Bill Seng, a member of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre, achieved the order's highest rank with ‘Pilgrim Shell’

BLOOMFIELD HILLS — Ever since Bill Seng joined the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, he wanted to visit the Holy Land.

There was something about walking the same footpaths where Christ walked and visiting the same spots where the Apostles lived that inspired Seng, a member of the order since 2003, to make the trek to Israel.

This year — just before COVID-19 brought international travel to a halt — he did just that, completing a pilgrimage in order to achieve the highest rank the order has to offer.

“I always wanted to do it, plus it’s required to get the top rank, being a Grand Knight,” Seng, a member of St. Hugo of the Hills Parish in Bloomfield Hills, told Detroit Catholic.

The Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre traces its roots back to 1099, when a medieval order of knights was tasked with guarding Christians as they pilgrimaged to the Holy Land.

With history that is complex and fascinating, the modern order was constituted in 1949 by Pope Pius XII and approved in 1977 by Pope Paul VI to guard, maintain and support historical sites important to Christianity in the Holy Land, as well as to support the spiritual, charitable and social works of the Catholic Church and Christians in the Holy Land through financial contributions.

Seng wanted to join the order, which has more than 30,000 members worldwide, to advocate for Christian sites in the Holy Land, as well as to do his part to support the Church’s social outreach. 

Visiting the places that had always captivated his faith was proof his commitment was the right decision, he said.

Sir William Seng (middle row, fifth from left) was among the 14 Knights and Dames from the North Central Lieutenancy who received Pilgrim Shells at the conclusion of their 2020 Holy Land pilgrimage on March 6. (Courtesy of the Latin Patriarchate)

From the Sea of Galilee to the Jordan River and Jerusalem, Seng visited some of the places most Christians have only read about in Scripture.

Because of the outbreak of the coronavirus, Seng wasn’t able to visit some of the hospitals, churches and schools the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre operates in Jerusalem and surrounding Palestinian areas, but said the pilgrimage was spiritually and practically enriching. 

Despite having the trip cut short by three days, Seng was able visit Galilee, from the place where Jesus miraculously multiplied the fishes and loaves of bread to feed thousands, to Peter’s home in Capernaum.

“I was walking the spots you read in the Scriptures all your life, such as the site of the Transfiguration, and on Mount Nebo, where God appeared to Moses and showed him the Promised Land. I saw where Christ was baptized in the Jordan River,” he said. “These are places I won’t ever forget.”

For completing his journey, Seng was presented with the Pilgrim Shell — an ancient badge of the pilgrim — the most significant decoration of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, by Fr. Ibrahim Shomali, chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate in the Holy Land on the behalf of Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin patriarch for Catholics in the Holy Land.

Seng was taken aback by the surreal experience of visiting the places he knew so well from the Gospel story, seeing, hearing and experiencing his faith in a very tangible way.

“The first week back (in the United States), the Scripture reading was about the Transfiguration of Christ,” Seng said. “I was thinking, ‘Holy moley, I was there.’ It made a lasting impression on me, going to the rock where Jesus said, ‘Peter, upon this rock, I will build my church.’ Or the rock where Jesus prayed during the agony in the garden, where they built the Church of All Nations around it. I was there, at that Mass, praying where Christ prayed all night in the garden.”

Seng said the trip will forever change how he listens to the Scriptures during Mass. Instead of using his imagination, the Gospel stories now take on a quality that is substantive, material and real. 

“When I hear the Gospels, I can easily picture myself back at that time and place where Christ was,” Seng said. “It’s all in a 100-mile radius, all in walking distance. Everyone who gets the chance to walk in the steps of Christ should go. It’s a trip I’ll never forget.”