Father Leon Biernat received a papal honor, making him a member of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre.
Father Biernat, pastor of St. Gregory the Great Parish in Williamsville, received the honor during a two-day event in New York City at the end of October that began with a prayer vigil at St. Ignatius Church on Park Avenue. Three bishops and 17 priests were inducted into the Eastern Lieutenancy of the order. Local men, Terrence W. McCann from Our Lady of Victory Basilica (and Catholic Charities) and Dr. Timothy G. DeZastro were also inducted, at St. Patrick's Cathedral on Oct. 31 by Cardinal Timothy Dolan.
"It's a great honor," said Father Biernat. "It really was an awesome weekend in the sense that, I felt a real connection of the Church. Not only were so many dioceses from so many states together, but learning the history and real meaning of knighthood. It basically puts me in line with those knights who served in the Crusades. It is the same order established by the pope. It gave me a great sense of connection to 1,000 years of history with the Church. I honestly felt a thousand years of connection."
Members signed a decree stating that they would stay faithful to the Church and not join any groups in opposition to the Catholic faith, and would be faithful to the disciplines and work of the Equestrian Order. Cardinal Dolan blessed and presented each of the priests with his own mozetta, a white cape with red Jerusalem cross.
The origins of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem are generally thought to date back to the First Crusade, when the Crusade's leader, Godfrey de Bouillon, liberated Jerusalem. According to most accounts of the Crusades, King Baldwin I of Jerusalem assumed leadership of this canonical order in 1103, and reserved the right for himself and his successors to appoint knights to it, should the patriarch be absent or unable to do so.
In 1847, Pope Pius IX refounded and modernized the order, issuing a new constitution, which placed it under the direct protection of the Holy See and assigned its government to the Latin Patriarch. The order's fundamental role was also redefined: to uphold the works of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, whilst preserving the spiritual duty of propagating the faith.
The Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem is the only lay institution of the Vatican State charged with the task of providing for the needs of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem and for all the activities and initiatives which are necessary to support the Christian presence in the Holy Land. Contributions made by its members throughout the world are therefore, the patriarchate's institutions' main source of funding.
The order's support for the Christians in the Holy Land does not just take the form of financial contributions and prayers. All of the order's lieutenancies arrange formal pilgrimages, in the course of which members do not simply view and explore the Holy Sites, but also have the opportunity to meet the people whom they are supporting and assure them that they are not forgotten.
"I think our primary mission is to support the mission and the work of the order," said Father Biernat. "We're basically funding schools in the Middle East. We are fully funding, I believe, a Catholic seminary in the Holy Land. I believe also sponsoring a Catholic hospital, and supporting Catholic parishes financially, by paying the salaries for priests and religious to serve all through the Holy Land and Middle East."