[This piece was originally published in Religion Unplugged.]
WASHINGTON, D.C — “My view of life when I was in my 20’s was to be a lawyer, slowly progress in the profession and maybe become a judge by this age,” said Catherine Mardon, a Canada-based legal consultant, social activist and author. “Instead I became disabled and had to find another path.”
In 2017, Mardon and her husband were surprised with memberships into the Order of St. Sylvester for their work with disability and mental illness advocacy, as well as management of several activism campaigns.
“Knowing that the work we do is appreciated to the point that it has been recognized by the pope has helped me in accepting finally that I’m following the path God intended all along,” she said.
The Pontifical Equestrian Order of Saint Sylvester Pope and Martyr is one of five papal knighthoods officially overseen by the Holy See as orders of merit for clergy and Catholic laity.
“It is surreal and spooky to think of being a Papal Knight. It gives people something to tease me about,” said Mardon. “It’s too weird for people to think we are making it up.”
The Order of St. Sylvester is not as hampered by historic red tape as other, higher-ranking papal knighthoods. Members do not need to be intimately involved in the inner-workings of the Catholic Church to receive the honor. They don’t even need to be Christian. Recipients have included Jews, Muslims and even atheists who have contributed to the missions of the Church through art, activism, academia or any myriad of disciplines.
Additionally, while the highest echelons of the papal awards such as the Supreme Order of Christ and the Pian Order are reserved for ambassadors, monarchs and other ruling-class actors, the Order of St. Sylvester is most common among regular folks.
Like other papal orders, membership in the Order of St. Sylvester cannot be requested or lobbied for by individuals who wish to join. Instead, members must be nominated and approved by a bishop, archbishop, or cardinal of the Church.
The Mardons’ nomination for the honor wasn’t just something they didn’t request — it was something they didn’t even know about.
“The Archbishop’s assistant gave us a call. I didn’t believe her at first. I didn’t even understand what she was talking about,” said Mardon. “I’d never heard of it before. As far as I know, we are the only ones in Western Canada. We’re certainly the first ones in this diocese.”
All nominations for papal knighthoods are filed by the nominating bishop or archbishop to their respective apostolic nuncio, who reviews the details of the nominated candidate’s life, their service to the Church or their community, and any other relevant accomplishments.
If the nuncio approves the conferment of knighthood, the materials are forwarded to the Vatican Secretary of State, who may then approve and give them to the pope for a final decision.
Contributions to the Church or the world at-large that warrant consideration for the order can range from scientific breakthroughs to artistic achievements to extensive charity work.
Shusaku Endo, the Japanese Catholic writer and author of the novel-turned-Scorsese film “Silence,” was inducted into the order in his lifetime. American comedian Bob Hope, famous for his stand-up comedy and television appearances, was also a member.
The Mardons are both accomplished and well-known public figures due to decades of work in the field of social justice. Catherine, a retired lawyer, has worked on death penalty appeals, diocesan legal issues, and more.
When a new knight is approved, they are inducted at a ceremony performed by their local bishop, archbishop, or cardinal during mass. The ritual can be grandiose or subdued depending on the tastes of the recipient.
“It was a small intimate ceremony in the chapel,” Mardon said. “I’m a very private person who doesn’t like elaborate ceremonies. The Archbishop and his staff were aware of that. They designed the ceremony with me in mind, and I was very appreciative.”
Mardon and her husband received their knighthoods from an archbishop with whom they had a friendly relationship, and the conferment of such a prestigious honor deeply affected them both.
“What stood out to me most were the kind words the Archbishop said about us while presenting the parchments to us,” Mardon said. “I respect his Grace, and to have him say such nice things about us was humbling. I was in a bit of a state of shock.”
New knights receive their certification from the Vatican confirming their membership, as well as a small book, written in Latin, that explains the history of their order and gives more details about the papal knighthoods.
Knights of St. Sylvester are not obligated to any higher responsibilities or duties. There are no financial, political, or service obligations, but they are expected to set a good example for the rest of the Church by leading virtuous lives with adherence to principles of Catholic morality.
But Mardon said she does feel a pressure to set a proper example. “It seemed most important to my cadets. I volunteer with the PPCLI Army Cadets. They are 12-18 years old. I help them with their uniforms. They thought it was great. A couple of them insist on calling me Dame Catherine knowing it embarrasses me.”
Knights may also be called upon to volunteer for major ceremonies within their diocese. These may include the consecration of new bishops, priestly ordinations or traditionalist high Masses.
In a bizarre bit of legal antiquity, they are also technically allowed to ride a horse into any Catholic church, including St. Peter’s Basilica.
The Order of St. Sylvester wears a full-black military-style dress uniform consisting of a high-collar jacket with long tails. The jacket is black and is paired with a matching pair of dress pants. The uniform is trimmed in a gold-ish yellow and members carry two accessories: a ceremonial sword and hat.
“The uniforms for men and capes for women are purchased from a vestment supply place in Rome,” Mardon explained. “They are purchased by the individuals and worn at formal occasions like ordinations or funerals such as the Knights of Columbus uniforms are. They are expensive and we haven’t purchased them.”
Mardon hasn’t ruled out surprising her husband with the full get-up, though. And while the uniform does seem over the top, she takes her duties as a Christian as seriously as a soldier.
“I think it is vitally important that we not only know what the Church teaches, but also why it teaches it, and how to defend our faith,” Mardon said. “I truly believe that we are in a fight against a society that has become increasingly hostile to the Church. As soldiers we need training and ammunition for the battle… I don’t think of myself as an example. I think of myself as a member of the Body of Christ. I don’t want to be on top of anyone. I want all of us to get there.”
Timothy Nerozzi is a writer and editor from northeastern Pennsylvania. He covers religious issues with a focus on the Catholic Church and Japanese society and culture.