One of the major relics of the Passion of Our Lord is the Holy Lance of Saint Longinus. While many of the faithful are familiar with the story of Saint Helen and the finding of the True Cross, that of the Holy Lance is rarely even mentioned. Yet, the First Crusade (1095-1100) would have practically collapsed had it not been revitalized by the miraculous discovery of this relic, the location of which an Apostle revealed to a pilgrim-priest in the camp of a French count.
Three years into the Crusade, the Christian army made a major tactical error by overlooking Aleppo, the region’s most strategically important city. The capture of this city would have given them control over the eastern road through Syria, and would have split the Muslim world in two. Aleppo, however, was insufficient to satiate the avarice of the leaders of the army; they, therefore, turned their attention to Antioch, a far more glorious city.
Upon arriving at Antioch, the exhausted crusaders parked themselves in three large camps, a formation which covered a mere fragment of the two-mile walls of the city. By the end of three months, the line had been extended so that the crusaders’ tents covered the western side of Antioch. As the year 1098 began, their supplies ran low, and the soldiers were forced to forage for food. The famine took a heavy toll in numbers as well as morale, and, although the siege grew more organized over time, the Crusade might have died a natural death right outside Antioch had it not been for the treason of a Turkish officer.
The strategic point in the walls of Antioch was known as “The Tower of the Two Sisters.” Its commander, Firuz, had entered into communication with Bohemund, a leader in the Crusade. The exact reason for Firuz’ disenchantment with the Moslem cause is unknown. His treason was the secret of himself and Bohemund, who had political advancement as well as military strategy in mind. When the latter revealed to his comrades Firuz’ willingness to defect, the other leaders were alarmed by the news that a great Turkish army was on its way, and agreed to give Bohemund sole command.
On the night of June 2, sixty knights, led by Bohemund himself, took control of the tower. The next morning, the peaceful Christian population of Antioch, upon seeing the crusader’s standards in the tower, took advantage of the general confusion and opened the main gate. The Turkish garrison took refuge in the citadel but was easily overcome in the course of the day.
On the very next day, the relieving Turkish army arrived, and the crusaders were besieged inside their prize. The food supply of Antioch was not sufficient to sustain the hundred-thousand-strong Catholic army, vast portions of which had fallen sick. The troops began to say that the city was doomed, and several leaders fled to safety.
It was then that Father Pierre Barthélemy approached Count Raymond of Toulouse with the news that Saint Andrew the Apostle had revealed to him the location of the Holy Lance. Saint Andrew told the cleric from Provençe that the Roman spear which opened Our Lord’s side was buried in the Basilica of Saint Peter in Antioch. Upon receiving this information, the crusaders rushed to Saint Peter’s in the hope that they might procure this glorious relic. They began digging on June 15. After hours of work, they unearthed the Lance.
Heartened by this clear sign of divine favor, the crusaders planned a counterattack. On the morning of June 28, every man attended Holy Mass, received Communion, and gave himself to God, even unto death if He so willed. The army then sallied forth from the city. Kerbogha, the commander of the Turkish siege, was playing chess in his tent when he received word of the advancing Christian army. The news unsettled the Turkish leader because, last he knew, his enemies were depressed to the point of despair. He sent for a fellow-countryman that had lately escaped Antioch, and asked him, “What is this? Didn’t you tell me the Franks were few and would not fight with us?”
As soon as the escaped Turk saw the advancing Catholics, he replied, “These men can be killed; but they cannot be put to flight. They will not yield a footstep, even if all the people of the pagans attack them.” [Editor’s note: This is obviously a Frenchman’s paraphrase.]
Now, even more disturbed, Kerbogha got his men ready for battle. They fiercely engaged the crusaders, but the Catholics were equally fierce in their counterattack, and the Turks were soundly routed.
The rest of the story . . . On every Friday during Lent, the Roman Calendar commemorates various relics and mysteries of the Passion. The Holy Lance, along with the Holy Nails, is commemorated on the first of these Lenten Fridays.