Tuesday, May 12, 2009

David Neuhaus: An Israeli Jesuit in profile.

In my previous post, I made mention of Jesuit Father David Neuhaus, who serves the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem as Vicar for the Hebrew-speaking Catholic Vicariate in Israel. Of course, that's only one of the many ways that Father Neuhaus keeps busy. With a doctorate in political science from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a licentiate in sacred scripture from the Pontifical Biblical Institute, he also teaches in two Palestinian educational institutions - Bethlehem University and the Latin Patriarchal Seminary. Having been involved in the struggle against apartheid as a teenager in South Africa, Neuhaus has kept up his commitment to human rights as an active supporter of organizations like B'Tselem and Women in Black. He's also been very busy over the past few days, as he is one of fifteen members of the planning committee for the papal visit to the Holy Land. The son of German Jews who fled from Hitler in 1936, Neuhaus is also an adult convert to Catholicism and the only Israeli citizen in the Society of Jesus.

Father David Neuhaus shares a bit about his life in an excellent profile published today in Le Monde. Arriving in Israel from his native South Africa at the age of 15, Neuhaus was a secular Jew who had never taken religious practice seriously. An unexpected friendship with an elderly Russian Orthodox nun from the Convent of St. Mary Magdalene on the Mount of Olives changed Neuhaus' outlook. "She never wanted me to be a Christian," Neuhaus recalls, "only a believer and a good Jew. But the figure of Christ fascinated me." Promising his parents that he would wait ten years before making a decision about whether or not to become Christian, Neuhaus studied the Talmud as well as the Gospels as part of his discernment. Over time, "the call of Christ became stronger and stronger. It wasn't a revelation, but a discovery." In 1988, at the age of 26, Neuhaus was baptized.

Four years after his baptism, David Neuhaus entered the Society of Jesus. Neuhaus tells Le Monde that he was drawn to the Jesuits, "these Jews of the Church" ("ces juifs de l'Église"), because they allowed "more room for the individual, for the critical spirit, for the intellect." Since being ordained nine years ago and completing scripture studies in Rome, Neuhaus has devoted himself to academic and pastoral work among Israeli and Palestinian Catholics. Neuhaus sees his most important task as promoting mutual understanding and reconciliation in a divided land. Commenting that people on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict "live in their fear, in convictions that are based on stereotypes and a victim complex," Neuhaus seeks to "pass from one side to the other to say to Israelis that the Arabs are not monsters and to say to Arabs that the Israelis are not monsters either." While he admits that efforts at bridge-building have "failed" for the time being, Neuhaus sees parallels between his present work and his youthful anti-apartheid activism in South Africa. As he recalls, "1985 was a particularly dramatic year in South Africa. Who would have thought that, less than ten years later, apartheid would have been abolished? It was unthinkable!"

Though I've summarized much of its content above, I invite those who read French to take a look at the rest of Le Monde's profile of David Neuhaus in order to get a fuller picture (and, if you wish, to check the accuracy of my translations of the quotations offered above). I got a chuckle out of Neuhaus' description of the Jesuits as "juifs de l'Église," but on a much deeper level I wholeheartedly concur in his view of the Society's respect for the individuality of its members, for critical thinking and for the intellectual life. Indeed, I was attracted to the Society of Jesus for much the same reasons. Moreover, I was attracted to the Society by the tremendous variety of its members - both among the Jesuits I knew before I entered and among those I did not know but had heard about, such as my "triptych" of Guy Consolmagno, Marc Gervais and Robert Taft.

Though the three Jesuits just mentioned and others who inspired me were all engaged in what may broadly be described as "the intellectual apostolate," the diversity of their gifts and interests and the fact that they all found God in work that they saw as part of the universal mission of the Society has always deeply moved me. I'm equally moved by the life and example of David Neuhaus, and for the very same reasons. I'm also grateful that I had the chance to meet Neuhaus when I was in Jerusalem last year; I hope to meet him again, but until I do I will be praying for him and for all Jesuits who, in so many different ways, are serving Christ "on the frontiers." AMDG.


At 5/13/2009 1:33 PM, Blogger Christopher Vallandingham said...

Thanks for your blog entry. I was a Jesuit scholastic (New Orleans Province) doing regency in Cairo. I lived in the same Jesuit community as Father Neuhaus and, in 1995, would have been sent by the Near East Province, along with David, to theology in Paris. I decided to return to my province instead and ended up to another year of regency before deciding to leave. David is certainly a fascinating person! I miss his company.

At 5/13/2009 4:40 PM, Blogger Barbara said...

I share your admiration for Marc Gervais. A pity you never met him. He lives in retirement in Pickering, ON now. Marc was very close to the Loyola Chapel community. Although his homilies were rather freeform, we loved him dearly. He was very loyal to us. He not only knew about Bergman's films, he was invited to stay with Bergman at his remote island home. He was often interviewed in the media on the subject of the Cannes Film Festivals he attended. You may not know, but Marc served as chair of the federal commission that oversees all manner of broadcast media in Canada. Aside from that, he was active in the Jesuit-initiated peace studies program at Concordia U. And don't get him started on Kristin Lavransdottir by Sigrid Undset! He considered that the greatest Christian novel ever written. I read it through on his recommendation. Alas, we never had the opportunity to discuss the film Breaking the Waves, which we both enjoyed greatly. He was a gentle melange of the urbane and the down to earth.
The other Jesuits you mentioned so no less remarkable. I will check out that article in le Monde.

At 5/13/2009 5:45 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


Thank you for sharing your own experience - I would love to go to Cairo, but I haven't had the chance yet. I've only met a handful of Jesuits from the Near East Province, but the ones I have encountered were uniformly impressive - hopefully I'll be able to meet more of them in the future!

At 5/13/2009 5:57 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


The link to my old post on Marc Gervais is actually inaccurate - I've met him several times since on various trips to Montreal, and I had the opportunity to get to know him a bit before he went to Pickering. (I even attended one of his Masses at Loyola Chapel - I know what you mean about the homilies!)

The last time I saw Marc was in August 2008, when I visited with the Jesuits on West Broadway for several days before the start of the academic year here. I knew ahead of time that Marc had been struggling with dementia, and he was a bit withdrawn compared with the affable chap I'd found him to be in the past. However, I figured I could cheer him up by asking him about his childhood in Sherbrooke (which we'd talked about before, so I had material to work with). He very happily reminisced for a while, showing flashes of the Marc Gervais I remembered from our earlier meetings.

In short, I found Marc to be wonderful company - I'm sure that he is greatly missed by his friends in Montreal, and I miss him too. (In light of this exchange and the reminiscences it has triggered, I may have to post some photos of my first meeting with Marc Gervais - perhaps I'll do so in the next few days.)

At 6/23/2009 10:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What an excellent post. I am at a retreat right now where Fr. Neuhaus is speaking on Mark. He has an amazing intelligence and a classical sense of order. Thanks for the background.


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