At its beginnings more than nine centuries ago, the aim of the Order was to protect the shrines of the Holy Land and the pilgrims who visited them. Today it fosters the Christian life of its members, promotes the faith in the Holy Land, and helps to protect the Holy Places.
The male members of the Order are known as Knights, which struck me forcibly as I began to prepare this homily—because the title Knight differs greatly from similar honours. A King has a Kingdom to rule, a Prince a Principality, a Duke a Duchy—but a Knight has only a Lord to serve.
In the Middle Ages, such service demanded obedience and loyalty, even at the risk of life and limb.
But before loyalty could be sworn it was often tested. The first reading today speaks of those who “will receive great good, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself; like gold in the furnace he tried them.” (Wis. 3:5-6)
That Declan was tested by his illness is beyond doubt; that he was found worthy amidst it equally so, accepting with patience one setback after another, and faithfully coming to Mass each Sunday until it became literally impossible.
And once the Knight of old had proven himself, he did not then become a free-lancer—even that term springs from the medieval world. Sir Walter Scott used “freelance” to describe a mercenary: It didn’t mean his lance was available for free but that the warrior was not sworn to any particular Lord.
The true medieval knight placed himself at the service of only one Lord. A Knight could swear “fealty” to many different overlords, but gave “homage” to a single Lord, as he could not commit his military service to more than one. Such life and death commitments demanded obedience to the call.
Compare this ideal with what we heard a few moments ago in the second reading, from St Paul:
We do not live to ourselves,
and we do not die to ourselves.
If we live, we live to the Lord,
and if we die, we die to the Lord;
so then, whether we live or whether we die,
we are the Lord's. (Rom 13:7-8)
That’s what chivalry looks like in the court of the King of Kings. Declan neither lived nor died to himself; for in another of his letters, St. Paul states flatly “you are not your own.” (1 Cor. 6:19)
This debt of loyalty, this willingness to serve, this sense that we are not our own—because we have been ransomed at a very high price, much like a captured warrior—is easy to paint with the colours of Knighthood and the ideals of chivalry. But that’s only because these were originally Christian ideals and a Christian code.
The fact is, everything I have said in connection with a knight can be said of any baptised person. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism—and we are sworn to honour and defend it by our very baptismal vows, which are themselves promises of obedience.
St. Ignatius of Loyola reminds us in his Spiritual Exercises that this means we should strive for a holy indifference. The Jesuit founder wrote “as far as we are concerned, we should not prefer health to sickness, honor to dishonor, a long life to a short life.”
“The same holds for all other things. Our one desire and choice should be what is more conducive to the end for which we are created.” (n. 23)
And what is that end for which we were created, the ultimate purpose of life? The Gospel for this funeral Mass (Mt. 25: 31-46) supplies an answer: we were created to inherit the kingdom prepared for us from the foundation of the world. The words of Jesus reveal clearly the sovereignty of God, the King of Kings, who will call the whole world to account. Jesus will return to reward the just, those who have lived the lives for which God made them.
In many aspects of his life, Declan lived according to the summary of Christian charity we heard in the Gospel: in his healing profession as a dentist, as a father and grandfather, and not least in his work to provide support and relief to our suffering brothers and sisters in the Holy Land.
And we can make a final reference to the ancient code of chivalry: as I have already said, many aspects of it were inspired by Gospel teaching. The medieval Knight was sworn to come to the aid of the helpless and the vulnerable, and in modern society there are none more so than the unborn, whom Declan defended by his commitment to the pro-life cause.
Listening to the words of Jesus, we can have confidence that our brother will stand before the King of Kings with all the confidence of a Knight who fulfilled his sworn duties faithfully and well.
To conclude, I might note the Equestrian order has admitted women as full members for almost 150 years. Denise did battle with Declan not like the noble Ladies of old, left behind at home, but at his side throughout his life and illness, sharing his wounds and his worries.
No less than Declan did, she now must make the ancient motto of the Order her own daily prayer: Deus lo vult—God wills it.
We pray for you Denise, and for Tanya, Declan, Jill and the grandchildren, that your acceptance of this painful loss will bring you the peace that only God can give.