Jerusalem — The traditional Jewish blessings over wine and bread, the Kiddush and the Motzi, echoed through the sanctuary at 10 HaRav Kook Street in Jerusalem. It was a room of striking simplicity — with just one small cross in brown wood.
Four Catholic priests wearing white robes and green stoles stood at the altar, as one of them recited these blessings. But unlike the blessings at a festive Jewish meal, these were blessings of consecration, transforming the bread and the wine into the body and blood of Christ. Just before taking Communion, church members exchanged the greetings of Pax Christi, Peace of Christ, saying to one another, “Shalom HaMashiach.”
At the Church of Sts. Simeon & Anna, all the prayers are in Hebrew, as was this Evening Mass for the community known as the Hebrew-speaking Catholic community of Israel.
This is not a messianic Christian gathering, but neither is it just another Catholic Church serving the country’s 22,000 Roman Catholics, most of whom are Arab.
Active since 1955, the Hebrew-speaking Catholic Vicariate, also known as the Association of St. James, was founded mainly to serve European-Catholic immigrants to the new Jewish state — many of whom are married to Jews — shortly after its founding in 1948. With branches in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Beersheba, the association is fully welcomed by the same society that bristles at the missionizing of Jews for Jesus. But in some ways, the backgrounds of several of its most prominent members are no less provocative. They include strongly identified Jews — including several Holocaust survivors — who converted to Catholicism and view themselves as a philosemitic redoubt of advocacy for love of Jews and Israel within the church.
“We see ourselves rooted in Israeli society with a real respect for Jews as they see themselves, and we follow the Jewish liturgical calendar and observe many of their holidays, like Sukkot and Hanukkah,” explained the Rev. David Mark Neuhaus, the vicar for the Hebrew Speaking Community in the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. Neuhaus also gives lectures about Judaism and the Bible to Palestinian and Jordanian Arabs training for the priesthood at Beit Jala Seminary and Bethlehem University.
The primary objective of the Hebrew-speaking Catholic community, he explained, is to sharpen the church’s awareness of its Jewish origins and the Jewish identity of Jesus and his apostles.
The association’s population peaked at several thousand in the 1950s and ’60s. Today it has about 400 members. Many left to get better Catholic educations for their children. But despite dwindling numbers, this Roman Catholic community shows a robust spiritual commitment.
Most of the immigrants come from mixed Catholic-Jewish marriages in which the wife is a practicing Catholic and the husband a non-observant Jew. Children of these mixed marriages are often raised as Catholics. Some of the original members were Jews who had been baptized to survive the Holocaust and wanted to remain Catholic after settling in Israel.
One of the early Jewish members of the Hebrew-speaking Catholic community was Brother Daniel, whose status as a Hebrew-speaking, Jewish-born Zionist Catholic priest created legal history in Israel when he sought citizenship there under the country’s Law of Return, the statute guaranteeing citizenship on request to virtually all Jews who enter Israel.