Hebrew-speaking Catholic community flourishes in Jerusalem

JERUSALEM — A smiling priest takes the tiny hand of the child tugging at his vestments, even before he leaves the altar, and together they jubilantly process out of the Sunday Mass as the congregants belt out an uplifting worship song in Hebrew.

Jesuit Fr. David Neuhaus, patriarchal vicar for the St. James Vicariate for Hebrew speaking Catholics in Israel, lights a baptismal candle during a baptism ceremony at Mass for the Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Israel. The Mass occurred on the Jewish feast of Tabernacles in 2014 at the Church of Our Lady Ark of the Covenant in Kiryat Yearim. (CNS photo | courtesy www.catholic.co.il)

The community of Catholics, or kehilla, as it is known in Hebrew, is as diverse as they come: Israelis, foreign students, migrants and asylum seekers and religious from around the world, spanning several generations and cultures.

But true to its mission, this congregation of Hebrew-speaking Catholics is a family providing an oasis of prayer and joy in the Holy City.

“Never has there been a church that has spoken Hebrew and lived within a society that is majority Jewish since the first century,” said Jesuit Fr. David Neuhaus, patriarchal vicar for the St. James Vicariate for Hebrew speaking Catholics in Israel.

The community is celebrating the 60th anniversary of the promulgation of the Work of St. James as a Catholic association dedicated to developing Hebrew-speaking Catholic communities in Israel.

The Jerusalem congregation, meeting at the House of St. Simeon and St. Anne, is one of seven such communities in Israel. There are seven Sunday Masses in the Tel Aviv area alone to accommodate the large number of Catholic migrants from the Philippines, Eritrea and Ethiopia.

The youngest among the Jerusalem congregants are infants, while the oldest — and a founding member — is a 94-year-old Bulgarian woman religious affiliated with the Sisters of Zion. Some are Jews who became Catholic, while others are Christian members of Jewish families. Still, there are others who may not have Jewish roots but are more comfortable worshiping in their adopted language of Hebrew.

Jesus’ love is what unites the community at Mass celebrated in Hebrew, a language never before used for Christian life and liturgy until the present, Fr. Neuhaus said. The Mass is the same as that prayed around the world, but “with minor concessions to the particularity of praying in Hebrew,” he explained.

For example, the liturgy begins by lighting two candles representing the Old Testament and the New Testament, signifying “their intimate unity.”

“Many think this is the Shabbat lighting of the candles like a woman does on Sabbath eve,” Fr. Neuhaus said. “This is not what we are doing. We are stressing the unity of the two testaments and that everything we do must be seen in the light of the Old and New Testaments as the first act in the Mass.

“We are very sensitive in homiletics to always hold together the two testaments and always be aware of what is going on in the liturgical life of Israel,” said the Jesuit, who converted to Catholicism at 26, after a decade of discernment. A native of South Africa born to German Jewish parents, Fr. Neuhaus made aliyah, the immigration of Jews from the diaspora to Israel, at 17.

“Our children and faithful live in a majority Jewish population where they are constantly aware of what is going on in the Jewish world. We need to make the links so they are not schizophrenic,” he said.

“This will give them a much deeper understanding of what it means to be a Christian,” he added.

The blessings in liturgy sound Jewish because they are, Fr. Neuhaus said. “But when you don’t hear them in Hebrew, you don’t realize how Jewish they are.”

Other particulars are unique to the Mass. The priest washes his hands, a ceremony known as the lavabo, before rather than after going to the altar to pray over the gifts. The Jewish cracker-like unleavened bread, known as matzo, replaces traditional communion wafers. The greeting of peace begins at the altar and passes row to row, front to back, like a wave.

Most often, when possible, Scripture is read in its entirety in context, rather than a few selected verses. From Easter to Pentecost, both the Old and New Testament passages are read unlike in the rest of the Latin-rite church.

Fr. Neuhaus told Catholic News Service that the use of Hebrew in the rich Latin tradition is “not simply a parrot translation” but a “real research into why they say this in Latin and where it comes from in Scripture.”

“We try to identify the tonalities and echoes of the Latin tradition in the scriptural tradition to get the Hebrew that is underlying the Latin,” he said.

Although the congregation marks the Jewish festivals because “they are all around us”, Fr. Neuhaus ruled out syncretism.

“It is not a good idea. We are also very sensitive to Jews saying, ‘What are you manipulating our tradition for.'”

Worship music is inspired by Christian and Jewish traditions.

“Sometimes we integrate things we hear that are biblically based and known in popular culture,” said the clergyman who is keenly aware of the sensitive nature of mission in Israeli society and the wide demographic spectrum represented by the community of Hebrew-speaking Catholics and those who worship with them.

“Everything from the Sign of the Cross to the final missioning — sending out of the church — is in the light of Scripture,” Fr. Neuhaus said.

A community effort involving linguists and Bible scholars led to production of a six-volume illustrated Hebrew language catechism. It includes the recent publication of the first family prayer book in Hebrew.

Fr. Neuhaus hopes the prayer book will empower struggling communities of migrants and others. Many parents from overseas received their Catholic formation in their native languages, but their children do not speak those languages anymore because they go to school and study in Jewish Hebrew, said Fr. Neuhaus, noting the importance of the prayer book.

“So when the parents pray, the children don’t understand them. They don’t know prayers in Hebrew. So we are giving them a book to make it possible for the parents to pray with the children.”