Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Israel's Hebrew-speaking Catholics.

Reading news reports this week on the pastoral visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the Holy Land, my thoughts unsurprisingly turn to my retreat in Jerusalem last June. I've written about various aspects of my retreat experience in previous posts, and in light of the Pope's visit (and with the free time that I now have following the completion of the academic year) I hope to share a bit more about my time in Jerusalem over the next few days.

Some of the news stories leading up to the papal visit have made reference to the Hebrew-speaking Catholic Vicariate in Israel. Though the vast majority of the estimated 130,000 Catholics in Israel and Palestine are Palestinian Arabs, several hundred are Hebrew-speakers integrated into Israeli society. Though small in size, the Hebrew-speaking Catholic community is very diverse, including some who were born Jewish and were baptized as adults, foreign-born Catholics who are married to Israeli Jews, a few expatriate Catholic priests and religious, and immigrants from various parts of the world (particularly former Soviet states). You can read more about this unique community and the challenges that it faces in recent stories from the AFP and the BBC as well as in a 2008 Zenit interview with Israeli Jesuit David Neuhaus, who was recently named the Latin Patriarch's vicar for Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Israel.

Having been aware of Israel's Hebrew-speaking Catholics for several years, I made a point of seeking them out while I was in Jerusalem last June. Though I had visited Israel for the first time in 2000, I hadn't known that there were Hebrew-speaking Catholics until Pope John Paul II appointed a bishop for the community in 2003. After entering the Society, I heard about David Neuhaus, an Israeli Jew who had converted to Catholicism in his twenties and later joined the Jesuits. Making my retreat at the Jesuit residence where David lives, I asked if I could join him when he went to celebrate Mass with the Hebrew-speaking Catholic community in Jerusalem. David readily agreed, and I ended up attending evening Mass in Hebrew several times during my stay.

The photos above were taken at the House of SS. Simeon and Anne, where Jerusalem's Hebrew-speaking Catholics gather for Mass and various community activities. Located in an unassuming villa on a quiet side street in West Jerusalem (first photo), the House of SS. Simeon and Anna includes a simple but prayerful chapel (third photo) with two striking and unique icons (second and fourth photos). I'm rather fond of the icon of the encounter between the infant Christ and Simeon and Anna (second photo), partly because I found great consolation praying about that event during the Exercises and have often reflected on it since. The icon of the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth (fourth photo) is striking for its mix of Hebrew and Latin script and its vivid colors (which sadly did not photograph particularly well).

As self-identified Israelis in a Christian community that is overwhelmingly Palestinian and as Christians in a Jewish state, the Hebrew-speaking Catholics of Israel are a decidedly marginal group. Though few in number, Israel's Hebrew Catholics seek to make a positive contribution to their society by working for reconciliation and understanding in a divided land. At the same time, they provide the universal Church with a necessary reminder of its Jewish heritage. I hope and pray that the pastoral visit of Pope Benedict XVI will be a source of consolation and grace for the Hebrew-speaking Catholics and for all the Christians of the Holy Land. AMDG.


Post a Comment

<< Home