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The Synod of Bishops is meeting in extraordinary session for the Middle East for the first time in church history, and one of the few synod fathers who is not a bishop is our guest presider and presenter this evening, Jesuit David Neuhaus, Patriarchal Vicar for the Hebrew-Speaking Catholics in the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.
The Patriarchate is the diocese covering Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Lebanon serving the 70,000 Latin Catholics living in this area. In Israel, only 2% of the population is Christian, and the majority of these (about 90%) are Arab. There is a small but significant number of Hebrew-speaking Catholics, however, that requires special attention and holds a unique place in the Church.
Like migrant workers anywhere, these families are made of the first-generation workers, many now parents, who came to Israel looking for work, but maintaining their primary identity with their country of origin. Many of these are Filipino. Now, their children, who have been born and raised in Israel, are “culturally” Jewish – they speak Hebrew, go to school in Hebrew, know the popular religious imagery and stories of Judaism as a child in the States or the UK would know basic “cultural” Christian stories and images even if not a Christian (Christmas itself being a great example). The vicariate then ministers, primarily in catechesis, to these children who are Israeli, ‘culturally’ Jewish, but religiously Christian. Like Jews in a secularly Christian culture, the biggest threat to these Christians in a secularly Jewish culture is assimilation.
It was one of the first places in the world granted blanket approval for the liturgy and sacraments to be celebrated in the vernacular, as early as 1955. At the time, the liturgy had to be in one of the three sacred languages: Latin, Greek, or Hebrew. If one of those three happened also to be the vernacular, in this case Hebrew, you were set. Eleven priests serve the 500 members of the vicariate.
Fr. David is one of a rarer sort, a convert from Judaism. Born in South Africa the son of German Jews, he migrated to Israel at the age of 15, less than two weeks after the assassination of Stephen Biko. There his first encounter with Christianity was with an 89-year old Russian Orthodox babushka whose principal character marker was joy. He met with her regularly until her death at 93. When he told his parents, as a teen, that he intended to become Christian, I can imagine there was a little scepticism mixed in with the expected disappointment. They told him to wait a decade, and if he still wanted to convert then, he could. Ten years later he began the formal catechumenate process.
Conversant in Hebrew, Arabic, Italian, English, and French, Fr. David was drawn to the Melkite liturgy, but also to the Jesuit community, where he eventually applied to be part of the province serving the Holy Land, based in Lebanon. He is the only Israeli citizen in the Church’s flagship religious order.
He shared with the community about the church in the Holy Land, his vicariate, and about the Synod on the Middle East. The purpose of this special assembly of the Synod was
“…to confirm and strengthen Christians in their identity, through the Word of God and the sacraments; and to deepen ecclesial communion among the particular Churches, so that they can bear witness to the Christian life in an authentic, joyful and winsome manner. Essential elements in this witness in our lives are ecumenism, interreligious dialogue and the missionary effort.”
This gathering of the Synod is remarkable for several reasons. For the purpose of this Assembly, the Middle East indicates 18 states, a region with a total population of approximately 356,174,000 people, of whom only 5.7 million are Catholic, representing 1.6% of the total population. The region is home to seven of the 23 Churches sui iuris that comprise the Catholic Church.
It is perhaps the first time that the Catholic bishops of the Middle East have met as a group. The Assembly itself is predominately representative of the Eastern Catholic Churches: of the 185 Synod Fathers, 140 are Eastern Catholic. In addition to the regular participants, there are 36 experts and 34 auditors, plus three special guests: an Israeli Rabbi, a Lebanese Mufti (Sunni), and an Iranian Ayatollah (Shi’ite). This marks only the second time that a Jewish leader has spoken at a Synod assembly, and the first that Muslim leaders have done so.
Working languages of this Assembly are Arabic, English, French and Italian; scheduled for only 14 days, it is the shortest gathering of the Synod in its history.
Despite streamlining in the meetings since Pope Benedict’s election, there still are some organizational challenges. There is no real order to the speakers’ interventions, for example: Fr. David gave his five-minute speech between the Maronite bishop of Sydney and the Chaldean bishop of Kirkuk, Iraq.
The main concern is the coherence of Catholic presence in the Middle East, the question of dialogue is most pressing in terms of Islam and religious freedom. With Judaism, our dialogue flourishes in the west, where Judaism is a minority, but in Israel where Christianity is the minority it is harder to ‘get on the radar’. Many Israeli’s can go most of their lives never having met a Christian, as a Christian, and those who encounter the work of the vicariate are often surprised to find Christianity taught in Hebrew, rather than an imported western language and culture. The challenge of dialogue can be partially in the overlap of culture and religion, ethnicity and identity in the region, a challenge to separate the religious from the political, at least to an extent. A the same time there is unique opportunity for bridge building in a place where most Christians are Arab, east can meet west and Arab can meet Israeli, all under the roof of the Catholic Church.
In terms of ecumenism in the Holy Land, Fr. David shared an anecdote from the visit of some (western, Anglophone) pilgrims. He took them to a particular holy site, which is administered by an Orthodox monastery. After knocking for several minutes, an irritated monk opened the door and demanded to know what they wanted. At first he refused entry, but eventually allowed them to look around, “but no praying!!” He proceeded to follow them around, suspicious that they might commit the apparent sacrilidge of Catholic prayer in an Orthodox holy space.
“Some of you may be wondering about the reception we have just had,” our Jesuit starts. “Consider the first arrival of Latin Christians, the crusades – the sacking of Jerusalem and the wholesale slaughter of men, weomen and children – Muslim, Jew and Christian alike. Then consider the controversy of the erection of the Lutheran/Anglican diocese, and even of the Latin patriarchate in the last century. We (Latins) have not always been the most Christian when coming to these places.” He continues with the history and information about the site as the monk, who had been listening all along, slips out the back. Just before they get ready to leave, he asks them to wait, “I have prepared something for you” and offers refreshment. Before they finish, he invites them to pray.
The healing of memories was one of the key themes of John Paul II’s approach to ecumenism, and it starts with us and an honest look at our common heritage. Some debts may be too great to pay, but cannot be ignored. Some small acts of honesty can go a long way in a place so sensitive to such memories.