VATICAN CITY (CNS)--Above the crusaders' encampment. a massive flag emblazoned with a red cross snapped and billowed in blustery March winds just outside St. Peter's Square.

Headquartered a javelin toss from the Vatican, the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher--with roots tracing back a thousand years to the Crusades--celebrated their jubilee by renewing their ``crusader spirit and ideals'' for the third millennium.

At the same time, Pope John Paul II was preparing to deliver a much-awaited jubilee ``request for forgiveness'' for wrongs committed by Christians in the past millennium--among which is frequently counted the excesses of the Crusades.

Often undisciplined and uncontrolled, medieval knights plundered, raped and looted their way to the Holy Land. Their less meritorious deeds include the wholesale slaughter of Jerusalem's Muslim and Jewish occupants upon re-taking the Holy City from Muslim warriors in 1099. During the centuries of military campaigns, rampaging Crusaders also defiled Orthodox Christian cities.

In Pope John Paul's crusade to confess the historical sins of the church's sons and daughters, he has also touched on his medieval predecessors' military efforts to liberate the Holy Land from its Islamic captors.

During a reflection in 1995 on St. Catherine of Siena, the pope said the 14th-century saint supported the Crusades because ``she was a daughter of her time.''

``In a correct zeal for the defense of holy places, she made her own the then-dominant mentality that said the task could require the use of weapons,'' he said.

``Today we must be grateful to the Spirit of God, which has helped us understand more clearly that the appropriate way--and the way more consonant with the Gospel--to confront problems that can arise in relations among peoples, religions and cultures is that of a patient, firm, but respectful dialogue,'' the pope said.

The pope did not point out that St. Catherine, in supporting the Crusades, was simply obeying the orders of the popes.

The unseemliness of a pope criticizing his predecessors is one factor that has prevented Pope John Paul from treating the Crusades more directly in his ``mea culpa'' campaign, said Dominican Father Georges Cottier, the pope's personal theologian.

But the historical challenge of sifting the good from the bad in the Crusades is an even greater obstacle, he told Catholic News Service March 2.

"The problem of the Crusades is the most complex there is,'' he said. ``The idea itself of liberating the holy places is not false. The problem is that there was a deterioration; the Crusades became expeditions of uncontrolled soldiers who conducted themselves poorly in some cases.''

But a potential future apology for the Crusades, after an intensive historical examination, ``is not to be excluded in principle,'' he said.

Another complication, however, is that a church apology for its military campaign against what medieval popes called ``Muslim tyranny'' could negatively impact Christian minority communities in Muslim countries.

Such factors should be carefully considered by the church as it formulates ``mea culpa'' statements, said a Vatican document released in early March.

Where Christians are a minority, an admission of fault might be seen as confirming anti-church prejudice, said the document prepared by the International Theological Commission.

Father Cottier, the commission's secretary, said church leaders must take special care when apologizing for wrongs done to Muslims, for example, during the Crusades.

``The concept of pardon in Islam is not the same as the Christian notion of pardon,'' he said. ``Apologizing for the Crusades could be interpreted as one-sided, (with) the Muslims saying, 'Look, the Christians have admitted their fault, and we, no.'

"Certainly there were wrongs done in the Crusades, but this doesn't mean that Islam has always behaved well throughout history,'' Father Cottier said.

Causing such misunderstandings ``must be avoided for the sake of our missionaries who must live the reality,'' he said.

Meanwhile, the early Crusaders' dream of preserving a Christian presence in the Holy Land lives on in their 21st century successors--the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher.

Under the order's revised 1977 statutes, some 20,000 knights and ladies from around the world have pledged to ``revive in modern form the spirit and ideals of the Crusaders with the weapons of faith, the apostolate and Christian charity.''

Originally formed as a sort of ``honor guard'' for Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the order now primarily provides financial support to the Latin-rite patriarch of Jerusalem. The church is built over the traditional site of Jesus' burial place.

During an audience March 2 with more than 3,000 knights and ladies--wearing long capes embroidered with a red Jerusalem cross--the pope said Pope Pius IX's reconstitution of the order in 1847 called them to maintain their original function, but with a significant difference.

"The custody of the tomb of Christ would no longer be entrusted to the force of weapons, but to the value of a constant witness of faith and solidarity toward Christians residing in the Holy Land,'' he said.

For their part, the knights feel themselves heirs to a noble and glorious mission, though clearly pursued by far different means.

``Our work with the pen is mightier than the sword,'' said Thomas J. McCabe, head of the knights' North Central Lieutenancy, one of the order's eight regional U.S. divisions.

``We're not down there fighting anymore; we're fighting with our pen, with our evangelization, with our prayers and with our financial resources,'' he said.

McCabe's predecessor, Matthew Lamb, once explained that ``as our forefathers expressed their devotion to the Holy Land by becoming warriors, today's knights and ladies should express it by their commitment to peace.''

No longer warriors except in spirit, today's crusaders are linked to their ancestors only by their devotion to the Holy Land--and, of course, by the flag they fly.

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad