The Catholic Spirit of Knighthood

I had the pleasure last week of spending time with Suzanne and Jim Broski.  Like thousands of other Catholic married couples, the Broskis have a longtime love of their faith and devotion to the work of the Church.  What makes their circumstances unique though is this:  The Broskis are Colorado’s new state “co-councilors” for the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem, better known as the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher.  They had come to introduce themselves, and also to outline the Knights’ good work in easing the plight of Christians in the Holy Land.

Knighthood is an institution with very deep roots in the memory of the Church.  Nearly 900 years ago, the great St. Bernard of Clairvaux described the ideal Christian knights as Godly men who “shun every excess in clothing and food.  They live as brothers in joyful and sober company (with) one heart and one soul.… There is no distinction of persons among them, and deference is shown to merit rather than to noble blood.  They rival one another in mutual consideration, and they carry one another’s burdens, thus fulfilling the law of Christ.”

Bernard was anything but naïve.  Writing in the early 12th century, he was well aware of the greed, vanity and violence that too often motivated Europe’s warrior class, even in the name of religious faith.  Yet he wrote at a time when large Christian populations still existed in the Middle East and suffered under Muslim armed conquest, discrimination and persecution.  In fact a trigger for the medieval Crusades — which began in Bernard’s lifetime — had been the harassment of Christian pilgrims to holy sites in what we now know as Israel and Palestine.

Many of the Crusaders who rallied to the liberation of the Holy Land did so out of genuine zeal for the Cross.  Europe in the Middle Ages was a continent where Christian faith animated every aspect of daily life.  But Bernard also knew that many others who left for Crusade had mixed or even ugly motives.  In his great essay “In Praise of the New Knighthood” (c. 1136), he outlined the virtues that should shape the vocation of every truly “Christian” knight: humility, austerity, justice, obedience, unselfishness and a single-minded zeal for Jesus Christ in defending the Church, the poor and the weak.

Life today may seem very different from life in the 12th century, but human nature — our basic hopes, dreams, anxieties and sufferings — hasn’t really changed.  The Christian vocation remains the same: to follow Jesus Christ faithfully, and in following Jesus, to defend Christ’s Church and serve her people zealously, unselfishly and with all our skill.  As St. Ignatius Loyola wrote in his “Spiritual Exercises” — and remember that Ignatius himself was a former soldier — each of us must choose between two battle standards: the standard of Jesus Christ, humanity’s true King, or the standard of his impostor, the Prince of This World.  There is no neutral ground.

Here’s my point:  The Church needs men and women of courage and Godliness today more than at any time in her history; and this is why the Catholic ideal of knighthood, with its demands of radical discipleship, is still vividly alive and still urgently needed.  Whether one belongs to a wonderful fraternal service order like the Knights of Columbus or the Knights of St. Peter Claver; to an historic knightly order like the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher or the Knights of Malta; or to one of the Holy See’s own pontifical knightly orders like the Knights of St. Gregory the Great; the essence of knighthood is the same: sacrificial service rooted in a living Catholic faith.

That spirit of knighthood is available to all of us.  It’s a vocation every Christian was made for.  And it will never go out of style.

Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.

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Charles Joseph Chaput, O.F.M. Cap. is the ninth and current Archbishop of Philadelphia, serving since his installation on September 8, 2011

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