The Rite of the Blessing of the Sword from the Roman Pontifical

Rite of Blessing of the Sword, Roman Pontifical

In the Catholic tradition the sword holds great lyrical symbolism in the Christian imagination.  For Catholics, weapons are supposed to protect justice.  The Latin words for "to be made a knight" (arma accipere) translates into: "to receive arms."  Chesterton says of soldiers: "A real soldier does not fight because he has something that he hates in front of him.  He fights because he has something that he loves behind his back."  St. Paul himself writes in Ephesians 6 of Christian warfare and the armor of God in an epistle written towards the close of his first imprisonment in Rome around the year 63 AD.  Paul wrote eloquently of the sword, a symbol of both protection and the Word of God.

Symbols of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre

Pilgrim's Map of the Holy Land

St. Paul's evocative words follow:

"Put on the armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.  For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the Principalities and the Powers, against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness on high.  Therefore take up the armor of God, that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and stand in all things perfect.  Stand, therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of justice, and having your feet shod with the readiness of the gospel of peace, in all things taking up the shield of faith, with which you may be able to quench all the fiery darts of the most wicked one.  And take unto you the helmet of salvation and the sword of the spirit , that is, the word of God" (Ephesians 6:10-17).

Grand Master of the Order Cardinal Tisserant investing a knight

The ceremonial dubbing with the sword has long been evoked by the Catholic imagination, not as a symbol of violence but of service and protection, evidenced by the words of the rite itself and the tradition of military orders in the Church.  The investee kneels, a harkening to the words of St. Gregory of Nyssa: "Wonder makes us fall to our knees."    

Sir John B. PaneGasser, Knight Commander

The ritual for the blessing of swords has been found in the liturgical books of the Latin Church since at least the 10th century.  The blessing of arms is known as the Benedictio Armorum.  The Orthodox churches also have these same traditions that reach far back in Christian history.  God is asked to protect the knight and bless the sword, insofar as churches, widows, orphans and all who serve God would be defended against attacks.  


The oldest, best, and most sound of the Medieval  rituals for the blessings of the sword and similar items were included in the Tridentine version of the Roman Pontifical, issued by order of Clement VIII in 1596.  This book called the Pontificale Romanum was a special liturgical book that included the rites and ceremonies usually performed by bishops.  Its formularies and rubrics were taken from the old Sacramentaries and "Ordines Romani" of the past, gradually collected to form one volume in the post-Tridentine Church for greater convenience.  


Papal knight sword

Dr. John Senior comments on the noble tradition of military service in the Catholic world and the constant battle between good and evil which is actually a metaphysical reality, "Christianity is not an idea, a theory, or a special privilege.  It is a fact.  And the fact remains that the history of Christian nations has long been continuously military.  Christian pacifists have got to deny the universal actual practice of two thousand years of Christianity, and beyond history to eternity with the wars of Thrones and Dominations, Principalities and Powers."  Indeed, who is against the sword?  The only conspicuous Christian pacifist among the Fathers of the Church was Tertullian, a heretic.  

Knight of the Holy Sepulchre in dress uniform

The ethics of the sword cannot be grasped without experience in the world.  Obviously in the Catholic tradition the sword has great spiritual as well as temporal significance.  This is clearly at odds with the new au courant 'woke' culture of postmodern society that downplays the sword as a symbol for violence.  


For wordlings and progressives, change is a virtue, all things for the sake of the new while the positive symbolism of the sword has all too often lost its justification in contemporary secular ideology.  In a time of mass hysteria, politicalization, emotionalization and irrationalization, certain forces long at work have sought to eliminate the sword from Catholic rites and rituals without any effort to understand it.  "The important thing about history," Marx said, "is not to understand it but to change it."  

Equestrian Order sword word available from Gammarelli in Rome


Equestrian order sword available from Barbiconi in Rome

On another note, the sword is a work of art, as Aristotle describes art as a "story" that presupposes intelligent selection according to a form conceived in the mind of the designer or creator of the object.  Above is the artisanal ceremonial sword of the uniform of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre.  It is a short sword with a cruciform hilt, made in Italy, available from the papal tailor Ditta Annibale Gammarelli or Barbiconi, both in Rome.  


The sword of Knight Commanders of the Equestrian Order of the Holy of Jerusalem (pictured above and below) is 95 cm long and dates from about the year 1900.  In Italian it is called a "spadino" dell'Ordine Gerusalemme.  It has a triangular section blade engraved with floral motifs and the papal tiara.  It has a brass hilt, with a red enamel Jerusalem cross, the emblem of the Order, with perforated floral decorations; acanthus leaves that frame laurel leaves in bas-relief.   At the bottom, under the Jerusalem cross, is the dogwood bloom.  In Christian lore there is a legend that the cross that Christ died on was made of dogwood.  Its bloom appears around Eastertime, a flower with four petals that forms the shape of a Latin cross.  The handle of the sword is wooden with mother-of-pearl grips.  A decorative gold festoon loops around the handle.  The sheath is made of leather with brass fittings engraved with floral motifs and two suspension rings. 


The sword has been used in solemn processions for centuries.  Below is an image from an Investiture ceremony at Holy Rosary Cathedral in Vancouver, Canada.  The sword of the Lieutenancy for Western Canada is carried on a pillow, a common custom, while the Knights of Columbus create a saber arch with their ceremonial swords.  These solemn actions help to bring an auora - a distinctive quality - of gravitas (solemnity of manner) to the sacred rites.  

Custom of the saber arch in solemn procession



The sword has long been depicted in Christian art, evidenced below.  

The Road to Jerusalem by Gustav Doré

There is an understandable link between the modernist attack on tradition and art, a deliberate assault to first rid us of our thought and next our emotion, to create an artifice known as "unconsciousness" that Orwell speaks of so eloquently.  It seeks to do away with the ancient luster of traditions, putting history on trial to sever modern man from his historical roots.  In fact, the Catholic response is the total opposite -- to consciously work to preserve our historical patrimony and all that is good and noble in the manner of our ancestors.  History is prologue and sacred rites and traditions teach us.   

French mosaic from the Knight's Palace, Jerusalem

On the spiritual side, knights carry the sword; they are symbolic of the "aristocracy" of the soul, of a religious elite who elevate others by their life of service, professional accomplishments and example.  In other words, they epitomize certain ideals.  The deeds of knights inflame us.  The bravery of the knight emboldens us.  


The human heart is commonly reached, not through reason, but through the imagination, by means of direct impressions and the testimony of virtues, bravery and greatness.  A child gets moral notions and lessons from the fairy-tales and stories he delights in, as do adults from tale and verse.  

Page from Holy Year The Jubilee of 1950

It is with these words, explaining some of the logic behind Knighthood, that Pius X began his Brief of February 7, 1905, reforming some of the Pontifical Orders of Knighthood:

"Recompense granted according to merit contribute powerfully in arousing the desire to do generous deeds for, whilst such rewards glorify the men who, as individuals, have deserved well of the Church or society, they also serve as an incitement to all others to follow the same path of glory and honour.  Following this wise concept, the Roman Pontiffs have considered the Orders of Knighthood with special regard as so many stimulants to good.  Thanks to them, many Orders have been created: others already instituted, have been restored to their primitive dignity and endowed with new and more outstanding privileges."  
The Shadow by Edmund Leighton

Thus the Church has promoted the "regular" military-religious Orders of the Middle Ages and has also instituted new Orders, many of which are not extinct or, if revived, no longer bear the same name nor depend even indirectly on the Holy See.  The Orders of Knighthood of the Church as they exist today are divided by some authors into military and civil according to their origin and history.   


Louis, King of France

The symbolism of the sword is a key component to understanding the role of brave knights.  In the words of C.S. Lewis, "Since it is so likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.  Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker."  


Meanwhile, knights always form an elite, not because they stand above or apart from others, but because they are capable of attracting and influencing others.  Knights and Dames should be specially gifted, willing and able.  They must be men and women of sound virtue, humble, docile to the will of the Church and who live the Christian life in a more perfect degree.  These are the opposite of zealots who but possess no real virtue and little instruction.  

University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minnesota

Alternately, a distinction is made between knights and dames: dames are not knights, although they have the privilege of being full fledged members of some papal orders of knighthood, reorganized as female members in their own category.  Thus the ancient ritual used for the dubbing of knighthood is enshrined in a code and is only used for men (knights), while the profession of faith is used for both knights and dames.

Dame received in audience at the Palace of the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem

Women were admitted as members of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre by a Brief from Pope Leo XIII dated August 3, 1888.  The document approved what was already being done for some years under the Patriarch of Jerusalem with the consent of Pius IX.  Pope Leo simply established that the Order could be conferred also, "to women providing they were distinguished for their piety, generosity, and zeal for the Catholic religion" and he ordered that they should be called "Matrons [Dames] of the Holy Sepulchre."  He divided them, like the knights, into three classes.    

The Age of Chivalry by Samuel Nisenson

The ceremony of dubbing salvages knightly values and ideals from the past, with chivalry foremost; more than just literary romance, it is one of the great graces of human dignity. To paraphrase Chesterton, exactly what the sword does is this: it accustoms Christians for a series of clear pictures to the idea that limitless terrors have a limit, that "shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, [and] that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear."         

Refectory, Knight's Palace, Jerusalem

Here is what St. Thomas Aquinas says of the sword and its necessity for defending:

"As the care of the commonwealth is committed to those who are in authority, it is their business to watch over the commonwealth of the city, kingdom, or province subject to them.  And just as it is lawful for them to have recourse to the sword in defending that commonwealth against internal disturbances, when they punish evildoers, according to the words of the Apostle (Romans 13:4), 'He beareth not the sword in vain for he is God's minister, an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.'; so too, it is their business to have recourse to the sword of war in defending the commonwealth against external enemies.  Hence it is said to those who are in authority (Psalm 81:4): 'Rescue the poor and deliver the needy out of the hand of the sinner'." (The Death of Christian Culture by John Senior, p.  121-122). 

Knight's Sword Dedication to God by Edmund Leighton

Catholics have always had their swords blessed.  Below are two images of the blessing, De Benedictione Ensis, found in older versions of the Roman Pontifical.  An English translation follows below.  This rite of blessing of immemorial tradition was reserved in the Latin Church exclusively to bishops.  This very properly draws attention to a historical reality which is well to bear in mind, especially in our present day when the mystic is lost sight of to a great extent, and when everything is sought to be judged, even by many Catholics without any historical reference or supernatural nuances.  


During the blessing the sword is blessed with holy water by the bishop.  The solemnity of the moment is captured in some way by the beautiful decorative lettering with Renaissance drop caps and rich vanilla paper.    


The blessing of the sword follows below, taken from the Roman Pontifical (translation by a professional Latinist, Sean Pilcher):

The Blessing of a Sword

 

The Bishop who will bless the sword stands without his mitre. The man to whom the sword is to be given kneels before him. A minister holds the sword before him as he says:

 

V. Our help is in the name of the Lord.

R. Who made heaven and earth.

V. The Lord be with you.

R. And with your spirit.

 

Let us pray.

 

Deign to bless +, we pray, O Lord, this sword: and this Thy servant, receive him by Thy inspiration, that Thou mayest guard him with Thy gracious care and keep him unharmed. Through Our Lord.

 

Then he sprinkles the sword with holy water. Sitting down, the Bishop puts on the mitre. The knight kneels before him as he says:

 

Take this sword, in the name of the + Father and of the + Son, and of the + Holy Spirit. Use it for thine own defense and for the defense of Holy Mother Church, and to the confounding of the enemies of the Cross of Christ and the Christian faith, and inasmuch as our human frailty permits, may you never unjustly strike any man. May Our Lord deign to grant you this, who lives with the Father and the Holy Ghost, world without end. Amen.



Finally, the knight's sword is a symbol of chivalry.  The word used to describe "gentlemanliness" in the Middle Ages was chivalry.  In the years following the death of Charlemagne in 814, the European continent was a mess, the scene of continuing warfare between rivals.  The Church did its best to advance the cause of peace by softening the manners of men.  Thus the idea of the Christian knight was born, a man true to God, a Christian soldier of great gentlemanliness.  He was to defend the weak and oppressed.  He was to be courteous towards women.  He was to be generous and merciful to the weak and his opponents.  Young knights had to pass through a period of training at the end of which the new knight knelt before the altar in the presence of God, and promised to conduct himself as a Christian gentleman.  Therefore for centuries the Church has been preaching the ideals of chivalry.  Whenever Christian men have lived up to this ideal the world has been a better place.  Whenever men have neglected or violated this ideal, the world has been at a loss.  The Church has always taught love of God and love of neighbor -- these are the qualities for all men of true chivalry.  

The author with Most Rev. Fabian Bruskewitz

Join in the conversation on our Facebook page.

Share: