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
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
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
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
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
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
ZENIT: So then, how many communities are under your pastoral
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
ZENIT: What do you expect of the synod on the Church in the
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
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
[Translation by Clara Iriberry]