Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted poses with Alan and Paula Sears after receiving the medals of the Order of St. Gregory the Great at St. Bernadette Parish June 29. (Bruce Ellefson/ADF)

SCOTTSDALE — Friends, family and dignitaries from around the diocese packed into St. Bernadette Church June 29 to witness Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted bestow the universal Church’s highest honor for the laity on one of the parish’s founding couples.

Alan and Paula Sears were invested in the Equestrian Order of St. Gregory the Great, fittingly in the middle of the nationwide Fortnight for Freedom. The order was established by Pope Gregory XVI in 1831 and the honor of membership in the order is given in recognition of extraordinary service to the Holy See.

Alan is the founder and former president and general counsel of Alliance Defending Freedom, an internationally acclaimed organization that fights to preserve religious liberty, traditional marriage and the sanctity of human life. His wife, Paula, has been at his side for 28 years, traveling the nation and the globe with him. The couple’s now-grown four children often accompanied their parents on the treks as the Sears worked to spread the vision of ADF.

With Alan at the helm of ADF for the first 23 years of its existence — he still works more than fulltime hours on behalf of the organization — ADF has scored 49 victories at the U.S. Supreme Court, trained thousands of attorneys and law students and staunchly defended religious liberty, life and marriage worldwide.

The solemn Vespers service, celebrated on the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, began with the singing of “Faith of Our Fathers,” a hymn that honors the sacrifice of the martyrs of the Church.

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted pins the medal of the Order of St. Gregory the Great on Alliance Defending Freedom founder Alan Sears. He would pin the medal on Sears’ wife, Paula, moments later. (Bruce Ellefson/ADF)

Fr. Frederick Adamson, vicar general and moderator of the curia, presented the Sears to Bishop Olmsted for investiture, pointing to the couple’s living out of their vocation in their home, parish and the public square.

“Alan’s passion and dedication to support religious liberty, the sanctity of life, marriage and family have had a lasting impact locally, nationally and internationally,” Fr. Adamson said. “Paula’s support of Alan and his work provided him the strength to champion the cause of people who found their beliefs being challenged by modern secular ideologies.”

Bishop Olmsted’s homily highlighted the courageous example of Sts. Peter and Paul, who both gave their lives as martyrs. “They’re honored together,” the bishop said, “a recognition of how God works in twos.” The Vespers service held up the example of the two Apostles as the Church throughout the world gave thanks for their courageous witness.

“We gather also to honor two faithful witnesses to Christ, Paula and Alan Sears,” Bishop Olmsted said. “It is my privilege to invest them” in the Order of St. Gregory.

Hand in hand, Alan and Paula approached the foot of the altar where Bishop Olmsted stood. He asked them if they were willing to maintain “unswerving fidelity” to God and the sovereign pontiff, to which they responded in unison, “I do.” He read the English translation of the proclamation of the Church signed by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State.

The proclamations from the Vatican naming Alan and Paula Sears as a Knight and Dame of the Order of St. Gregory the Great were on display at the solemn Vespers service June 29 at St. Bernadette Parish in Scottsdale. (Bruce Ellefson/ADF)

Bishop Olmsted then removed his miter and prayed a blessing over the insignia which he sprinkled with holy water. Replacing his miter, he turned to the Sears and declared:

“In the name of Holy Father Francis, I hereby invest you with the insignia of a Knight of St. Gregory the Great. He pinned the eight-pointed cross on Alan’s jacket, then turned and pronounced Paula a Dame of St. Gregory the Great before pinning on her insignia.

The couple received a standing ovation from the crowd. The Sears now join the company of such illustrious fellow members of the order as the late G.K. Chesterton, Eunice Kennedy Shriver and Bob Hope.

Ron Johnson, executive director of the Arizona Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the Catholic bishops of Arizona, said he was “overwhelmed” at seeing the ceremony.

“It was very impressive. They are such humble people,” Johnson said. “They never take any credit — there couldn’t be a more deserving couple.”

The Sears, for their part, said they were both overwhelmed and humbled by the investiture into the papal order.

Paula said the ceremony was a reminder of “the sobering reality that we are called to never falter to defend the Church and all her teachings.”

“All I could think through the evening was, ‘How can we use this to lift up those who are downtrodden and downhearted?’” Alan said. “We have determined to dedicate this honor to lift up those who are discouraged — to tell people that the Holy Father has personally reached out to let it be known that he understands the justice of their cause.”