During our pilgrimage to the Holy Land with Catholic Women’s League members from Canada, we met a unique group of Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Israel. They make up a small but important community.
The leader of this community is Rev. David Neuhaus, the patriarchal vicar for Hebrew-speaking Catholics. Father Neuhaus has an interesting background. He grew up an Israeli Jew and was baptized Catholic at age 26. Four years later, he joined the Jesuits and became a priest.
Father Neuhaus spoke with us about the reality of Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Israel. After Israel became a state, people began to immigrate there in the 1950’s. You would assume that all these people were Jews. But the church in Israel began to notice that some of these people came to church on Sunday looking for a Mass!
Thousands of Catholics came to Israel with their Jewish spouses and families. They all spoke Hebrew. Father Neuhaus says this was something of an anomaly — Hebrew was the language always associated with the Jewish religion and Christians never used Hebrew.
The challenge at first was making Hebrew a Christian language — Mass, prayers, theology and catechism in Hebrew. Overall, that was quite successful.
The biggest difficulty has been transmitting the faith to Christian young people in a place where Jews are the majority. These children live fully immersed in secular Jewish society with no signs of Christianity anywhere. Many marry Jews and never come back to the church. So one of the church’s main focuses is children and youth ministry.
One of the aims of this church is to build unity among Arabic-speaking Christians and Hebrew-speaking Christians, and also to foster reconciliation among Christians and Jews. In its humble way, the vicariate is taking one step at a time to do just that.
This Hebrew-speaking vicariate also has a special outreach to the migrant population of Israel. Father Neuhaus is also the coordinator of the pastoral care for migrant workers and asylum seekers. This includes workers mostly from Asia, including Filipinos, Indians and people of other nationalities.
Many of these workers care for the children of the Jewish people, along with the elderly, the sick and the handicapped. The vicariate provides them with a space for community and Masses in their native languages. The children of these migrant workers end up going to school in Israel and learning Hebrew. These children also require support to nurture faith.
There are also asylum seekers who come from Africa — mainly Eritrea and Sudan. Unfortunately, Israel rarely grants refugee status to asylum seekers, so these people live in limbo. Good priests, nuns and pastoral workers do their best to care for this community’s needs.
During our visit, we joined the Hebrew-speaking community for Mass. For the Rev. Vincent Pereira, the chaplain of our pilgrimage, it was a unique experience to concelebrate Mass in Hebrew. There were three special things about the Mass:
- During the sign of peace, it began with the presiding priest, since the priest represents Christ. He shook hands and it moved through the congregation from the front row to the back row. It was interesting symbolism — peace starts with Christ, and he spreads his peace to everyone.
- Another detail was that they used matzo (traditional unleavened bread) instead of the regular white hosts that we use in North America for the Eucharist.
- Finally, they gave us books and we sang with them and prayed the Mass parts in Hebrew. No, we didn’t learn Hebrew in a day — but we used books where Hebrew was transliterated into English to make it easier to follow. The music was beautifully performed by their seminarian Benny.
One thing that Father Neuhaus said stuck with me. I will try to take it to heart. He said that having a hard life doesn’t mean that you will not find someone who has an even harder life than you. So please reach out to them, open up and be generous towards those who have less than you.