The Holy Land “dynamic mission”
WITNESS INTERVIEW – In an excellent interview with Salt and Light Television on March 3, 2016, Fr. David Neuhaus, SJ, Patriarchal Vicar, spoke about his vocation and the particular mission of the Holy Land and the Church of Jerusalem.
with Rev. Father David M. Neuhaus, SJ
by Rev. Father Thomas M. Rosica, CSB
Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center, March 3, 2016
FTR: Father David Neuhaus, thanks for making time in your very busy schedule to meet with us during our Jerusalem tour, welcome!
FDN: Thank you. it is an honor for me!
FTR: You are a Jesuit, you are the Patriarchal Vicar for Hebrew speaking Catholics and very much involved with the commission for pastoral ministry among migrants. It’s a mouthful, it’s a lot and plus you’re a member of the Society of Jesus, you are a relatively new priest, and you also have Jewish blood. So let’s start at the beginning. Tell me about David Neuhaus and your experience growing up in South Africa in a Jewish family, what was all that about?
FDN: I grew up in a family of migrants, Jewish migrants, my family fled from Nazi Germany in the 1930’s, found refuge in South Africa, where I was born into the Jewish community of South Africa, a very coherent, cohesive community, in 1962. I had had all of my education within the Jewish day school system, an excellent system of education that the Jewish Diaspora has always been very proud of and with good reason. And at the age of 15, my parents decided to send me off to Israel. Things were pretty grim in South Africa, we’re talking about 1976 – 1977, very dark years in South Africa. As I was registered in a Jewish school, and the Jewish school offered the possibility of sending the kids off to Israel, off I went, kicking and screaming, I didn’t want to go.
FTR: Where was your Bar Mitzvah, in South Africa or here?
FDN: In South Africa in 1975, two years before I came. I arrived here and immediately fell in love with Jerusalem and didn’t want to leave.
FTR: Why, what was it about Jerusalem for a young Jewish kid?
FDN: It was not anything very Jewish, I don’t think. I think it was this pulsating city that really seemed to me to be the center of the world. I did not believe in God, we did pray because we had to, it was a Jewish day school, pretty much I imagine, like what Catholic schools offer a lot of kids. But questions of religion and God did not interest me. What I felt was this pulsating energy, this fascinating city that I wanted to explore and so I went off to explore. We were shown parts of the city but it was the parts that we were not shown that I found really fascinating.
FTR: Which were…
FDN: The Christian parts, the Muslim parts, the Arab parts, anything we weren’t shown attracted me. In addition, for reasons that I don’t even remember, I was fascinated also with Russian history at that time and so I made a point of visiting the Russian monasteries. In fact at that time, I was determined to write a book, I was only 15 years old, but I was determined to write a book about a woman who was canonized in the Russian Church. She was the sister of the last Empress of Russia, St. Elizabeth Fedorovna, a woman who fascinated me, had an incredibly dramatic life and she is buried in Jerusalem.
So I found out that a distant relative was the Mother Abbess of a monastery up on the Mount of Olives. So, on a Sabbath afternoon, a Saturday afternoon, I ran away from the boarding school and walked all the way up the Mount of Olives to try and interview Mother Tamara, who was in a coma. It was not a very successful attempt, but the nun looking after her said, there is another nun who remembers that entire period, who knew Elizabeth Fedorovna, “go and see her”. So I said, “sure”, and off I ran and was introduced to Mother Barbara, who was an 89 year-old Russian Orthodox nun, paralyzed already for about twenty years, confined to a small room. A nun, an ancient old lady, paralyzed – a recipe for depression. But I went and spoke with her for a long time, we spent about three hours together. She was sharing very enthusiastically about Elizabeth Fedorovna, the Romanovs, about life in the Russian Empire and I was delighted, it was just like a dream. And I said “thank you very much” and I went home. It was while I was walking back to the boarding school that I suddenly realized something that seemed absolutely ridiculous. I’ve just met the most joyful person I’ve ever met in my life and I said, that’s not possible, an almost 90 year-old nun who is paralyzed, that is impossible!
The next Saturday I ran away again from the boarding school and went back to Mother Barbara. I said to her, “Mother Barbara, I am not here to speak about St. Elizabeth, not here to speak about Russia, I have a burning question, I want to ask you. Why are you so full of joy?” And she looked at me a little embarrassed, as I think she knew I was a Jewish adolescent and I don’t think she wanted to go there. But I insisted, I said “I really want to know.” And finally she said, “OK, I will tell you. I am in love!” I thought, that explains it, she is whacko. And then as she started to speak about the one she loves, he was there. I’ve never had a doubt in my mind that Jesus is real because of that authentic joy in her witness. I hope that over the next periods, I indeed encountered him. But the power of that joy-filled ancient, old, paralyzed lady was the pointer to him! Then I said to myself, “now what do I do? Here I am an atheist, Jewish, a proud to be Jewish, proud to be atheist 15 year-old and I just met Jesus Christ…”
FTR: In Jerusalem?
FDN: In Jerusalem! So the next months and years were spent sorting that all out. First of all, having a very open conversation with my parents, my Jewish parents who are not very practicing but very Jewish, who ran away from Nazi Germany or their families did. And their first reaction when I said, “Mom, Dad, you sent me to Jerusalem and you know what, I believe in God and he has a son named Jesus Christ.” Their reaction was, “how can you join them after what they did to us?” I was floored, I never thought about that,” I’m talking to you about Jesus” and they said, “but you are Jewish.”
So, I made an oath, I swore to my parents, I said “you know what, let’s all relax. I promise you, I will do nothing for 10 years. Let’s take a ten-year break, if this is true in 10 years’ time when I am 25, (I was 15 at the time) you will accept.” And they looked at me and smiled at one another and said “a deal”, they probably thought, tomorrow he’ll probably want to be a Buddhist, the day after Muslim.” We’ve dealt with the crisis.
Over the next ten years, I not only tried to get to know Him better, but also tried to get an answer to my parents’ question. How could the followers of Christ have behaved in such a way, those that claimed to be followers of Christ of course.
And in the Russian Orthodox Church, I did not find the answer that satisfied me. The answer I was given was, David, the world’s a bad place, lots of bad things happen, you want to be safe, stay here and pray, stay in the liturgy. I am sure you know the Russian liturgy, it is heaven, the Byzantine liturgy is indeed heaven. But I said no ways, I can’t buy that. I have already, in the little experience I’ve had, I’ve seen sisters being mean to one another and out there in the world, there are shining, radiant people who are not in the liturgy. So I can’t accept that division.
And I continued to look into it and two things happened that were decisive. The first was I met Pope John XXIII, of course I did not meet him, but I started to read about him and then started to read him and I’m convinced that on a certain level, my parents’ question was his question. He was really meditating on that. And the second thing that happened was, I met the people who asked lots of questions, that was the Society of Jesus. And so slowly but surely, I moved into the orbit of the Catholic Church. The years still were passing, accepting this ten-year period of thinking, meditating, discerning, good Jesuit word before I was a Jesuit.
Then when the time came, my parents were ready. They were willing to accept that their black sheep son would indeed be baptized and they accepted that he wanted to be a priest, and accepted that he wanted to become a religious. It was a wonderful journey that brought our family very, very close together.
FTR: My first reaction is oh my God…wow!
FDN: Let me tell you that it was an interesting journey that was made even longer because after the 10 years passed, by that time I had discovered the Hebrew speaking Catholic community in Jerusalem, had become a member. I am now in charge of that community, and insist that we retain the same policy that I confronted when I came and said “hey guys, I believe in Jesus, baptize me”. And they said, “are you out of your mind, that’s much too fast. Two years, we don’t baptize anybody who has not had a two-year period of study, learning, experience, rootedness in the community, discerning”. And I said, “OK, that will give me two years to come out of the closet”. No one knew, what was going on inside, except my parents and a few chosen friends. So I waited another two years, was baptized finally. A wonderful Irish Catholic Sister of St. Joseph of the Apparition was my godmother.
FTR: Who was my friend Sister Catherine Casey
FDN: Yes, your friend Sister Catherine Casey accompanied me through many years, before I was baptized. And then I was baptized by a Jesuit, who at that time was the parish priest of the Hebrew speaking community in Jerusalem. At the moment I was baptized, I said, “listen Father, you’ve seen it, you know, I want to be a Jesuit.” And he looked at me and he said, “Why are you running, why so fast…we don’t accept neophytes, three years you must wait.”
OK, I did my doctorate at the Hebrew University in political science during those three years, three wonderful years of research and study getting to know even better the local Church because it was part of my research and then finally was allowed to enter the Society.
FTR: To what province do you belong ?
FDN: That’s also an interesting story! When I entered I said. “listen guys, I want to be a part of this province”, meaning the Middle East. “I want to be here, my life is here.”
FTR: So you are not on loan from South Africa?
FDN: No, I never knew the Church in South Africa. But when I made my application, the provincial who was a very wise Egyptian living in Beirut said, “David, we cannot bring you into the province, you are an Israeli Jew, we are Egyptians, Syrians and Lebanese, there’s a war going on, how can we bring you into our midst.” And very disappointed I agreed with him, saw the logic and he said “go to the New England province, they have a link with the Middle East”. New England, Boston and I was deeply, deeply troubled by that. I made contact with the New England province, they accepted me and then, just as I was about to leave he wrote to me and said, “we need to be prophetic, your place is with us, go to New England, go there, have an experience but you belong to us.” And so in the second year of novitiate, I came to Egypt, spent a wonderful period with a wonderful novice master who was later provincial of the Middle East province. We were four novices, me, whatever I am, Israeli Jew, two Egyptians and a Syrian. My three co-novices are all married men in France. I am the only one who remained of the group, but really the experience of being integrated fully into the local Church, the Palestinian Arabic speaking Church, the larger Church in the Middle East, all the while maintaining a Hebrew speaking Jewish identity has been really an incredible experience.
FTR: What do you experience in yourself though, here is an Israeli Jew, South African birth, living in the midst of this tension, in this cyclone if you will, you are experiencing all of that in your body, in your flesh, how do you deal with that?
FDN: I consider it a grace. I think it is a wonderful grace and especially because I don’t think I am dealing with that alone. I think I am dealing with that as part of a Church that is called to live that. And by the way, it is not to be in the middle, it is to be fully, fully part of two societies that are tearing each other apart, Israeli society and Palestinian society. This is a special grace given to the Church of the Holy Land, that the Church is deeply rooted in both realities. And again, I don’t like, in fact, strongly criticize anyone who says the Church is in the middle. Our place is not in the middle, our place is to be yeast and seed, right in the midst and here I see the Church profoundly rooted for centuries, since the beginning. The first Arabs who believed in Christ are mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles and so we can say the Arabic speaking Church can go back two thousand years like the Jewish Church, the Aramaic speaking or whatever it was at that time, that Jewish Church. When we come to today, we see that God, with his usual sense of humor, has rooted the Church profoundly in both societies and that makes us witnesses of a reality. And what is that reality, that we are one Church, which is completely foreign to the world in which we live.
FTR: Do you ever stop to think that what you are living or experiencing is Pentecost, the Medes and the Elamites and the Parthians and this group and that group and the Jews and the non-Jews….
FDN: This is what we are called to live…
FTR: David Neuhaus is living that…
FDN: Well, I don’t think it is David Neuhaus, I think it is the Church of the Holy Land. It is the Church of the Holy Land becoming more and more aware of who she is, how God has formed this Church because we have this small Hebrew speaking Catholic presence and in the land, we have a very important institutionally strong Palestinian Arab presence in the land. We’ve always had the expatriates, but now we have a huge population of migrants who live predominantly on the Jewish side. If we can fully grasp what the Church is, I think, we are fully grasping not only Pentecost, but it is a kind of eschatological reality of the Jerusalem that descends as the bride. And here I think it is an incredibly important part of the vocation of the Church to speak that language which is very much the language of kingdom. It is very much the language of what seems totally impossible, but which is right now created every time we celebrate the Eucharist and go out from the Eucharist as Christic.
Now, here I became so aware of that, a year and a half ago, we went through a terrible war here, again, nothing new. Gaza and our parish in Beer Sheba, I reflected on that every single day for a long time each day, that in Gaza, in the middle of Gaza we have our parish, Holy Family parish, the people living in fear, the Israelis bombing incessantly Gaza, almost flattening parts of Gaza. And there the people are celebrating the Eucharist every day. And just a few kilometers away on the Israeli side, we have the city of Beer Sheba, in the middle of Beer Sheba is our parish of Our Father Abraham. Every day the Eucharist is celebrated in Hebrew and often in the bomb shelter because of the missiles being sent over by Hamas. What reality does that create? Is this just a ritual or is the Church, everyday being formed as a counter witness to what the country is going through. And I think here, we are called very much to reflect on this.
For many years, we had a wonderful Patriarch who really reflected on this profoundly and led the Church light years forward, always aware that we are a sign, an eschatological sign of what this land is called to be. Beyond all the hostilities and all the wars, the Christians bear witness to what seems impossible, but we know it is possible because that is the logic of the kingdom.
FTR: I was very happy to find out the important role that Patriarch Michel Sabbah had in your life and has had in my life, his influence, a man of vision. What was it about his leadership here in Jerusalem for those years 1988 onward that impressed you and that gave you this sense of Ecclesia, this universal sense of the Church and mission?
FDN: Two things and two things that are very, very clear, perhaps many other things to do with his person, his humility, his wisdom, his leadership, but two things very important. One, is his awareness that we need to speak a new language, that we cannot simply adopt the language of the politicians, of the streets or even of our educational system in Palestine or in Israel. We need to develop a language that is faithful to who we are as Christians, meaning that certain words that are bandied about in the street become words that we cannot use; or that we need to use in a very critical way, words like enemy, hate, revenge. These are words that we as Christians cannot simply bandy about. OK, and other words like pardon and love and repentance, and critical voices and prophetic insight are things that we need to take seriously. So one thing is language, we have a specific way of speaking, that is the language of the kingdom; the kingdom that is already present because we celebrate the Eucharist, and is not yet present because the world is not yet Eucharistic.
The other thing which is very important that he did is to build institutions that speak that language, and make the institutions that are already established aware that this is our duty. The notion of when you build Church, you pull down walls. We think of building a Church, so we put up the walls and in our Christian communities where there is so much fear and I think we can all realize why and understand that this is natural and human, the walls that go up when we are in fear, are the walls that basically destroy the Church and don’t build Church. So Patriarch Sabbah’s insistence to be in constant dialogue with all of those partners in society that share our values, be they Muslims or be they Jews.
I was part for many years of a vibrant commission that he set in place to also dialogue with the Jewish people and to really look critically at what does that dialogue mean in our context. We understand what it means in the context of Europe. I understand that in my flesh, Jews who lived in the margins, who were persecuted and suffered because they were such a small minority. That is not our reality in Israel. The Jews, we as Jews, we are a dominant, insensitive majority. And what does it mean when we dialogue as Church with the Jews in Israel. It means something completely different. So to think creatively about that dialogue, here really, he was a leader and an innovator, both in the formulation of discourse and the building of institutions that is a heritage, that thanks be to God, he has left us and which we must continue working on.
FTR: When many people look at the Holy Land and the Church in Jerusalem, the Latin Patriarchate, many don’t realize there is also a vibrant Hebrew speaking community of which you are now the leader. What is this community about? Who are they? Simply converted Jews in Israel who had an experience like you did? Are they expats that come here and find a good reason to be speaking Hebrew and the liturgy? Who comprises this community?
FDN: We are a very diverse community, we have seven locations throughout Israel and a community that is very diverse. We came out of a historical place which we always try to honor and that is a post holocaust, post Shoah establishment of a Christian community in Israel that felt deep solidarity with the Jewish people after the Shoah. A deep appreciation of our Jewish roots, a pioneer community when it comes to the vision that was then later taught by Nostra Aetate. We were founded 10 years before the publication of Nostra Aetate. Some of our founders like Father Bruno Hussar were among the visionaries that later were able to formulate the vision of Nostra Aetate. That community was founded by few Jewish converts, we’ve never had a lot of Jewish converts; Christian members of Jewish families who found their home in Israel after the Shoah, the Righteous Among the Nations, those who had saved Jews and who also immigrated to Israel. So there was a vibrancy and the vitality in those early years when the community numbered perhaps thousands, we don’t really know, but a hidden Church because the Church, if anyone knew there was a Church in the Holy Land, they would find a predominantly Palestinian Arab Church. These people were hidden and didn’t seek the limelight, they preferred to be discreet. What happened is that over the years, this community was transformed. Many of the youth of that community assimilated into the secular Jewish population. The community shrunk, but then in the nineteen nineties started to grow again and in a big way. First, huge migrations of Russians who came into the country and tens of thousands of them were Christian. Hundreds of thousands of them were not Jewish in any meaningful way but there were many Christians predominantly Russian Orthodox but our community started to pick up impetus with new families who came to the Catholic Church.
But what has really transformed the life of the Church within Jewish Israeli Hebrew speaking society has been the fact that Israel has become a rich country. And as a rich country, like countries in Europe, like Canada, the United States or Australia, rich countries attract enormous migration; labor migration, people coming to look for work, poor people; and people fleeing situations of conflict or famine – refugees. And so in Israel today, the number of migrants exceeds perhaps even the number of Christians who are citizens of the State of Israel and these people live in Jewish Hebrew speaking Israeli society. They are not Hebrew speaking, they don’t want to pray in Hebrew. They want to pray in Tagalog, Konkani, Malayalam, Tigrinya, Sinhala, in any number of languages of the poor world. But who are completely Hebrew speaking are the children who are born here, who go to school here, kindergarten, go up in the grades and we don’t know what their future is. Some of them have already been here for two generations, in one case that I know, even three generations of people who are here and who are in the margins of Israeli Jewish Hebrew speaking society. No one sees them as Jews, they are to some extent socially integrated, what their future is we do not know but we need to serve them. And I would insist that this is also part of the mission of the whole Church of the Holy Land. This is not just the Hebrew speakers looking for more faithful. This is the Church of the Holy Land recognizing that she is not only a Church concerned with surviving behind walls but a Church that has a mission and that mission is also to the poorest of the poor in the Holy Land today – migrant workers who are exploited and abused like they are, all over the world.
FTR: That is also part of your ministry as well, this commission dealing with this vast population of migrants. Among the vast groups that are here, the large groups, who are they? Who forms this other aspect of your pastoral ministry?
FDN: If we spoke about Christians in general rather than just Catholics, we are speaking about tens of thousands of Africans, tens of thousands of Asians, tens of thousands of East Europeans. When we are talking about Catholics, it is a very heavily Asian population, Filipinos, Indians, Sri Lankans.
FTR: They would be here in their capacity as domestic workers?
FND: Care givers, very much in the field of caregivers, but also doing other kinds of manual jobs that rich people do not want to do. So we have again a vibrant community, again not necessarily Hebrew speaking but living very fully in the Hebrew speaking Jewish Israeli society, with the challenge once again of being in very full communion with the Church that speaks Arabic, so that we can always recognize, what we are called to be, a sign of a unity that is very absent
FTR: Let me go back to the beginning, that the Society of Jesus attracted you because Jesuits ask big questions or serious questions, so what are those questions that you are living today with this incredible vocation?
FDN: Well, I think that one of the predominant questions is and it is a biblical question that goes back really to the question that repeats itself throughout the Old Testament and throughout the New Testament and that is “what should we be doing?”. What should we be doing, discerning constantly based upon who we are, our identity, what our mission should be. So of course we could say the big, big question and that is being a question that is a foundation in my life – Who is this man? What is he all about? But I think as Church here, we need to reflect constantly on what should we be doing, what should we be doing? Now, sometimes it would seem absolutely clear, we need to survive. At all costs, our Christians are leaving, our Christians are terrified, we need to survive, let us put up the walls. And there again, the question comes, but what should we be doing? Should we be building the walls? Should we be staying in the ghettos? Or is this man – ridiculous, impossible, unacceptable, stupid! This man is constantly saying to his disciples, let’s go out, let’s go to the other side, let’s constantly be moving, this dynamic mission of Jesus is really a source of very important reflection, I think, here for our Church.
FTR: Father Neuhaus, I want to thank you for not making the walls taller but building bridges in every possible direction. I can guarantee you, this is not the last time that Salt and Light Television will be in conversation with you. Thank you, toda raba, shukran iktir.
FDN: Thank you very much, thank you!