Saint James Vicariate celebrates its 60th anniversary
JERUSALEM- The founding of the Work of Saint James celebrates its 60th anniversary. On this occasion, Father David Neuhaus, SJ, Latin Patriarchal Vicar, responsible for the Saint James Vicariate for Hebrew Speaking Catholics in Israel, published a pastoral letter, speaking of the beginnings of the Vicariate, its challenges, and prospects. He also agreed to speak with us about this anniversary.
How was the Vicariate born? What was the first intuition ?
The Work of Saint James (long before there was a Vicariate) was born in 1955, when some Catholics realized that among the hundreds of thousands of Jews who entered the country in the first years of the State of Israel, were thousands of Catholics. They were the Catholic spouses and children of Jews, who came with their Jewish family member to the new State of Israel as citizens and a part of the Jewish society in the new State. There was also a smaller number of Jews who had been baptized into the Catholic Church. These baptized Jews met with the same fate as the rest of the Jews during the Holocaust, a fact that served to strengthen their own Jewish identity. They started looking for churches and found Arabic speaking churches but not Hebrew speaking ones. Hebrew was not their mother tongue but it is the language of the society they lived in and the language that united them as they had no other common language.
What were its first missions ?
The first mission was to gather the “lost sheep”, spread throughout the country and living within Jewish society. The first communities were established in Jaffa, Jerusalem, Haifa and Beer Sheba. The next mission was to “create” a Hebrew speaking Christianity. Christianity had never used Hebrew for liturgy or theology. Hebrew was closely associated with the development of the Jewish tradition. This was an important beginning though as these were the years the pre-Conciliar Church was beginning to explore more deeply its Jewish roots and the importance of the Old Testament. The creation of a Christian Hebrew, thanks to wonderfully talented linguists, liturgists, theologians and pastors, was a great success. Another important mission was to transmit the faith to the new generation, born in Israel and here it was less successful. The new generation was Israeli, culturally Jewish and strongly influenced by the secular milieu in which these Catholics lived. The Church seemed foreign and uninteresting and many have chosen the path of asimilation. This is a continuing challenge: trying to provide our young people a Christian faith that is attractive and a Catholic identity in Hebrew as Israelis belonging to Jewish society. Another important challenge was establishing contact and communion between Arabic speaking Catholics who constitute the local Church, and the new Hebrew speaking Church reality.
One of your main tasks is to raise the awareness of Catholics to the Jewish roots of their faith. Is the task easy ?
The task of of raising awareness of the Church to its Jewish roots was quite revolutionary in 1955, but after 1965 the entire Catholic Church became revolutionary in this sense. The teaching of Nostra Aetate and the development of the Magisterium of the Church in this area facilitated the task and we too were inspired by the developments offered by Saint John XXIII, Blessed Paul VI, Saint John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Pope Francis is also very sensitive to this dimension of the Church’s identity.
How do we understand the « mystery of Israel » today ?
The « mystery of Israel » refers to a verse in the Letter to the Romans which evokes the great mystery of Jesus, the Jew coming to his own people who do not recognize him as Messiah. Today we are more aware that as Catholics, we have contributed to this state of affairs, while not being authentic witnesses of Christ in our relations with the Jews (and with many others). Our own sins of violence, lust for power, greed and jealousy have prevented the face of Jesus from being seen by the Jews. We must keep in mind that God is faithful; he does not reject the Jews and he does not forsake us, and together we must find ways to witness to God’s love in the world.
How are the relations between the Qehillot and the local Arab Christian communities? And with Jewish comunities ?
We work to develop strong ties both with Jews and with our Christian Arab brothers and sisters. Some of us are members of Jewish families and we all are part of the society – we go to school with Jews, we serve in the army with Jews, we study and work with Jews, and many marry Jews. We want to be the face of the Church that seeks reconciliation, forgiveness and who works together to build a better future. We often have Jews in our community celebrations and who are engaged in joint work studies, teaching and presenting the Church in Israeli Jewish society. We must also identify Jews who share our values and our vision and work with them. We are Catholics and and are therefore in full communion with our Arab Christian brothers and sisters. We are called to be sensitive to their sufferings, their aspirations and their joys and sorrows. In some of our communities, Arabs are members because circumstance has led them to live in Jewish cities and the only churches there are ours. We welcome them with open arms and believe that forming communities together we can bear witness to our commitment as disciples of Christ to justice, peace, freedom, equality…
What message, what role for the vicariate today in Israel ?
We must be a voice of hope… We believe in a Risen Christ and so we must be oases of joy. We must not lose faith that peace will come and justice will prevail because ultimately God is the Lord of history. We must be courageous bringers of Good News!
Father David Neuhaus, SJ interviewed by Manuella Affejee.