A ZENIT DAILY DISPATCH

Catholics Hidden Among Jews

Interview With Patriarchal Vicar of Hebrew-Speaking Community
By Anita S. Bourdin

ROME, 12 JAN. 2010 (ZENIT)

When bishops gather in Rome this October to discuss the Church in the Middle East, much of the attention will be on Arab-speaking Christians and relations with Islam. But a small Church made up of Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Israel will also be represented.

ZENIT spoke with the patriarchal vicar of this community, Jesuit Father David Neuhaus, when he was in Rome last November for the annual meeting of the Conference of Latin Bishops in the Arab Regions (CELRA).

Father Neuhaus says that although the Hebrew-speaking Catholic vicariate is "modest and almost silent," it has a significant message to proclaim at the synod and elsewhere: "Coexistence, reconciliation, dialogue and mutual enrichment are possible!"

Here, he reflects on his hopes for the synod and explains the history and context of the vicariate.

ZENIT: The annual meeting of CELRA was held Nov. 16-19 at the Vatican. What is CELRA?

Father Neuhaus: CELRA was formed in 1963, as a result of the [Second Vatican] Council, and it brings together the Latin bishops from Arab regions, in other words something not entirely evident due to the complexity of our little Mideast Catholic world Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, the Arabian Gulf (which includes the Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Yemen), Kuwait, Somalia, and Djibouti, Egypt, and the four countries of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem (Jordan, Palestine, Israel and Cyprus).

The CELRA represents a highly diverse scenario, despite being within a mainly Islamic and Arab-speaking context. It represents Catholics who are Arabs or Arab-speaking, but it also includes Arab and non-Arab Christians living in a majority Jewish environment in Israel, Catholics who live in a mainly Greek-Orthodox environment in Cyprus, and particularly the hundreds of thousands of foreign workers in all the countries of these regions Catholics from the Philippines, India, Sri Lanka, Sudan, etc.

For example, in the countries of the Gulf and in Kuwait, most Catholics are foreign workers.

The Patriarch of Jerusalem is the president of the CELRA and the bishops of CELRA meet once a year. Every two years, this meeting is held in Rome, as was the case this year. Perhaps it should be pointed out that being "Latin," in other words, Roman Catholic, is not obvious in regions that are within the Eastern Christian world: In some of these countries Latin Catholics are a small minority among the Catholics of Eastern rite, who constitute the majority. Dialogue with other Catholic Churches is essential.

ZENIT: What can you tell us about your work in Rome?

Father Neuhaus: An essential part of these meetings consists in the exchange between bishops about life in their respective dioceses. Life is not easy anywhere. There are many challenges to the survival of these Churches in environments in which Christians are a very small minority and must sometimes face numerous problems, such as violence, war, political, social, and economic instability, discrimination, etc. However, of course, in the midst of all this there is also good news, since we are called upon to be the people of the Good News.

Despite these enormous problems, everywhere there are communities full of vitality and joy. There are many initiatives to strengthen the faith of the believers, to form them, to renew their sense of Christian identity, and assist the poor and the suffering.

Another important part of these meetings, and particularly when they are held in Rome, are the occasions to meet Church authorities and learn of the initiatives and activities under way. Each bishop was able to share his experience of charity assistance in his own diocese and we became aware of the enormous amount of work the Church carries out, despite our very small number.

ZENIT: While in Rome, you met Benedict XVI. Could you share with us what he said to you?

Father Neuhaus: On Wednesday, Nov. 18, we attended the general audience with the Holy Father. At the end of the meeting, the Holy Father greeted each of the members of the CELRA, assuring us of his prayers on behalf of our communities. The warm cordiality of the Holy Father is always a great comfort, and he remembered his visit to the Holy Land last May, but he is also preparing for a visit to Cyprus in June: This will be the opportunity to provide the Catholic bishops of all the Middle East with the "instrumentum laboris" for the synod in October.

ZENIT: Your are the patriarchal vicar for the Hebrew-speaking Catholic community. How was this vicariate created?

Father Neuhaus: In fact, our little vicariate is included within the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, although we do not live in the Muslim Arab-speaking world, but in the Jewish Hebrew-speaking world. Perhaps it is an eschatological sign, a promise of peace and reconciliation that we are present in this episcopal conference, because we believe with all our heart that “He is the peace between us, and has made the two into one entity and broken down the barrier which used to keep them apart, by destroying in his own person the hostility” (Ephesians 2, 14).

For us, the challenge is to live deeply our communion with our brothers and sisters in the faith, the Christian Arabs, within a scenario of national conflict, and our success may serve as a sign of hope for our country.

Our origins date back to 1955, when the first pioneers, men and women religious, priests and laypeople, founded the Association of St. James, to meet the new circumstances of the establishment of the State of Israel and the mass immigration of Jews, including convert Jews, the Catholic spouses of Jews, and Catholics coming to work in Israel.

During the first years, Hebrew-speaking parish communities were established in all the large cities, for thousands of Catholics who were not Arabs, but who became Israeli citizens or long-term residents. The founding statutes of the association focused mainly on pastoral work, but equally on dialogue with the Jewish people and on work toward reconciliation. These communities also became a place of prayer for peace and a link between the mainly Palestinian Arabic Church and the Jewish population of Israel.

Praying in Hebrew, living Catholicism in Hebrew, living as a Catholic minority within a Jewish society is all a very new reality for the Church. The pioneers before us put an enormous amount of work into translating the liturgy, developing sacred music in Hebrew, creating a Christian theological vocabulary in Hebrew, and starting to build a Christian presence of reconciliation and mutual familiarity within the Jewish society.

Since those first years, the number of our faithful has decreased, not only because of emigration, but rather because of assimilation. The new generation of Hebrew-speaking Israeli Catholics tends to settle into the secular Jewish society. We do not have educational institutions or institutions of any other kind. Our very small communities do not create a social environment for our young people, who tend to marry Jews and who very often convert to Judaism in order to get married. Our greatest challenge today is to try to transmit the faith to the new generation, for them to find in it not only a matter of interest but also a support for their everyday life.

For the last 20 years or so, these communities have benefitted from the arrival of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. These hundreds of thousands of Russian speakers included dozens of thousands of Christians and, among these, some Catholics. Nowadays, we also have an apostolate in Russian, but the children of these immigrants very soon became Hebrew-speaking, and now the great challenge is to preserve the Christian faith of these children and to prepare them for life within a Jewish, Hebrew-speaking society in Israel.

For the first time, in 1990, the Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, appointed a patriarchal vicar for these communities: Benedictine Father Abbot Jean-Baptiste Gourion. In 2003, Pope John Paul II made him a bishop. All this has contributed to making this presence of the Church in Israel somewhat more visible.

Another important challenge today is to open to the world of the foreign workers who come for long periods and who learn Hebrew for work purposes. Sometimes their children are born here and go to school in Hebrew … these children, by definition, also become Hebrew-speaking Catholics.

ZENIT: So then, how many communities are under your pastoral responsibility?

Father Neuhaus: At present we have six centers in the country and nine priests who serve us. Really, the task consists in seeking out the lost sheep, those who do not know that this Hebrew-speaking Church exists and that it is possible to live a Catholic life in Hebrew, in the midst of the Jewish Israeli society.

ZENIT: What do you expect of the synod on the Church in the Middle East?

Father Neuhaus: Naturally, this synod is intended for the Church that currently lives in a mainly Islamic and Arab-speaking context. However, with all the complexity this evokes, the State of Israel and the Jewish society today constitute part of this Middle Eastern situation. The presence of our vicariate, however modest and almost silent, can bear a significant Christian witness: Coexistence, reconciliation, dialogue and mutual enrichment are possible!

ZENIT: This little flock is certainly in need of support: How can we express our solidarity?

Father Neuhaus: Actually, we are a practically invisible Church. Catholic churches and institutions schools, hospitals, social centers are either Arab-speaking or foreign. We are delighted that nowadays many pilgrims come to the Holy Land not only to find the stones of sanctuaries and sacred sites, but also to find the living stones Christian communities, of which we are also part.

Our Arab Palestinian brothers and sisters live in a very difficult situation and we are pleased to see that the Christian world is very generous toward them. However, of course, we have our own needs and it is sometimes very hard to find the means with which to carry out the work required in order to preserve this essential expression of the Church in Holy Land.

At present, we have several important projects: publishing a series of catechesis books for our children the first, "Meeting the Messiah," has recently been released with the generous help of the German organization, Aid to the Church in Need; organizing formative activities and summer camps for children; organizing sessions for young couples; forming our priests and our catechists, etc.

Two years ago, we launched a very active Internet site [http://www.catholic.co.il/index.php?lang=en] in Hebrew, Russian, English, and a bit of French, and anyone interested in learning more about this can access this page and contact us.

[Translation by Clara Iriberry]
 

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