it is so easy to forget our ultimate purpose in life, which is to prepare ourselves to join God forever in heaven. And, the Christians living in the Holy Land, many of whom are the descendents of the first followers of Christ, are finding it harder and harder to stay in the Holy Land due to restrictions in education, employment and even housing. Let me talk a little about this.
Those of you who have visited the Holy Land recently can attest to the tragic condition of the Christians there. I have visited the Holy Land many times and three times as Grand Master. I have met with fathers and mothers who cannot find work because they cannot be assured that they will be able to travel from home to their potential place of business. Every day, they have to go through checkpoints and are never sure if they will be allowed through. I have met with students, eager to learn, who are unable to get to school regularly. I have visited homes where families hoard their water because they cannot be certain when their water tanks will be refilled. I visited the Catholic Seminary over the Christmas holidays last year and was both saddened and inspired by the many seminarians who had not gone home because they were afraid that they would not be allowed to cross over the border between Jordan and Israel or through the checkpoints and get back to the seminary. The most tragic thing I have seen is the miles-long wall that separates Jerusalem from Bethlehem and separates families and keeps farmers from the land that has been in their families for generations! It is humiliating and distressing. I appreciate the Israeli government’s concern for security and respect that. But many of these measures raise serious human rights issues that they refuse to acknowledge and address.
Ever since Israel established itself as an independent Jewish State in 1948, the Christian population in Israel has shrunken from 18% to less than 2% – about 1.4%! This is the result of both significant immigration of Jews into Israel and the great increase among the Muslims and, at the same time an exodus of Christians from there.
When we hear the word “Palestinian”, can easily link it to the word “terrorist”, and that’s very understandable. Over the past decades of fighting in the Middle East, the words “Palestinian” and “terrorist” have often been found together. And, indeed, there are Palestinians who are terrorists – just as there are Israelis who are terrorists – but most of them are not. A vast majority of the Palestinians are regular people, boys and girls, men and women just like you and me, who just want to live in peace in the land of their ancestors.
Among the Palestinians, there is a small group who are followers of Christ – Christians. There are about 170,000 Christians living in Israel – most of them are Palestinian.
An even smaller number of them are Catholic, and an even smaller number of them are Latin Rite Catholic. Most of the Christians are Orthodox and most of the Catholics are Melkite Rite Catholics.
The Latin Rite Patriarch is the bishop in charge of the Latin Rite Catholics living in the Holy Land – which includes Jordan and Cyprus. But, he realizes that his concern must include all Catholics and indeed, all Christians! And, he recognizes that, as a vicar of Christ, he must strive to bring peace to the land where Jesus taught so clearly about peace! So, he works closely with the Muslims, who are also a large and often, equally oppressed group, in Israel. He tries to maintain good relationships with the Jewish people as well, but that is an ongoing challenge. And remember, this is understandable as well. If you read the Hebrew Scriptures, you will see that the Messiah will not return until Israel is returned to the Jews! On top of that, natural resources are scarce. So, they want the land for themselves.
We respect their desire for the return of the Messiah, but we do not share the belief held by some of the Jews that he will not return until Israel is returned to the Jews. And, we believe that Jews, Christians and Muslims – all of whom place high importance to Jerusalem and, indeed, all of Israel, due to their respective histories, can and should live together in peace.
In order to maintain a vibrant Catholic presence there, the Latin Rite Patriarchate has 48 parishes and many schools and hospitals throughout the Holy Land. Because most of the Christians there are poor, he depends heavily on the financial support of others to fund the important work of these Catholic institutions!
That’s where the Equestrian Order comes in. Every year, the members of our Order are asked to offer financial support for the Latin Rite Patriarchate. Last year, they gave about $10 million. Since 2000, they have given over $50 million! In fact, our Order
provides approximately 2/3 of the annual funding for the Latin Rite Patriarchate. So, our members offer significant support for the work of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land.
And, these funds do not only support the Latin Rite Catholics. In many of the schools and hospitals operated by the Latin Rite Patriarchate, a significant number of the students and patients are Muslim. Everyone is welcome because we believe that it is through charity – true love of our neighbor – that mutual understanding and respect will be built – and these are the foundation stones for peace!
Our members are also encouraged to make pilgrimages to the Holy Land. And, they are strongly encouraged to visit not only the Holy Sites – and this is certainly important for their own spiritual edification – but also the Catholics and other Christians who are living there. We call them the “living stones” because they offer a living testimony to our faith in the land where our Lord lived and preached, died and rose from the dead! In meeting with them, both the knights and ladies and the local Christians are strengthened in their faith.
So, this is the work of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem! It is, I am sure you can see, very important work, especially today! We read or see in the news almost every day accounts of the tragic struggle being played out in the land our Lord made sacred by his holy presence. And so, we must continue to be instruments of his peace!
Thank you for your attention. I will be happy to entertain any questions or concerns you may have.
John Cardinal Foley