Pope Francis announced Dec. 8 that he has accepted the resignation of Cardinal Edwin F. O’Brien as Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem.
The pope named Italian Cardinal Fernando Filoni as Cardinal O’Brien’s successor.
Cardinal O’Brien, a former archbishop of Baltimore, had served for more than eight years as leader of the Rome-based chivalric organization dedicated to promoting and defending Christianity in the Holy Land.
As required by church law, the cardinal had submitted his letter of resignation five years ago upon turning 75. The pope chose not to accept the resignation until now.
“It is with complete acceptance and appreciation that I welcome the decision of Pope Francis to replace me as Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem,” Cardinal O’Brien wrote in a Dec. 8 statement from Rome released by the Archdiocese of Baltimore. “I am especially pleased that His Holiness has appointed His Eminence Fernando Cardinal Filoni as my successor.”
During his tenure as Grand Master, Cardinal O’Brien said his personal faith and love of the church deepened as he witnessed members’ commitment to the goals of the order, which he said are expressed “in different cultures and languages, all profoundly Catholic.”
In a November interview with the “Catholic Baltimore” radio program, hosted by Christopher Gunty of the Catholic Review, Cardinal O’Brien said there are 30,000 members of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem all around the world. They contribute approximately $15 million annually to provide humanitarian aid in the Holy Land and to take care of the schools and parishes of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, he said.
Cardinal O’Brien noted that the territory supported by the order includes Jordan, Israel and the West Bank, Palestine. Only 2 percent of the region is Catholic, he said, and much of the order’s outreach aids non-Christians.
“The church is the major private employer through our schools and our parishes,” Cardinal O’Brien said. “It gives employment to those who would not otherwise have it.”
The knights and dames of the order come from 40 countries, Cardinal O’Brien said, and each member is approved by the Holy See. Members promise to pray and provide financial support to the Holy Land and make at least one pilgrimage there. Members also are involved in ecumenical and interfaith cooperation, he said.
“Palestine is very divided,” he said, “and it’s there that they need the most help.”
Cardinal O’Brien called those few Christians who remain in the Holy Land “courageous.” They need “encouragement” and a “show of solidarity” that members of his order provide in cooperation with other Protestant and Orthodox groups, he said.
Cardinal O’Brien told “Catholic Baltimore” many members of the order go to the Holy Land regularly, not only to pray at holy sites, but to visit schools, parishes and other efforts supported by the knights and dames.
“The contribution of our Catholic Church and our Catholic people shows itself very subtly,” he said, “but with great strength and great effect in keeping alive these essential areas of relative freedom in worship, in education and in humanitarian aid.”
In his Dec. 8 statement, Cardinal O’Brien said he welcomed Cardinal Filoni as his successor as Grand Master. Cardinal Filoni had has led the Vatican office overseeing the church’s mission territories since 2011.
“His long and broad pastoral and administrative experience in service to the Universal Church will be precious assets as he leads our Order into the future,” Cardinal O’Brien said. “I offer him my full and fraternal support as I beg the continued intercession of Our Lady of Palestine.”
In retirement, Cardinal O’Brien intends to remain in residence at the Vatican, according to the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
Cardinal O’Brien served as the 15th archbishop of Baltimore from 2007 to 2012.
Listen to the Catholic Baltimore radio interview with Cardinal O’Brien below.
Email George Matysek at gmatysek@CatholicReview.org