Israel's Hebrew-Speaking Catholics
Interview With Father David Neuhaus
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By Karna Swanson
JERUSALEM, JUNE 8, 2008 (Zenit.org).- 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 Israel.
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 Europe.
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 and spoken.
Among the founders of the Association were Jews who had become Catholics -- mostly in Europe -- and Catholics -- 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 people.
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 world -- 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 Catholics.
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 enter.
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 community too.
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 Council.
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 life.
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 universities.
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 Palestinians.
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