Israel, Palestinians & Mid-East

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Sixty Years - A Pastoral Letter

Father David Neuhaus, Latin Patriarchal Vicar, responsible for the Saint James Vicariate for Hebrew Speaking Catholics in Israel, published this pastoral letter on the occasion of the 60th anniversary since the founding of the Work of Saint James. The letter was published on the Feast of Edith Stein, August 9, 2015.


Praise the Lord, all nations, extol him all peoples,
for His faithful love is strong, and His constancy never ending.
(Psalm 117)

I. Beginnings

1. This year, we celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the establishment of the Work of Saint James (Oeuvre Saint-Jacques). On December 14, 1954, the Latin Patriarchal Vicar for Israel, Mgr. Vergani, together with Father Joseph Stiassny (Father of Sion), Father Jean-Roger Héné (Assumptionist), Mr. Martin Weinhoben and Ms. Yosha Bergman, announced the creation of the Work. A month later, Father Bruno Hussar (Dominican) and others joined the Work. On February 11, 1955, Latin Patriarch Gori granted temporary permission (ad experimentum) for the Work and on February 19, a first mass in Latin was celebrated in Jaffa. On February 19, 1956, Father Bruno Hussar celebrated the first mass at the Saint James Center (Moadon Yaaqov HaTsadik) that opened at 55 Yehuda HaYamit Street in Jaffa. A month later, on March 21, 1956, on his arrival in the country, Brother Yohanan Elihai (Little Brother of Jesus) celebrated the first Hebrew language mass, in the Syrian rite, in Haifa.

2. The first Church in Jerusalem, founded by the apostles after Jesus’s death, resurrection and ascension into heaven, was a community completely at home in the Jewish world. The apostles were Jews like their Lord and Messiah and continued to live integrated among their people. Many of the founders of the Work of Saint James dreamed of a Church that would revive this Jewish-Christian Church. The establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 provided the context in which, for the first time since the first century, Christians lived within a Jewish majority, in a society defined by the contours of Jewish religion, history and civilization. Thousands of Christian immigrated to the new state. A minority among them were Jews who had encountered Christ and recognized him as Messiah and Lord, a majority among them were Christian members of Jewish families, Christian spouses, their baptized children and other relatives as well a number of Righteous among the Nations, who had saved Jews during the Shoah, together with their families. Among the founders, pioneers and members of the Work of Saint James were those who believed that being a Jewish believer in Jesus Christ made that believer no less Jewish.

3. In 1955, Latin Patriarch Gori promulgated the Statutes of the Work of Saint James. This foundational document defined the goals of our work:

  • to develop Catholic communities;

  • to ensure among the faithful a solid Christian spirit sensitive to “the mystery of Israel” (Romans 11:25), steeped in both a Biblical formation and a spirituality sensitive to Jewish-Christian culture;

  • to work for the full integration of Jews who have become Catholics in the Church and in Israeli society;

  • to continue to sensitize the Church to her Jewish roots;

  • to combat all forms of anti-Semitism.

These founding statutes continue to guide our work.

II. Thanksgiving

4. Sixty years have passed since these momentous events and with hearts filled with thanksgiving, we remember the founders and pioneers, who have preceded us. These courageous men and women: priests, religious, consecrated men and women and laypeople, worked hard to establish communities, organize pastoral structures and develop whatever was necessary for Catholic community life in Hebrew. They began the work of forming a Christian community, intimately connected to its Jewish roots, at home in the State of Israel, speaking Hebrew, a language never before used for Christian life and liturgy, and witnessing to the values of the Gospel in Jewish Israeli Hebrew speaking society.

We thank God for sending these faithful, energetic and visionary men and women and bestowing on them the talents needed to edify the Body of Christ. In addition, we thank the bishops who sent priests and the orders and congregations, the institutes for consecrated life and the new communities that sent their members to Israel to participate in this work of the Church. Among them were Dominicans, Fathers and Sisters of Our Lady of Sion, Little Brothers and Little Sisters of Jesus, Franciscans and Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, Benedictines, Carmelites, Jesuits, Sisters of Saint Joseph of the Apparition, Assumptionists, Salesians, members of Pax Nostra, Koinonia John the Baptist, the Neo-Catechumenal Way and many more.

5. Seven years before the foundation of the Work of Saint James, in May 1948, the State of Israel was established. It provided a home for the Jewish people in the aftermath of the Shoah, the most catastrophic suffering this people had ever experienced. In its Declaration of Independence, the founding fathers of the state guaranteed religious freedom for all citizens. “(The State of Israel) will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture” (Declaration of the Independence of the State of Israel, May 15, 1948). We give thanks that this freedom of religion has allowed the Work of Saint James to develop and adapt to ever-changing circumstances in the vibrant Israeli society. We continue to pray that this society will know peace, justice and equality for all its citizens.

6. As we celebrate sixty years since the establishment of the Work of Saint James, we also celebrate fifty years since the end of the Second Vatican Council, in 1965. We give thanks for the teachings of Saint Pope John XXIII and Blessed Pope Paul VI. In particular, we are inspired in our identity and mission by the teaching of the conciliar document Nostra aetate and all the documents that have followed, which contribute to one of the greatest revolutions in the 20th century, the revolution in relations between Jews and Christians. A widespread “teaching of contempt” among Christians is giving way to a teaching of respect for Jews and Judaism thanks to the Council. The founders and pioneers of the Work of Saint James contributed their part to this change. As the Council reminded all faithful: “As the sacred synod searches into the mystery of the Church, it remembers the bond that spiritually ties the people of the New Covenant to Abraham's stock” (Nostra aetate (1965), 4).

In particular, since the Council, the Church has celebrated her Jewish roots, the Jewish identity of Jesus Christ and of His Blessed Mother, Saint Joseph, the apostles and the primitive Church. The Council proclaimed, “The Church keeps ever in mind the words of the Apostle about his kinsmen: "theirs is the sonship and the glory and the covenants and the law and the worship and the promises; theirs are the fathers and from them is the Christ according to the flesh" (Romans 9:4-5), the Son of the Virgin Mary. She also recalls that the Apostles, the Church's main-stay and pillars, as well as most of the early disciples who proclaimed Christ's Gospel to the world, sprang from the Jewish people” (Nostra aetate (1965), 4).

7. Likewise, in the wake of the Council, Jews in the Church have been encouraged to take pride in their roots and remain united with their people. Saint Pope John Paul II said of one of the most eminent Jewish Catholics in recent history, Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, German philosopher Edith Stein, “Edith's encounter with Christianity did not lead her to reject her Jewish roots; rather it enabled her fully to rediscover them. (…) Her entire journey towards Christian perfection was marked not only by human solidarity with her native people but also by a true spiritual sharing in the vocation of the children of Abraham, marked by the mystery of God's call and his "irrevocable gifts" (cf. Rom 11:29)” (Spes aedificandi (1999), 9).

8. We are also grateful for the development of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the State of Israel. We have participated in four visits to Israel by four great Popes, Blessed Paul VI in 1964, Saint John Paul II in 2000, Benedict XVI in 2009 and Francis in 2014. We have ardently supported the efforts to build the relations that now exist between the Holy See and the State of Israel and we continue to pray that the negotiations between the two sides will conclude with Final Status accords in the near future.

Indeed, there is much to give thanks for in these past sixty years!

III. Developments

9. In the years that followed the first foundation, the Work of Saint James developed, adapted to new circumstances and faced many challenges. In 1957, Pope Pius XII gave permission to the Work of Saint James to celebrate large parts of the Latin mass in Hebrew, long before the rest of the Church received permission to pray in the vernacular, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. After all, even if Hebrew is our daily vernacular, we can never forget that it is also the language of the prophets and the entire people of ancient Israel. The Hebrew language rite of the Latin mass was published after the liturgical reforms and has been used ever since. Another important milestone was reached when the modern Hebrew translation of the New Testament was published in 1976, an endeavor to which members of the Work of Saint James contributed alongside Protestants and Messianic Jews.

After the first foundation in Jaffa in 1955, other kehillot (parish communities) were established in the other major Israeli cities – in Jerusalem, Haifa and Beer Sheba. In addition to these, today there are also kehillot in Latroun, Nazareth and Tiberias. Brave and faithful pastors worked energetically to gather the faithful and develop community life.

Whereas, many of the founding fathers and mothers and the early pioneers have already taken their places in the heavenly Jerusalem, a new generation of priests, consecrated men and women and laity have felt called to continue their work, striving to build up the Church in Israel. Building on the firm foundations established by the first generation, work has continued to develop the Hebrew language liturgy, compose Hebrew language liturgical music, translate Church teaching, teach catechism, author books, engage in dialogue with our neighbors and bear witness in Hebrew to our faith. Today, Hebrew speaking Catholics have seven centers in Israel, regular liturgies, catechism classes, adult education seminars, camps for Catholic children, weekends for families, youth activities and a social outreach to the poor and needy.

10. In 1990, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, named Father Jean-Baptiste Gourion OSB Patriarchal Vicar, recognition of the importance of the Work of Saint James. This was the first step in the establishment of a Vicariate within the Patriarchate, parallel to the geographic Vicariates of Jordan, Palestine, Israel and Cyprus. Father Gourion was ordained a bishop in 2003, another important symbolic step in the integration of the Vicariate into the Local and Universal Church.

On January 1, 2013, the Saint James Vicariate for Hebrew Speaking Catholics in Israel received formal Statutes from the Holy See, approved by His Beatitude Fouad Twal, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, and his Vicars, underlining its special identity and mission. According to these Statutes, the Latin Patriarch appoints the Vicar according to the norms established by Canon Law, and the Vicar, confirmed by the Holy See, assumes responsibility for the work of the Vicariate.

Today, the Vicariate promotes the mission of the earlier Work of Saint James and continues to develop its vision and goals, striving to formulate a pastoral vision and plan for all Catholics who live within the Jewish Israeli Hebrew speaking milieu. The Statutes determine the jurisdiction and goals of the Vicariate:

  • to guarantee the continuation of the mission of the Work of Saint James.

  • to preserve and strengthen the Catholic faith in Israel, particularly among the Hebrew-speaking faithful and all those living within Israeli Hebrew-speaking society, and to aid in the integration of the faithful within Israeli society.

  • to organize and promote the pastoral care, parish life, sacramental discipline, and social activities of Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Israel.

  • to care for the evangelization and catechetical formation of migrant workers, refugees and asylum seekers, and internal migrant workers who live in Israeli Hebrew-speaking society long term and become Hebrew speakers, and especially their children who are integrated into the Israeli school system.

IV. Challenges

The challenges the Vicariate faces today provide a sketch of who we are, what our mission is and where we are heading in the future.

11. Adoring the Lord: Our vocation as kehilla is to nurture communities, which are oases of prayer and joy. At the very center of each kehilla is the celebration of the Sunday Eucharist. Guided by the Word and nourished by the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation, the kehilla is a place where the faithful come to be refueled and from where they go out into the world as courageous, coherent and joyful witnesses to the Resurrection. Our primary mission is to preserve the kehilla, help it grow, enrich it with all the gifts that are brought by all those who serve in it and gather together there, priests, religious, consecrated men and women, lay people, the veterans, the elderly, families, single people, youth and children. Each one has a gift to offer and the kehilla is strengthened and empowered by welcoming each one and recognizing his or her gifts. We come together in a common desire, “one thing I ask of the Lord, one thing I seek: to dwell in the Lord’s house all the days of my life, to enjoy the sweetness of the Lord, to seek out His temple” (Psalm 27:4). In our coming together, we form, in a palpable way, the Body of Christ at the heart of the world in which we live.

12. Speaking Hebrew as believers in Jesus Christ: From the very beginning, the founders and pioneers set to work on facilitating the life of the faithful within a Hebrew speaking milieu. Thankful for the work of those who began and accomplished so much, this task continues today. Until 1955, no Catholic community had ever used Hebrew as the language of liturgy and community life. The challenge remains not only to translate Catholic liturgy, doctrine, theology, spirituality and catechism into modern Hebrew, a great challenge in itself, but to find a Hebrew way of saying Christianity that is both authentic and comprehensible.

This is a dual challenge. On the one hand, the Hebrew expression of the Christian faith seeks its rootedness in the Hebrew texts of the Jewish people, most particularly in the Old Testament (Tanakh). This endeavor creates a vibrant relationship not only with the Bible but also with Rabbinic, medieval and modern texts, so that the expression of the Christian faith in Hebrew is not only faithful to Christian tradition but also at home in Hebrew idiom.

On the other hand, the Christian faith expressed in Hebrew must make sense to all Jewish Hebrew speakers, both religious and non-religious, in whose midst we live. Brother Yohanan Elihai, one of the giants in this field of activity, wrote: “We ourselves can no longer pray as we did in Europe in the past. Furthermore, it is necessary to express our faith in a way that will not mislead the Israeli listener (or those that will read our prayer books and our thought). (…) Furthermore, we can be an example of a return to the origins – to the Tanakh, to the Semitic thinking of the first disciples – for the rest of the Christians in the world” (Notre qehilla dans l’Eglise universelle, 2004).

13. Living at the heart of Jewish society: Prayer and community life in Hebrew in a Jewish milieu as Catholic Christians define the parameters of our life and reflection. Some of us are Jewish by identity, origin, history and culture. Some of us live our faith openly and publicly; others live discreetly and privately. Some, who are not Jewish, have become Israeli citizens, permanent or long-term residents, opting for life here, deeply connected to Jewish and Hebrew culture, history and tradition. To all intents and purposes, we are a part of the Jewish milieu in Israel. While we make no distinction between Jew and Gentile in the life of our kehillot, we pay particular attention to the Jewish milieu in which our kehillot live, breathe and have their being.

A “church” in the midst of the Jewish environment, particularly sensitive to the inner life of the Jewish people, recalls the most primitive “kehilla”, the church of the first disciples of Jesus. The primitive Church in Jerusalem within the Jewish milieu was greatly weakened after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70AD and it eventually disappeared from view, swallowed up into the Gentile Church. Today, a Church from within the Jewish milieu restores a missing dimension to the universality of the Body of Christ, promising renewed vigour to the community of believers. We are called to be a constant reminder to the Church of her rootedness in Israel. As Pope Benedict XVI said to the members of the kehillot during his visit to Nazareth in 2009, “In this place where Jesus himself grew to maturity and learned the Hebrew tongue, I greet the Hebrew-speaking Christians, a reminder to us of the Jewish roots of our faith” (Homily in the Basilica of the Annunciation, May 14, 2009). Moreover, we are called to bear constant witness to the fundamental unity of the Old and New Testament and God’s constant fidelity to His people.

14. An Israeli Catholic community of believers in Jesus, living integrated in Jewish Israeli society, serves as a bridgehead for profound healing and reconciliation between Jews and Christians in the land of Jesus. We seek to make Jesus of Nazareth known as a son of this Land and of the Jewish people. It is important to restore the New Testament to its place within the Jewish literature of the Second Temple period. We are also called to be Hebrew language spokespeople for the Church as she formulates her teaching of respect for the Jewish people and her contribution to mending a broken world. As the Instrumentum laboris for the Special Synod of Bishops for the Middle East stated, “Although the Jewish civil media shows a certain openness towards Christian topics, Hebrew-language programmes are scarcely available in the Christian media. Consequently, Hebrew-speaking Christians need to be formed to become involved in such programming in the media” (Instrumentum laboris (2010), 83). This is accomplished through the involvement of Hebrew speaking Catholic professionals in all spheres of civic society, especially in education, the media and social activism.

Historically, members of the kehillot have been discreet and humble in their faith. This humility is a prerequisite for the much needed healing after so many centuries of hostility and animosity between Jews and Christians. When a relationship of trust is restored, Jews and Christians can look confidently at one another and re-evaluate the place of Jesus Christ in the history of salvation. When questioned about our faith, the words of Peter can serve us as a guide: “Reverence the Lord Christ in your hearts and always have your answer ready for people who ask the reason for the hope that you all have, yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15).

15. Living at the heart of the Local Church: We are fully members of the Local Church. Our Vicariate is a part of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem and we take our place there, within the great diversity of Catholics that this Patriarchate represents. Among the Vicariates for Israel, Jordan, Palestine and Cyprus, the Saint James Vicariate for Hebrew Speaking Catholics in Israel makes its contribution to the life of the Church and is sustained by it.

We are all invited to reflect on the fact that God Almighty has planted the seed of faith in Christ deep in the soil of both Palestinian (and Arab) and Israeli societies. Does this have significance for the vocation of Christ’s disciples who, though separated by walls of enmity because of the ongoing conflict, are united by their faith in Christ? The words of the Apostle take on new meaning in our context, “For (Christ) is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it” (Ephesians 2:14-16).

Brought together, despite the walls of enmity, because “He is our peace”, Hebrew speaking and Arabic speaking disciples of Christ are called to show that justice, peace and equality are possible in our land. Our lives of faith must reveal the alternatives to war and violence, contempt and discrimination, engaging the other as brother and sister. Disciples of Christ can constitute a bridge between the Palestinian (and Arab) and Israeli worlds. We cannot assent to injustice and must be sensitive to injustice wherever it is present, especially in our own society. As disciples of Christ, we must also preach pardon as we have an intimate personal experience of being pardoned although we are sinners.

Particularly significant in this regard is the fact that our Hebrew speaking kehillot are also home to more and more Christian Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, who for various reasons have made their homes in the Hebrew speaking milieu. Their children are growing up in our communities and we welcome them and their parents with open arms. Our shared community life and our oneness in Christ can become an integral part of our witness to peace, mutual respect and reconciliation in this country.

16. Open communities that welcome all: We have an identity, roots and a particular context and yet we are called to build communities that are open to all who search for Christ and seek to follow him within the Jewish Israeli Hebrew speaking context. We have welcomed wave after wave of aliyah (immigration) and still have in our midst many olim (new immigrants), who speak Russian and gather in Russian speaking communities, celebrating the liturgy and living their community life in the language of their country of origin. They are our brothers and sisters, living the same faith and facing the same challenges.

However, Israel today is a country that attracts many more who come in search of work and refuge. In Israel, there are not only hundreds of Catholics of Jewish origin who, together with committed Catholics of non-Jewish origin, gather in the Hebrew-speaking kehillot, but also tens of thousands of Catholic migrant workers and asylum seekers, whose children are integrated into the Jewish Israeli Hebrew language school system.

In his exhortation to the Church in the Middle East, Pope Benedict XVI spoke about the place of migrants in the Local Church, “Native and immigrant Catholics together constitute the current reality of Catholicism in the region. As pastor of the universal church, I wish to say a word to all the Catholics of the region, whether native or recently arrived, realizing that in recent years their proportionate numbers have come close together. For God, there is only one people, and for believers only one faith. Strive to live in unity and respect and in fraternal communion with the one another in mutual love and esteem, so as to be credible witnesses to your faith in the death and resurrection of Christ.” (Ecclesia in Medio oriente (2012), 36).

In Israel, the migrants live in the same Jewish Israeli Hebrew speaking milieu that we live in. This means that they are not only our brothers and sisters in faith in a special way but that we, as the Hebrew speaking Church in Israel, have a special responsibility towards them. It is commendable that our communities have opened themselves to welcome these new brothers and sisters, many of them Asian and African. They enrich us with their vitality and we are energized by our working amongst them. Most of these migrants are not Hebrew speaking, however the Coordination for the Pastoral among Migrants of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem collaborates closely with the Saint James Vicariate for Hebrew Speaking Catholics in Israel. Already, priests, consecrated persons and laity from the Vicariate are deeply engaged in the work of the Coordination. These two bodies work together for the future of the Church in Jewish Israeli Hebrew speaking society.

17. Transmitting the faith to the next generation: Undoubtedly, one of the most important challenges of all is the challenge of transmitting our faith to our children. As we look towards the future, we must take up this challenge. The central question is: how can we create the circumstances in which our children can encounter the Risen Lord? How can we build communities that are oases for our youth as they seek their way in the world they live in? How can we attract our young people to think seriously about the possibility of believing and practicing the faith even as they live in secular Jewish Hebrew speaking Israeli society?

We must admit that in the sixty years of our existence we have not always been successful in transmitting the faith to the next generation. A striking fact in looking at our history over the past sixty years is that we almost have no succession of generations among the Hebrew speaking Catholics in our communities. Tempted to assimilate into secular Jewish society in which we live, some of our faithful hide their Christian identities, adopt Jewish customs and even convert to Judaism. The assimilation process is even more successful with our children who are educated in the secular, Jewish Israeli school system, with almost no exposure to the Christian faith and traditions of their parents. This is particularly the case within the Israeli army, where our young people are encouraged to enter the “mainstream” by becoming formally Jewish through conversion.

As we celebrate these sixty years of life, we recommit to the work of formation of our faithful within their particular context, particularly of our children, youth and young people. This work must be accomplished through supporting and strengthening our families. It is in the family that the child first encounters the faith and religious practice of believers, who are his or her parents. Our children are at the very center of our communities and we must redouble our efforts in catechism, in children’s camps, in publishing books and other material for children and youth, in forming youth leaders, in creating occasions where our youth can get to know the Universal Church. Most importantly, we must learn their language and get to know ever better the world in which they live so that our language and our transmission of faith can better respond to their needs.

18. Reaching out to other believers in Christ in our milieu: Attempting to respond to these challenges effectively, it will undoubtedly be fruitful to open ourselves to a fraternal dialogue with the other believers in Christ who live in our society. In Israel today, tens of thousands of Russian Orthodox Israeli Hebrew speaking faithful, thousands of Messianic Jews, as well as Ethiopian Orthodox, Protestant and other believers in Christ are facing some of these same challenges. These are our brothers in faith and as we seek to build up Christ’s Body in the Israeli Jewish Hebrew speaking milieu, we are invited to seek out the will of the Lord together, helping each other respond to His counsel.

V. Towards the future

Show your servants the deeds You do,
let their children enjoy your splendor!
May the sweetness of the Lord be upon us,
to confirm the work we have done.
(Psalm 90:16-17)

19. The celebration of an anniversary is also a time to recommit to the founding vision, and in the light of the evaluation of the present, move with confidence towards a future that is opening up on the horizon. As we look towards the future of the Saint James Vicariate for Hebrew Speaking Catholics in Israel, the different kehillot and the faithful living in the Jewish Israeli Hebrew speaking milieu, we turn to the Creator to ask His blessing, to the Lord to ask His guidance and to the Holy Spirit that we might be inspired.

VI. Prayer

20. Deepen our faith, strengthen our commitment, grant us joy:

Lord, son of this Land and this people,
You who rose from the dead to grant us life,
You who are the source of joy,
Deepen our faith,
Strengthen our commitment,
Grant us your joy,
As we continue to build up Your Body, the Church,
in the Land you walked and among Your very own people.

Show us how to work for the unity of Your Body in this Land,
How to work for the healing of the separation between Israel and the Nations,
How to be witnesses to justice, peace, reconciliation and pardon,
How to show Your face to all those we meet.

We ask this, through the intercession of Your mother and ours,
Mary, daughter of Zion.

Rev. David Mark Neuhaus SJ
Latin Patriarchal Vicar
Responsible for Saint James Vicariate for Hebrew Speaking Catholics in Israel

Jerusalem, Feast of Saint Edith Stein, August 9, 2015