Beautiful City, Beautiful Synod

Rome was splendid this evening as Australians filled the Vatican Museums where aboriginal dancers danced under the Roman stars. In the Synod, a rabbi, two Muslims, and a Jew who converted to Catholicism spoke to Synod Fathers about how to bring peace to the Middle East. Tonight Rome is beautiful, and the Synod a place where men who disagree profoundly with each other continue to speak quietly together

By Robert Moynihan, reporting from Rome

“There is still widespread ignorance of Christianity in the Jewish world —Rabbi David Rosen of Israel, in his address to the Synod of Bishops on Wednesday, October 13. He is the only rabbi at the Synod

“We share our suffering.”—Muhammad Al-Sammak, political councilor for the Mufti of Lebanon

“There have been dark moments in our relationship. But one should not relate these illegitimate acts of certain individuals and groups neither to Islam nor to Christianity. According to the teachings of the Quran, in most Islamic countries, notably Iran, as it has been stipulated also by law, Christians live side by side and in peace with their Muslim brothers.” —Ayatollah Seyed Mostafa Mohaghegh Ahmadabadi, Professor of the Law Faculty at “Shahid Beheshit” University, Tehran, Iran

“We’re not getting much coverage, at least in Italy. Almost nothing.” —Father Ciro Benedettini, deputy director of the Vatican Press Office, speaking to me privately in the press office today

The World’s Priorities

The world has strange priorities.

It seems we must know every detail of every sports contract, of every celebrity marriage, or divorce.

But when it comes to the most serious discussions in the world today on how to bring peace to the Middle East — the region of the world which seems most likely to be the tinderbox which could ignite into tragic and bloody wars — few seem to care.

And yet, if there is a place in the world today where ideas and plans are being hammered out to create the conditions for a possible peace, and not wars, in the Middle East, it is here.

In Italy, in Rome, in Vatican City, in the Paul VI audience hall, in the Synod aula, and even in the streets and trattorias of Rome.

Rome in these days is the city where are world has the best chance to find some reasonable, humane solution to the seemingly intractable problems which have festered in the Holy Land and in the neighboring countries for decades.

But few seem to care.

As the Synod Continues…

Will the powers and principalities of this world triumph over the hopes of ordinary men and women, hopes for themselves and for their children, and their children’s children, hopes for a peaceful, joyful life, and, overthrowing hope, devastate that beautiful region of the earth, and along with it our beautiful planet, this blue-green pearl we call “Earth”?

I do not know.

But I sense it is a privilege to be in Rome tonight, at this special time, this acceptable time — in the year of our Lord 2010, in the 6th year of the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI, in the 10th month of the year, the month of October, on the 15th day of the month, in the evening, under a cloud-wreathed sky, wearing a light jacket against the cool of a quiet evening which seeps in through the open window in the beautiful little roof-top apartment where I write.

There may come wars.

But the opposite is also true. There may also be a way to grasp this chance for peace.

And the men meeting here in the Synod of Bishops are showing how it might be possible.

By reasoning together.

By listening.

By pondering each others previously well-pondered words in their hearts.

This Synod is actually a school of peace. The Vatican — so attacked, so reviled, so vilified — has erected a “school of peace” in the heart of Rome, in the heart of the world, in these October days.

Four men, four different religious positions

In the past few days, the Synod has listened to one of the leading rabbis of Israel (David Rosen), two leading Muslim scholars, one a Sunni from Lebanon (Muhammad Al-Sammak), one a Shiite from Iran (Ayatollah Seyed Mostafa Mohaghegh Ahmadabadi), and a Catholic priest, a Jesuit, who was born a Jew in South Africa.

And the most interesting of the four is the Jesuit.

His name is Father David Neuhaus (photo) and he lives and works in Jerusalem — the word means literally, “city of peace,” for “salem” means “peace” in Hebrew.

Neuhaus gave a press briefing this afternoon in the Vatican Press Office, and he spoke with stunning clarity of his vision for the growth of a Hebrew-speaking Catholic community in Israel.

He works directly under the Latin-rite Patriach of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, who was installed as Patriarch a year and a half ago.

Neuhaus’s mission is to provide pastoral care for the Hebrew-speaking Catholics living in Israel, and to foster the community’s growth…

Signs of the times?

Now wait a minute.

Hold on there.

In Jerusalem, as throughout Israel, there are Jews, and Arab Muslims, and Arab Christians, and Armenian Christians. But Jewish Catholics?

Yes, there are. About 500 of them.

And the number is growing.

In particular, the number is growing because the children of immigrant workers from the Philippines and the Sudan — Catholic workers — are attending Hebrew schools, learning the Hebrew language, feeling uncomfortable in the language of their foreign-born parents, and of their parents’ churches, and starting to attend Mass in Hebrew in seven Hebrew Catholic chapels under Father Neuhaus’ careful direction.

These children must go to Mass, not synagogue, because they are Catholics, not Jews.

But they prefer to attend Mass in Hebrew, because they are growing up in Israel, where the everyday language is Hebrew.

And when he asks the children what they think about Easter, for example — and the word for “Easter” and “Passover” is the same in Hebrew — the children respond, “Oh, we know that on Easter God with his strong right arm brought Israel out of captivity in Egypt…”

In other words, they have learned in their Hebrew schools about Jewish history, and think of that quite naturally.

Then, when Father Neuhaus asks, “And then?” the children reply, “Then it means the day of the resurrection of the Messiah, Jesus.”

So the children are steeped in Jewish culture and language, and yet they are Catholics. And there are hundreds of these children, soon to be thousands, Neuhaus says.

In Israel, in the state which wishes to define its identity as Jewish, in the land where Jesus lived and died, and rose from the dead, in the land where the Saracens and Crusaders fought, there has been born, and is growing, a community of Jewish Catholics.

If you are looking for a sign of the times, perhaps this should draw your attention.

Here is Neuhaus’s condensed biography: Born in Johannesburg (South Africa) on April 25, 1962. Religious profession in the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) on August 20, 1994. Ordained a priest on September 8, 2000. Appointed Patriarchal Vicar for Hebrew-speaking Catholics by His Beatitude Fouad Twal on March 15, 2009.

I believe we will hear much from in the years to come.

Should you wish to contact him by mail or phone:

Address: P.O.B. 581 Jerusalem 91004

e-mail: [email protected]

The Hebrew-Catholic Vicariate

The Apostolate of Saint James the Apostle, approved by the Patriarch Alberto Gori on February 11, 1955, was founded in order to answer the pastoral needs of Hebrew-speaking Catholics, Jews and non-Jews.

The three main missions of the vicariate are:

1. To establish and nurture Hebrew-speaking Catholic communities in the tate of Israel for Catholics believers integrated into the life of Israeli Jewish society.

2. To serve as a bridge between the Universal Church and the people of Israel by strengthening the relationship of Jews and Christians and sharpening the Church’s awareness of her Jewish roots.

3. To bear witness to values of peace and justice, forgiveness and reconciliation within a context of violence and war.

Today, there is a Hebrew-speaking community in four major cities: Jerusalem, Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Haifa and Beersheva. The Vicariate includes two Russian communities whose members are integrated into Israeli society.

Web site :

Numbers Rising, Not Falling

Here is a recent Zenit news story which explains the context of this phenomenon:

ROME, October 8, 2010 – On the eve of the Synod on “The Catholic Church in the Middle East: Communion and Witness,” which will be held at the Vatican from October 10-24, it is the very presence of Catholics in those lands that poses problems.

Many of the members of indigenous communities, heirs of the ancient forms of Christianity that flourished there before the arrival of Islam, are fleeing.

The ones who remain live here and there in terror, for example in northern Iraq, in Mosul and the surrounding area, where in order to defend themselves they tend to make ghettos in the plain of Nineveh.

But elsewhere, many other Catholics come for employment, in great numbers. Especially from Asia and above all to the countries of the Gulf.

For example, in Kuwait alone there are two million immigrant workers, twice the number of Kuwaiti citizens. There are 350,000 Catholics, most of them from the Philippines and India. The flow of these immigrants is so massive, in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, that in Rome they are studying how to redraw the boundaries of the vicariates in that area, dividing into several parts the immense vicariate of Arabia that today combines Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Bahrain.

Finally there is the special case of the Catholics in Israel, another situation in complete flux.

First of all, the number of Christians within the borders of Israel has not been falling, but in absolute terms it has risen year after year: from 34,000 in 1949 to 150,000 in 2008, the last official figure.

One can speak only of a slight reduction in percentage terms – from 3 to 2 percent – because in the same span of time the number of Jewish citizens has grown from one million to 5.5 million, thanks to immigration from abroad, and the number of Muslims from 111,000 to 1.2 million.

Most of the Christians in Israel live in Galilee, while there are 15,000 of them in Jerusalem.

The exodus of Christians that has set off alarms therefore does not regard Israel, but rather the Holy Land, a geographically flexible term that extends to the Palestinian Territories and parts of the neighboring Arab countries, all the way to Turkey and Cyprus.

The news of greatest interest, within the borders of Israel, concerns the Hebrew-speaking Catholics.

The Latin patriarchate of Jerusalem has a specific vicariate dedicated to them, and entrusted today to Jesuit Fr. David Neuhaus, an Israeli Jew who converted to Christianity.

Until a few years ago, there were just a few hundred Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Israel. But they are growing steadily, and today number at least seven communities: in Jerusalem, Jaffa, Be’er Sheva, Haifa, Tiberias, Latrun, and Nazareth.

In an interview with the Italian magazine “Il Regno,” Fr. Neuhaus explained that these communities have been formed by four contributions.

The first contribution came from the Jews who came to Israel in a series of migratory waves, among whom were Catholics, by birth or by conversion, who became an integral part of Hebrew-speaking Israeli society. The last great migratory wave, after 1990, came from the collapse of the Soviet empire.

The second contribution comes from the arrival of foreign workers in Israel. Today there are about 200,000 of them. They come from Africa, from Latin America, from Eastern Europe, and most of all from Asia. Some 40,000 have come from the Philippines, most of them Catholic women. Their children, born and baptized in Israel, go to school, learn Hebrew, and assimilate into Israeli society.

The third contribution comes from the 2-3 thousand Lebanese Maronites who moved to Israel after the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon, and from the African refugees coming above all from southern Sudan, where there are many Catholics. Their children also grow up speaking Hebrew.

Finally, there are the Palestinian Catholics who have been in Israel since its foundation, with the status of citizenship but in socially disadvantaged conditions. They speak Arabic, and they are based mainly in the villages of Galilee, but they tend to move to the most economically attractive areas. Fr. Neuhaus gives the example of Be’er Sheva, “where hundreds of Arab families have immigrated to work in the businesses around the Bedouin villages, but do not live with the Bedouins because they are of a socially and economically lower class. They send their children to Hebrew-language schools, and so we have a new generation of Palestinian Arabs who speak Arabic only at home, and can no longer read or write it.”

All of these – now several thousand and of the most diverse origins – are the Hebrew-speaking Catholics for whom the vicariate is responsible. Its efforts are especially directed toward the children, with the first catechisms ever published in the language of Israel.

Fr. Neuhaus comments: “We work with limited means. In the patriarchate, the Palestinian Christian majority gets more attention, so the Hebrew-speaking Christians are in a certain sense forgotten. But we are also poor in terms of the persons available to help them: we are an extremely small group with too much to do.”

In 2003, the Holy See appointed as head of the vicariate of Jerusalem for Hebrew-speaking Catholics a bishop and Benedictine monk of great ability, Jean Baptiste Gourion, Algerian by birth and himself a convert from Judaism.

The appointment was bitterly criticized by the pro-Palestinian circles of the Catholic Church. In the magazine of the New York Jesuits, “America,” Fr. Drew Christiansen, the current editor, called it “a campaign to divide the Church in the Holy Land.”

Unfortunately, Bishop Gurion died shortly afterward, prematurely. And his successors were not made bishops.

Fr. Neuhaus says: “As Hebrew-speaking Catholics, we are a minority twice over, both in the state of Israel and in the Church. Sometimes we have the impression of living in a tiny ghetto.”

One glimmer of hope comes from the base text of the synod on the Middle East that is about to begin at the Vatican, where it says that the existence of the vicariate for Hebrew-speaking Catholics is “a great help” in the dialogue with Judaism.

(end Zenit story)

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