Pilgrimages to those places where the Incarnate Lord is believed to have been born, grown, ministered, and was crucified and rose will always be sought out by believers. At times in history, when such visits have been fraught with dangers and obstacles, committed souls have advocated for safe passage.
The ebb and flow of a Christian presence in Bethlehem, Nazareth, Jerusalem and other areas, from apostolic times to the present-day governance of Israel, has been supported by the resources and defense supplied by the nations of Christendom and, specifically, by knights and other orders of the Catholic Church.
Among those in the diocese who are looking on with concern and anguish over the recent terrorism launched by Hamas targeting Jews and the military response by Israeli Defense Forces, are members of The Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. The knights and dames of the chivalric order have vowed to continue to “support the Christian presence in the Holy Land.”
Gathered for Mass and a conference dinner on Oct. 21 at St. Thomas More, members of the OESSH, a Latin acronym for Ordo Equestris Sancti Sepulcri Hierosolymitani, received a blessing from Father Michael Yadron. The Munster pastor is chaplain for the Diocese of Gary lieutenancy or jurisdiction.
Organizational business would take second place to conversations about the state of the estimated 2% of the Holy Land population that is Catholic or of other Christian denominations.
“In 2012, we were warmly accepted by the people and we had a great time,” explained Deacon Stodola, who, along with his wife, earned the Pilgrim Shell pin for the Holy Land visit. “The Jewish presence was there – squads of cadets with rifles patrolling.”
The urgency of the Christians’ plight is amplified by the resurgence of violence, mainly between Jewish and Muslim factions in the region. Knights of the Holy Sepulchre worry that as tourism dries up near sites such as Bethlehem’s the Church of the Nativity, the Garden of Gethsemani at the Mount of Olives and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, so do those artisan and tourist trades that sustain them.
Recent word from OESSH north central lieutenant Thomas Olejniczak from Rome paints a more urgent picture of conditions on the ground near Gaza.
“The political situation is still very tenuous and the fighting continues. There is still an inability to get needed supplies to our parish there, which is housing 700 people,” emailed Olejniczak on Nov. 6.
Olejniczak added that Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, reported that his agencies are working to get humanitarian aid into the war zones and that their efforts are made possible by the “tremendous” outpouring of financial support from the more than 30,000 worldwide OESSH members and the greater Church.
The Cardinal, who is also Grand Prior of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, recently published a worldwide appeal for financial support to help offset the unemployment crisis and prayers because “to rebuild the physical world,” he said, “We must build and protect trust between people.”
Deacon Stodola, who is co-president of the conference with his wife Joyce Stodola, agrees that there is a lot of healing needed. “There’s a lot of animosity that comes up – “It’s hard on the people. Who is right or wrong? I don’t live there,” he said.
About 30 diocesan OESSH members have formalized their commitment to their charism of care through participation in liturgies with their formal regalia highlighted by the display of the traditional Jerusalem Cross and amplifying appeals for aid to the Middle East.
Some are ardent students of history who are fascinated about the activities of Catholic military orders, taking particular interest in the legacy of historic figures including Godfrey of Bouillon. The European knight was the leader of the First Crusade in 1099, which fortified sites making them safe for pilgrims.
At 30, St. Thomas More parishioner Lecil Martin is among the youngest OESSH members. He developed a spiritual and actual connection to the Holy Land when he was involved in a study abroad program through Valparaiso University.
After his “life changing” visit to the Holy Land, he discovered a way to live his Catholic faith through a knighthood that seeks to promote security for the faithful. This parallels the goals of his career in law enforcement, as an Indiana State trooper.
“I would like to believe that the order’s mission is seeking peace and stability for the people that live there because their lives are disrupted. As of now, the order is not able to field a pilgrimage (to the Holy Land) in 2024,” Martin said.
John Peters formally entered the Catholic Church in 1977, a convert from Lutheranism. Trained in accounting and having learned the Arabic language, he worked for the firm Arthur Young in their Saudi Arabian offices in the late 1980s, when there was no freedom of worship outside of Islam.
A self-described history buff, Peters began to learn more about the roots of his faith, and the plight of the people who reside around Christianity’s most treasured historical places. “The Christian presence wasn’t just visitors, or people left over from the Crusades, or missionaries – there was an indigenous population that had probably been around at the time of Christ, and they’re still there.”
Then came an invitation from a Knight of the Holy Sepulchre, Peters said was presented as, “If you care that much, become a knight.”
Peters was invested in 2015 and since that time has become familiar with the beneficence of the OESSH, including their contributions to education in the region. Financial support from the order funds dozens of schools established by the Latin Patriarchate throughout the Middle East.
As a knight, Peters visited the Holy Land in 2016 and was a part of the celebration of Mass near the tomb of Jesus. “It was one of the most profound experiences in my life. You can still feel the presence of Jesus and holiness.”
Ultimately, the exodus of Christians from the places revered by believers the world over may pose a threat to future faith-enriching visits, local knights said. The failure of political leaders to secure a peace is an irony for the places most important to salvation history and from where the Great Commission was delivered by the Resurrected Christ.
“We’re participating in a meaningful thing that should be shared,” Peters said.
Caption: Members of The Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem of the Diocese of Gary attend Mass in their formal regalia at St. Thomas More church in Munster on Oct. 21. The knights and dames of the only lay institution tasked by the Holy See to support the charitable, educational and evangelization endeavors of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem met for the liturgy and a conference dinner where discussion about the outbreak of violence around the Holy Land was a prime topic. (Anthony D. Alonzo photo)