Order of the Holy Sepulchre

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This article is about the Roman Catholic chivalric Order. For the Masonic Order of the Holy Sepulchre, see Red Cross of Constantine.
Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem
GA Ordre du Saint-Sépulcre.svg
Arms of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre
Active c. 1099 – present
Allegiance Emblem of the Papacy SE.svg
Holy See
Type Catholic order of knighthood
Headquarters Palazzo Della Rovere, Vatican City
Nickname Order of the Holy Sepulchre
Patron Godfrey of Bouillon
Motto Deus Lo Vult
Attire White cape with a red Jerusalem cross (knights)
Black cape with a red Jerusalem cross bordered with gold (dames)
Grand Master Edwin Frederick Cardinal O'Brien
Grand Prior Fouad Twal

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.[2] It traces its roots to Duke Godfrey of Bouillon, principal leader of the First Crusade.[3] In 1496, Pope Alexander VI created the office of Grand Master of the Order, and the office was vested in the papacy where it remained until 1949 and 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.[4]

Crusader period[edit]

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. 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.[5][6][7]

End of Crusader period[edit]

Church of the Holy Sepulchre floor plan

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.

The official arrival of the Franciscan Friars Minor in Syria dates from the Bull addressed by Pope Gregory IX to the clergy of the Holy Land 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. In the territory of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, reinstituted in 1847, the Franciscans still have 24 convents, and 15 parishes.[8]

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; only the restoration of a Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem by Pius IX in 1847 superseded the Franciscans.

From the period 1291 to 1847, the Franciscan Custodian of Mount Sion was the only authority representing the Holy See in the Holy Land.[9] 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. This dubbing of knights was confirmed by Pope Leo X in 1516, and by Pope Clement VII in 1527.

In 1346 King Valdemar IV of Denmark went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem[10] and was made a Knight of the Holy Sepulchre — an act increasing the prestige of this King, who had considerable difficulty in establishing an effective rule over his Kingdom.

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.[11]

The Privileges of the Order,[9] recorded by the Guardian of the Order in 1553 and approved by successive Popes, included powers:

  • to legitimise bastards,
  • to change a name given in baptism,
  • to pardon prisoners they might meet on the way to the scaffold,
  • to possess goods belonging to the Church even though they were laymen,
  • to be exempt from taxes,
  • to cut a man down from the gallows and to order him to be given a Christian burial,
  • to wear brocaded silk garments,
  • to enter a Church on horseback,
  • to fight against the Infidel.

As late as the 18th century, all but the last were approved by Pope Benedict XIV who also stated that the Order should enjoy precedence over all Orders except over the Order of the Golden Fleece.

The Order today[edit]

Flag of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre over the Palazzo della Rovere, the Order's international headquarters
Arms of His Beatitude, Fouad Twal, Patriarch Grand Prior of the Order (The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem)

Pius IX re-established the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem in 1847 and re-organized the Order whereby the Grand Master of the Order was to be the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, and the Order ceased to be a Pontifical Order. Pius X assumed the title of Grand Master again for the papacy in 1907, but in 1928 this was again relinquished by Pius XI in favour of the Patriarch of Jerusalem. In 1945, Pope Pius XII placed the Order under the patronage and protection of the Holy See, and in 1949, Pius XII approved new statutes, which included that the Grand Master be a Cardinal of the Roman Curia, and that the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem be the Grand Prior of the Order.

The Order has a uniform which is only occasionally used in some jurisdictions, and 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".[12] Pius XII gave to the Order the Church and Monastery of St Onofrio in Rome as its international headquarters. The Grand Magisterium and administration are based at the Palazzo Della Rovere, the 15th-century palace of Pope Julius II, immediately adjacent to the Vatican on the Via della Conciliatione, which was also given to the Order by Pius XII, in 1949.

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.[13]

Titular Canons[edit]

Titular Canons of the Holy Sepulchre include all priests, ipso facto, who have received Knighthoods in the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. Since the Order has its origins in the Canons of the Holy Sepulchre, priests of the Order have the honorary title of "Canon" in preference to the title of "Knight," which is more military in nature and less consistent with priestly ministry.[14] The Latin Rite Patriarch also confers the honorary title of "Canon of the Holy Sepulchre" upon priests and bishops.[15] Both Titular Canons of the Holy Sepulchre (EOHSJ) and Honorary Canons of the Holy Sepulchre (Latin Patriarchate) wear identical choir robes, including the black cassock with magenta piping, magenta fascia, white mozetta with the red Jerusalem cross.[16]

Grand Masters of the Order[edit]

In 1496, Pope Alexander VI created the office of Grand Master of the Order.
Until 1949, the office was vested in the papacy.[4] From 1949, the following cardinals have held the office:

Cardinal Grand Masters of the Order
Dates Arms Holder
1949-1960 Coat of arms of Nicolas Canali OESSJ.svg Nicola Canali
1960-1972 Coat of arms of Eugène Tisserant OESSJ.svg Eugène Tisserant
1972-1988 Coat of arms of Maximilien de Furstenberg OESSJ.svg Maximilien de Furstenberg
1988-1995 Coat of arms of Guiseppe Caprio OESSJ.svg Giuseppe Caprio
1995-2007 Coat of arms of Carlo Furno OESSJ.svg Carlo Furno
2007-2011 Coat of arms of John Patrick Foley OESSJ.svg John Patrick Foley
2011- Coat of arms of Edwin Frederick O'Brien OESSJ.svg Edwin O'Brien

Officers of the Grand Magisterium[17][edit]

Officials in the USA[edit]


There are several grades of knighthood. Except for the highest grade, these are open to both men and women. The titles of the ranks, in English, are:

  • 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," but this is a misnomer since the honorific term of Lady (Donna) refers to the wife of a Knight (Cavaliere). However, a woman upon whom the Order has been conferred is properly termed a "Dame" (Dama).
Members of the Catholic clergy may also receive this Order in the same ranks as laymen. Since the Order has its roots in the Canons of the Holy Sepulchre, priests of the Order are afforded the honorary rank of "Canons of the Holy Sepulchre," and they are entitled to the insignia of a Canon (i.e. mozetta for choir dress). Some of the priests of the Order prefer the honorary term of Canon to the title of Knight, which carries a connotation that may be considered improper for a priest. All priests who have been conferred knighthood in the Order may use the term "Canon," which is different from the title that is conferred by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem. However, the late Grand Master, John Cardinal Foley, said that this would be better applied to those priests who have the rank of Commander.
There is also an award of merit and those Knights and Dames making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land receive the Pilgrim's Shell from the Latin Patriarch.
The honor of knighthood is conferred by the Holy See through the Secretariat of State, who in the name of and by the authority of the Pope, approves each knighthood. Each diploma of appointment once approved is sealed and signed by officials of the Vatican Secretariat of State and the Cardinal Grand Master of the Order in Rome. The candidate is subsequently knighted in an elaborate ceremony with a cardinal or major prelate presiding.

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 Dames of the Order display their arms on the badge of the order. Knights and Dames of the rank Grand Cross surround their shield with a ribbon; other ranks place the appropriate ribbon below the shield.

Wearing of the insignia of OESSJ (gentlemens).svg
Blason Chevalier.svg
Blason Commandeur.svg
Knight Commander
Blason Grand-Officier.svg
Knight Commander
with Star
Blason Grand-Croix.svg
Knight Grand Cross
Blason Chevalier de collier.svg
Knight of the Collar
OESSG Cavaliere BAR.jpg
OESSG Commendatore BAR.jpg
Knight Commander
OESSG Commendatore con Placca BAR.jpg
Knight Commander
with Star
OESSG Cavaliere di Gran Croce BAR.jpg
Knight Grand Cross
OESSG Cavaliere di Collare BAR.jpg
Knight of the Collar
Special Distinctions
OESSG Distinzione Speciale - Conchiglia del Pellegrino BAR.jpg
Pilgrim Shell
OESSG Distinzione Speciale - Palma di Gerusalemme di Bronzo BAR.jpg
Palm of Jerusalem
(of bronze)
OESSG Distinzione Speciale - Palma di Gerusalemme d'Argento BAR.jpg
Palm of Jerusalem
(of silver)
OESSG Distinzione Speciale - Palma di Gerusalemme d'Oro BAR.jpg
Palm of Jerusalem
(of gold)
Decorations of Merit
OESSG Decorazione di Merito - Croce al Merito del SSG BAR.jpg
Cross of Merit
OESSG Decorazione di Merito - Croce con Placca d'Argento al Merito del SSG BAR.jpg
Cross of Merit
with Silver Star
OESSG Decorazione di Merito - Croce con Placca d'Oro al Merito del SSG BAR.jpg
Cross of Merit
with Gold Star

See also[edit]



  • 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. 
  • Noonan, Jr., James-Charles (2012). The Church Visible: The Ceremonial Life and Protocol of the Roman Catholic Church Revised Edition. Sterling-Ethos. p. 139. ISBN 978-1-4027-8730-0. 
  • Bander van Duren, Peter Orders of Knighthood and of Merit
  • Sainty, Guy Stair. Order of the Holy Sepulchre [1]
  • 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[edit]