|Interview With Father David Neuhaus
By Karna Swanson
JERUSALEM, 8 JUNE 2008 (ZENIT)
For a Hebrew-speaking Catholic living
in Israel, fostering Jewish-Catholic relations isn't simply a part of
the faith, it's a way of life, according to an Israeli priest.
Jesuit Father David Mark Neuhaus, who comes from a Jewish family, is the
secretary-general of the Hebrew-speaking Catholic Vicariate in Israel,
known also as the the Association of St. James, and serves as the priest
in charge of the Hebrew-speaking Catholic community in Haifa.
In this interview with ZENIT, Father Neuhaus comments on the history,
mission and challenges facing the Hebrew-speaking Catholic community in
Q: You say on your Web site that being a Hebrew-speaking Catholic
community within a predominantly Jewish society is a new experience in
the history of the Church. What led to the establishment of the
Association of St. James?
Father Neuhaus: The Association of St. James that became the
Hebrew-speaking Catholic Vicariate was officially established as a part
of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem in 1955. This was shortly after
the establishment of the state of Israel. It was founded in order to
serve the myriads of Catholics who had immigrated to Israel, often
within mixed Jewish-Catholic families, and they came predominantly from
It was also founded as a Catholic presence within Jewish society to
nurture a new type of relationship between Catholics and Jews. The new
reality of a Jewish state with Hebrew as the official language rendered
important the existence of a Catholic milieu in which Hebrew was used
Among the founders of the Association were Jews who had become Catholics
mostly in Europe
mostly from Europe
who had a vocation to live in solidarity with the Jewish people in the
state of Israel. Our founding fathers and mothers had a vision of a
Hebrew-speaking Catholic community at home within the Jewish people in
Israel and living its life of faith in profound dialogue and solidarity
with the Jewish people.
In 2003, Pope John Paul II made the patriarchal vicar of the
Hebrew-speaking Catholics, Benedictine Father Jean-Baptiste Gourion, an
auxiliary bishop to the Latin patriarch, a step that furthered
recognition of this reality within the Church of the Holy Land.
Q: What new perspective does a Hebrew-speaking Catholic in the Holy Land
have to offer?
Father Neuhaus: A Hebrew-speaking Catholic lives within the only Jewish
society that constitutes a majority, where the rhythm of day-to-day life
is established by Jewish religion, history and culture. For us, the
universal Catholic reflection on the Jewish identity of Jesus and the
Jewish roots of our faith is not just one element in our renewal after
the Second Vatican Council. It is also part of our daily existence.
Dialogue with Jews here is not with a marginal minority but with the
dominant majority. As part of our attempts to inculturate, we are
challenged to integrate into our Catholic identity, into our liturgy and
into our thinking, this daily encounter with Judaism and the Jewish
All of this takes place within the very land that is at the center of
the biblical narrative, the land in which biblical Israel, her prophets
and Our Lord Jesus walked, taught and lived.
Q: There are Hebrew-speaking Catholic communities in the four major
cities in Israel. How large are these communities? Are they growing?
What are the major obstacles they face?
Father Neuhaus: Today we have communities in the four biggest cities in
Israel: Jerusalem, Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Beer Sheba and Haifa, with faithful
spread in many other places too. We are a very small community made up
of a few hundred people. Despite our small size and the slow rate of
growth, our reality is a vibrant one and our centers are true oases of
prayer and fellowship.
However, there are also numerous problems to overcome. Our communities,
small in size, are very diverse. We have faithful from many parts of the
from Russia, France, Poland, the United States, Italy, India, etc.
in addition to Israelis. Some are Jews and some are not. Some are
Israelis, some have been here many years, some have just arrived. Some
speak Hebrew, some do not. Some are Catholics by baptism at birth, some
are Catholics by baptism late in life.
Our priests are predominantly from Europe and it takes many years to
learn the language and culture. Our faithful of Jewish origin are often
single people who have made courageous decisions in their lives and come
to us without families. Some also have to deal with opposition from
their families and the general society because of the choices they have
made, and some choose to live in utmost discretion and even secrecy.
There is very little institutional support
schools, social and cultural services
for Catholics who are Hebrew-speaking, and families who have immigrated
to Israel in recent years
predominantly from the ex-Soviet Union
often choose to leave Israel if they want to raise their children as
Those families that do stay often see their children assimilate into a
general Jewish secular population that practices no religion. Finally,
the small size of our communities necessitates a constant vigilance in
order to build community and not allow divisiveness or factionalism to
Q: In addition to Hebrew-speaking Catholics, what other Catholic
communities are active in Israel?
Father Neuhaus: Hebrew-speaking Catholics are only a very small part of
the wider Catholic Church in Israel. Most Catholics are Arabic-speaking
either Arab citizens of the state of Israel or Palestinian Arab
Catholics in the Palestinian territories.
Roman Catholics, under the jurisdiction of the Latin Patriarch of
Jerusalem are only one part of the Catholic population. Most Catholics
in Israel are Greek Catholics, and there are Maronite, Syrian and
Armenian Catholics too.
Relations between Hebrew-speaking Catholics and their Arab brothers and
sisters in faith are complex because of our difficult political
situation, but unity of the Church is preserved by our ecclesial
leadership as a Christian witness to the possibilities of reconciliation
and peace. In Beer Sheba and in Haifa, where political tensions are not
as intense, there are Arab Catholics who frequent our communities.
Interestingly, at the present time, the patriarchal vicar for the
Hebrew-speaking communities, Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, is also the
Custodian of the Holy Land, the head of the Franciscan order in the Holy
Land, who has extensive responsibilities within the Arab Catholic
The present Latin patriarch, His Beatitude Michel Sabbah, is the first
Palestinian Arab patriarch of Jerusalem, and he also speaks fluent
Hebrew. I, myself, am secretary-general of the vicariate and am also
professor of Scripture at the Arabic-speaking diocesan seminary and at
the Palestinian Catholic University in Bethlehem.
Q: In what ways is the Hebrew-speaking Catholic community fostering ties
with the Israeli Jewish society?
Father Neuhaus: Our aim is not just to foster ties, but to live within
the society. We are not an association for dialogue, but rather a
pastoral service for our faithful. However, efforts are made to
facilitate integration into Israeli Jewish society.
First, we live our lives in Hebrew. Second, our lives follow the rhythm
of Jewish Israeli society. Additionally, in our communities we keep up
with what is going on in the field of Jewish-Christian dialogue and we
try to make our own contribution.
There is still a rather negative attitude to Christianity in general and
to the Catholic Church in particular within Jewish Israeli society,
partly due to the long centuries of troubled relations between Jews and
Christians in Europe. We see as part of our task bringing to the
attention of our society in Israel the enormous changes that the Church
has seen in relationship to the Jewish people since the Second Vatican
Q: Have Hebrew-speaking Catholics been able to integrate fully into
Israeli society? For example, are there Catholics involved in politics,
education and business?
Father Neuhaus: Some Hebrew-speaking Catholics
those who are Jewish Israelis before they become Catholics
are fully integrated within the society. In addition, some
Hebrew-speaking Catholics who came to Israel from elsewhere have indeed
made contributions to the society through their integration in daily
First and foremost, our communities contribute to the general society by
being places of life and prayer in the midst of a society at war. One of
our special vocations is to pray for peace and justice.
In the field of education, we have had a number of prominent members
active in teaching in Israeli academic institutions. One of our founding
fathers, Dominican Father Marcel Dubois, served as head of the
philosophy department at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Other members
teach theology, archaeology, history and other fields in the Israeli
Other members are active in the formation of Christians who come to
Israel to study here theology and Scripture as well as Jewish studies.
One of our founding fathers, Father Yohanan Elihai, has made an
important contribution to the field of linguistics with dictionaries and
language manuals that facilitate communication between Hebrew and Arabic
speakers. On June 4 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Haifa
University for his work in the field of linguistics.
Another founding father, Dominican Father Bruno Hussar, established a
community called "Newe Shalom"
Oasis of Peace
in which Jews and Arabs live together. Some members are also fully
engaged in the struggle for peace and justice for Israelis and
Each individual faithful finds his or her place in the society, and so
we come together as doctors, nurses, teachers, social workers, lawyers,
bureaucrats, businesspeople, as well as pensioners, students and the
unemployed, to make up communities that live ordinary lives that are
sometimes extraordinary because of our faith.
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On the Net:
Hebrew-speaking Catholic Vicariate: www.catholic.co.il