CAMP ZAMA, Japan (Dec. 7, 2011) -- Chaplain (Maj.) Paul G. Passamonti's ancestors from Italy have an 800-year history of knighthood, so a recent recognition he received from the famed Vatican City there ensured his continuation of a family legacy.

Passamonti, the Catholic chaplain for U.S. Army Garrison Japan, was invested in the Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem during a Solemn Mass held Oct. 29 at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, D.C.

The Order is the successor of a military force that was originally established in 1099 to protect the Tomb of Christ. It has since evolved to recognize members of the clergy and others who make significant professional or charitable contributions in service of furthering their faith and the ideals of the Catholic Church.

"It came as a real surprise," Passamonti, 50, said of the honor. "From my understanding of it, the Order is usually given to men and women who are kind of winding down their careers and have done the stellar and extraordinary, and I never considered myself to fit that bill."

Despite Passamonti's tendency to downplay his 16-year career as a Reserve and active-duty chaplain in the Army, his achievements were nonetheless brought to the attention of Bishop (Col.) Richard Spencer, an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese for the Military Services.

Spencer, also a member of the Order, submitted his consideration for Passamonti's investiture to officials at the Vatican for review. In September, the Boston native was contacted and asked about his possible availability to attend the ceremony in the U.S. capital.

"I said, 'We're a month out from this event, you have to tell me whether it's approved or not. I need special permission from the Army; I can't just get up and go on a plane,'" said Passamonti. "The response came back, 'We strongly recommend you make preparations.'"

Passamonti and Chaplain (Maj.) James O'Neal, assigned to the 501st Special Troops Battalion in South Korea, were two of the four people who were invested in the Order during the October ceremony. They have the distinction of being the first members of the U.S. Army chaplaincy in five years to receive the honor.

"The recipients of this honor have contributed beyond the call of duty, and we are gratified for their service to God and to country," Spencer said at the ceremony. "We rejoice in their selection and we look forward to their continued service in our archdiocese."

Bestowed on Passamonti -- and all other members of the Order -- was the Holy Sepulchre Cross, a red-and-gold medal in the shape of a Maltese cross that is found on the centuries-old coat of arms that bears its name. There are only about 950 living priests worldwide who have been given the medal.

"I'm still kind of in shock when I look at it," said Passamonti. "I attended the anniversary of the Navy Chaplain Corps last week, so I wore it there for the first time since the ceremony in October. There were a couple of the Catholic chaplains who knew exactly what it was."

Likely on the list of justifications that led to Passamonti being approved for inclusion in the Order is the 18 months he spent deployed to Iraq before arriving at Camp Zama in February 2009. He was periodically in harm's way while fulfilling his mission as a chaplain.

"I brought spiritual services to people while they were under fire; our convoys were hit by [improvised explosive devices] numerous times," said Passamonti. "It's one of those things where I kind of look at it and go, 'That's really the grace of God that took me through all those things.'"

Passamonti first enlisted in 1986 as a reservist and spent four years working in the field of military intelligence. He then studied theology at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., before re-entering the Army as a chaplain in 1995 and active-duty service four years later.

Every Sunday morning, and at noon five days a week, Passamonti presides over Mass services at the Zama Chapel here. He says being a spiritual leader in the military is "what [he] was called to do." In characteristically humble fashion, he attributes the recognition he received in part to the people around him.

"I surround myself with people who allow me to do my mission," said Passamonti. "I accepted [the Cross] not on behalf of myself, but on behalf of all those who made it possible."