Every year, almost five million Christians make pilgrimage to the Vatican to celebrate and grow in their Faith, and to see the many sites rich in the history of the Church. Visitors might expect to see the Vatican museums, the legendary frescoes of the Sistine chapel, or Saint Peter’s Basilica. However, there is one site any visitor would probably never think they would see – a horse. While it may sound strange, its a possibility thanks to a little-known obscure rule allowing for certain people to ride horses within Saint Peter’s Basilica.

The rule is a special privilege given only to the members of three specific papal orders of knighthood, special orders of knighthood bestowed in the name of the Pope through his authority as the head of the Holy See and sovereign of the Vatican City State.

Of the current five papal orders of knighthood currently awarded directly by the Holy See, only two are given the privilege. These two orders are the The Papal Order of Saint Sylvester and the Papal Order of Saint Gregory the Great. A Pope can award the honor to any Catholic, clergy or laity.

While completely honorific, members of the Order of Saint Sylvester are given two special privileges: a special decorated uniform to wear including a sabre, and the ability to enter any church on horseback – specifically Saint Peters’ Basilica. The same privileges are afforded to any member of the Order of Saint Gregory the Great.

“The members have no privileges beyond that of wearing a decoration which consists of a gold enamelled Maltese cross with the image of St. Sylvester on one side and the other the inscription: ‘1841 Gregorius XVI restituit.’ – Catholic Encyclopedia

While not technically an order of knighthood awarded directly by the Pope as head of the Holy See, the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre is religious order of chivalry under direct protection by the Pope with a cardinal serving as a grand master. In 1553, an official set of privileges were given to the order under Pope Julius III and maintained through successive papacies. In addition to entering churches on horseback, their privileges include powers to:

• Legitimise bastards
• Change a name given in baptism
• Pardon prisoners they might meet on the way to the scaffold
• Possess goods belonging to the Church even though they were laymen
• Be exempt from taxes
• Cut a man down from the gallows and to order him to be given a Christian burial
• Wear brocaded silk garments
• Fight against the infidel

Editorial credit: El Greco 1973 / Shutterstock.com
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  1. Within what source did you find the stated powers given to a Knight of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem?

    • Orders of Knighthood and of Merit by Peter Bander van Duren (a British Catholic expert on heraldry and orders of knighthood) contains more than enough detail on this Order and many of the others in the Church including the privileges accorded to each order. Many of these privileges such as exemption from taxes and power to pardon are (of course) no longer honored by civil authorities. You can find more generic history of the Order here: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/institutions_connected/oessh/en/cenni_storici_en.html. That source, however, does not list the privileges of the Order because one does not join the Order for the privileges but rather to serve the needs of the Church.


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