Knighthood is an institution with very deep roots in the memory of the Church. Nearly 900 years ago, one of the great monastic reformers of the Church, 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." (ii)
Bernard had few illusions about human nature. And he was anything but naïve. Writing at the dawn of the crusading era, in the early 12th century, he was well aware of the greed, vanity, ambition and violence that too often motivated Europe’s warrior class, even in the name of religious faith.
Most of the men who took up the cause of aiding eastern Christians and liberating the Holy Land in the early decades of crusading did so out of genuine zeal for the Cross. But Bernard also knew that many others had mixed or even corrupt and evil 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 poor, the weak, the Church and persecuted Christians. (iii)
Our life today may seem very different from life in the 12th century. The Church today asks us to seek mutual respect with people of other religious traditions, and to build common ground for cooperation wherever possible.
But human nature -- our basic hopes, dreams, anxieties and sufferings -- hasn’t really changed. The basic Christian vocation remains the same: to follow Jesus Christ faithfully, and in following Jesus, to defend Christ’s Church and to 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. C.S. Lewis once said that Christianity is a "fighting religion." He meant that Christian discipleship has always been -- and remains -- a struggle against the evil within and outside ourselves. This is why the early Church Fathers described Christian life as "spiritual combat." It’s why they called faithful Christians the "Church Militant" and "soldiers of Christ" in the Sacrament of Confirmation.
The Church needs men and women of courage and Godliness today more than at any time in her history. So does this extraordinary country we call home in this world; a nation that still has an immense reservoir of virtue, decency and people of good will. This is why the Catholic ideal of knighthood, with its demands of radical discipleship, is still alive and still needed. The essence of Christian knighthood remains the same: sacrificial service rooted in a living Catholic faith.
A new "spirit of knighthood" is what we need now -- unselfish, tireless, devoted disciples willing to face derision and persecution for Jesus Christ. We serve our nation best by serving God first, and by proving our faith with the example of our lives.