Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - They are tasked by the Vatican to keep watch over the Holy Land, particularly the places where Christ lived, died and came back to life.
They are called knights and dames of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem and they count as members prominent Filipino Catholics-priests and ecclesiastics, businessmen and professionals-known for their integrity, abiding faith and stature.
Their investiture rites are a sight to see. A most recent solemn, prayerful ceremony took place at their headquarters at Santuario de San Antonio parish church in Forbes Park, Makati City in Metro Manila, with 10 new candidates walking in measured steps down the aisle-the men garbed in the order's regulation white cape, the women in black cape with veil-accompanied by their own pages, in similarly formal costume, in the grand tradition of knighthood.
The international order traces its roots to the 12th century but the Philippine branch or "lieutenancy" is relatively younger-a little over 50 years old.
First in Asia
The order is the only lay institution of the Vatican designated to provide the needs of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem and support the Christian presence in the Holy Land, which, paradoxically, lies within the conflicted-ridden boundaries of Palestine and Israel.
The Vatican wants more Filipinos to become members of the order, the first lieutenancy in Asia founded by Rufino Cardinal Santos before a second branch was established in Taiwan. The Filipino membership is considered modest, with the Philippines being the only Catholic-majority country in Asia.
Former Ambassador to the United Kingdom Jesus P. Tambunting, who serves as the Knight Commander of the Philippine lieutenancy, considers the local branch as a huge responsibility. His job is focused on organizing pilgrimages to the Holy Land, its highlight being a visit to the Holy Sepulchre. The first one under his term took place from Oct. 24 to Nov. 4, 2011, with Archbishop of Manila Luis Antonio Tagle, then Bishop of Imus, Cavite, as pilgrimage chaplain. Tagle is the lieutenancy's Grand Prior.
The order's vision in the Philippines is to strengthen the spirituality of Filipinos, even as it emphasizes the importance of charity and supporting financially the Latin Patriarchate and the holy places in the Holy Land.
"Everything we do as members of the Equestrian Order has the seal of the Vatican state. We are part of the Vatican. In fact, we have our headquarters there, an old castle where they hold office," Tambunting said.
"We have to emphasize our presence in the Holy Land where there are only 2 percent Christians. If we do not take care of the sites where our Lord Jesus Christ lived and died, these will be no more. This is the reason why the order is very close to the Pope. This is why undertaking pilgrimages is necessary. It is also part of our program to make more Filipinos aware of what we are doing for the Holy Land, where Christianity started," he added.
Tagle said, during the investiture of his batch, that being part of the order is a special calling of faith and charity.
"We are now part of this mission of the order, which is devoted to the maintenance of the holy tombs. For us Filipinos, tombs, especially where our loved ones are kept, are not just spaces but sacred spaces. There is sanctity attached to tombs," Tagle said. "The Holy Tomb in Jerusalem professes that our Lord Jesus Christ is real, that He is not a figment of our imagination. He walked on the earth, experienced our joys and sorrows, died for us and lived with us. He dared to embrace what we are all afraid to embrace-the solitude of death.
The Archbishop revealed that the Holy Tomb, the root of faith, was also a tomb of humiliation, being a borrowed tomb.
"But the tomb of humiliation was transformed by Christ into a tomb of love, for He died giving Himself for the life of the world. His humiliation has turned into nobility, into self-gift."
Tagle said everyone should transform the tombs of their lives into places of love, grace and life.
Origins of the order
The origins of the order date back to the First Crusade when its leader, Godfrey de Bouillon, liberated Jerusalem. As part of his operations to organize the religious, military and public bodies of the territories newly freed from Muslim control, he founded the Order of Canons of the Holy Sepulchre.
According to accounts of the Crusades, in 1103, the first King of Jerusalem, Baldwin I, became the leader of a canonical order reserving for himself and his successors the right to appoint knights to it, as agents of the Patriarch of Jerusalem.
The order's members included not only the 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, under the command of the King of Jerusalem, to defend the Holy Sepulchre and the holy places.
The first Philippine lieutenants were Ambassador Vicente Arenas and Jose Zaragosa. The order became more active when Jaime Cardinal Sin, Archbishop of Manila, became the Grand Prior of the lieutenancy. Between 1981 and 2008, the order elected as lieutenants Carlos Jalandoni (1981-1985), Carlos Ledesma (1986-1990), Ambassador Ramon Pedrosa (1991-1999), Ambassador Francisco Alba (2000-2008) and Ambassador Tambunting (2008-present).
By 1999, the military decorations of the order were awarded by the Vatican to 70 Filipino Catholics who were admitted as knights and dames. However, 41 of them had already passed away. Recently, the Vatican has called on all lieutenancies to increase the number of knights and dames and bring in younger and more active Catholic lay people.
In an interview during the reception, then Grand Prior of the Order in the Philippines, Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales, explained that the order has the backing of centuries of dedication of members to their faith and to works of charity.
Special Vatican guests
In the Philippine context, the new members were singled out, upon the recommendation of the order, for admission to this noble order of the knights and dames of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem.
"Commitment, this is what we are focusing on," Rosales said. "You are not born noble; you have to earn it, through sacrifice."
Two special guests from the Vatican attended the investiture-His Excellency, Knight of the Collar, Count Professor Agostino Borromeo and the Chancellor, Reverend Monsignor Hans A.L. Brouwers. They represented the Grand Master the Most Reverend John Cardinal P. Foley who recently passed away.
Just before his death, Cardinal Foley wrote in the Diocesan Bulletin of the Latin Patriarchate "Jerusalem" that during the Holy Father's historic pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2009, he was able to speak briefly with political leaders at the highest level in Jordan, Israel and Palestine.
Jews, Christians, Muslims
"All of them spoke of the great contribution to mutual understanding by Catholic schools (maintained by the Equestrian Order) in those three areas. Since Catholic schools are open to all and not just to Catholics and to other Christians, many Muslims and even some Jewish children are enrolled. The effects are apparent and inspiring. Mutual respect is engendered, which we hope will lead to reconciliation and even mutual love."
Until his death, Foley has been inspired by the interest and generosity of more than 27,000 knights and ladies of the Holy Sepulchre all over the world. Foley also noted that the so-called five pillars of Islam really had their origins in Judeo-Christian sources.
"Jews, Christians and Muslims all believe in one God; we all practice frequent, and I hope, fervent prayer; we all, in different ways, practice fasting; we believe in and practice almsgiving; and we all seek to take part in pilgrimage to Jerusalem, a city sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims," he adds.
According to retired university Professor Borromeo, a knight since 1995, they see the same spirit, the same commitment in the Philippines. "Although it's a small lieutenancy compared to other countries, Filipino members live the life of the order in their spirituality and in their charities. We want the number of members to expand."
As Governor General, Professor Borromeo implements the decisions of the Cardinal Grand Master and maintains contacts with the worldwide membership, which is divided into 56 entities and lieutenancies. He coordinates the fundraising and contacts between the order and the Church in the Holy Land.
Depth of faith here
"We send funds for the ordinary expenses of the Church and we maintain schools in the Holy Land, and we also fund some special projects asked either by the Patriarch of Jerusalem or by the Order." These special projects include construction of social housing; creation of medical clinics far from hospitals; providing microcredit to finance livelihood projects; micro-insurance; and encouraging Western companies to invest in manufacturing in the Middle East. "The Church should support Christians in the Middle East, in order to stop their emigration."
Brouwers explained that the order is present in the Philippines because of its being a Catholic-majority country and because of the depth of the Catholic faith here.
"Filipinos should be able to understand the plight of the Christians suffering in the Holy Land. We also want to encourage pilgrimages there, where one can experience the Bible firsthand," said Brouwers, who hails from the Diocese of Philadelphia. "We hope to have more lieutenancies in the Philippines.
Our faith has to be personally taught from one generation to another."
In May 2009, the lieutenancy of the Philippines had the honor of participating in the first visit by Pope Benedict XVI to the Holy Land. But this is another interesting story, according to Tambunting.
Pilgrimage with Pope
At least 50 members of the order from all over the world were able to join the Pope in his historic pilgrimage to the Holy Land from May 8 to 15, 2009.
The members were able to accompany the Holy Father in all of his visits to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories. In those visit, the Pope expressed his gratitude to the members of the order "for their unfailing commitment to the support of the Church's mission in these lands made holy by the Lord's earthly presence."
For those who heard these words, it was an affirmation of the work of the order and to be one with the Holy Father in bearing witness to the Risen Christ.
The order in the Philippines then and now has been helping the Church in the upkeep of Christian pilgrimage sites in the Holy Land, as well as schools and facilities of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. "We support all of these, not only the holy tombs," said Tambunting.
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