Christmas eve services are being celebrated around the globe Monday in dozens of different languages. And that includes the relatively small and historically young community of Hebrew speaking Catholics in Israel.
Jesus of Nazareth, like his fellow Jews in the Judea region during the first century, spoke Aramaic. One of the dialects of Aramaic is Syriac, which became an important language for Christianity in the region. But Hebrew, which comes from the same linguistic family as Aramaic, was never adopted by the church. That only happened after the founding of the State of Israel in 1948.
Members of the Catholic Association of Saint James attended mass this week at a Franciscan monastery in the center of West Jerusalem. It is one of four Hebrew speaking Catholic congregations in Israel. The association was founded in 1955, as waves of Jewish immigrants from Europe came to the Jewish State in the years after the Holocaust.
Father David Neuhaus is the Latin Patriarchal Vicar for Hebrew speaking Catholics in Israel. He explained that the community started with the Catholic relatives of those European immigrants.
“Very often the model [was] a pious Catholic wife married to a very secular Jewish man,” Neuhaus said. “Sometimes they would have had their children baptized on the insistence of the Catholic spouse.”
When the families moved to Israel, Neuhaus said the Catholic spouse would go out in search of a church. But the language heard in churches of the Holy Land at that time was usually Arabic.
In addition to the language barrier, there was a political divide between Israelis and Arabs. So the Vatican recognized the need for a Hebrew speaking association of Catholics in Israel.
Neuhaus said the community received special permission to celebrate parts of the mass in Hebrew at a time when Catholics in the rest of the world did so only in Latin.
“The Vatican recognized that Hebrew too is a sacred language: Hebrew, Greek and Latin.”
“Of course,” Neuhaus explained that for Israelis like himself, “it’s our vernacular.”
“In fact, we were praying in the vernacular long before many other Catholics.”
Neuhaus was born to a Jewish family in South Africa 50 years ago and he was familiar with the Hebrew language from a young age. He went to a Jewish school and visited Israel for the first time at the age of 15. His parents wanted to help him come to better understand Judaism and the Jewish state. But the trip put him on a path that eventually led to a Christian life.
Neuhaus was baptized in his late 20s. And he went on to become a Jesuit monk.
In the 1970s and 80s, he told me, the Hebrew speaking Catholic minority in Israel got even smaller. Many Hebrew-speaking Catholics assimilated into mainstream Israeli society and drifted away from the church.
Neuhaus said the community numbered in the thousands in the 1950s. By 1990, it consisted of about 200 people. At about the same time, however, large numbers of immigrants from the former Soviet Union began to settle in Israel. They claimed Jewish ancestry. But some identified as Catholics. So the Catholic community in Israel started to grow.
Neuhaus says the last decade has seen more growth, with foreign workers coming to Israel from places like the Philippines. Asylum seekers from African countries have arrived by the thousands, along with their children.
Finally, there are Palestinian Christians from Israeli Arab towns who have settled in Jewish centers and have joined Catholic congregations in Jaffa, Haifa, Jerusalem and Be’ersheva. Neuhaus said it is difficult to come up with an accurate number of Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Israel today.
“We are a small group,” he said. “If you’re thinking of people who regularly attend liturgical services in our communities, I would say that we’re around 600 people in the whole country.”
“But if you take into consideration the population of Catholics living within Hebrew-speaking Israeli Jewish society, we can go into the tens of thousands.”
Neuhaus said one of the challenges of being Catholic in Hebrew has been to invent a meaningful vocabulary. Take the words mass, trinity and transubstantiation, for example. These terms are not found in the Jewish tradition. Even the word for the name of Jesus was problematic.
“If you go around in the streets of Israel and you talk about ‘that man from Nazareth,’ the word that is used is not his name but an acronym, an abbreviation of a very polemical curse against him.”
“Yeshu is an acronym for, ‘may his name and his memory be erased.’”
Neuhaus said Catholics insist on using the Hebrew name Yehoshua to refer to Jesus. And it has caught on, he said. More and more Israelis, according to Neuhaus, now call Jesus by his proper name in Hebrew.
Many Jewish Israelis have an ambiguous reaction when they first encounter Hebrew speaking Catholics in Israel, Neuhaus said. “On the one side, Jews are delighted to discover that Christians are taking them seriously to learn their language [and] pray in their language.”
At the same time, Neuhaus said there can suspicion. “Why are they doing this? Are they trying to convince us of the truth of their religion?”
The history of Jewish-Christian relations is a fraught one. Given that, Neuhaus said the St. James Vicariate sees a vital part of its role in Israel as an opportunity to build up the dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people.