HAIFA, Israel — On Ash Wednesday, Catholics throughout the world will observe 40 days of Lent, practicing its three pillars of prayer, fasting and almsgiving according to their various traditions.
But for Hebrew Catholics, both those living in Israel and in communities around the world, the Church’s Lenten pilgrimage is enriched with a perspective born of their heritage and closeness with the Jewish people and common kinship with Jesus the Messiah. “Hebrew Catholics” not only applies to those Jews who found the fullness of their Jewish identity in embracing the Catholic Church, but also those Catholics who belong to Jewish families or have Jewish ancestry, and practice Jewish traditions they chose to celebrate in the light of Catholic teaching.
“We consider ourselves Catholics, like all Catholics in the world, but also with the unique reality of living among our Jewish brothers and sisters,” said Jesuit Father David Neuhaus, the Latin patriarchal vicar for the St. James Vicariate for Hebrew-Speaking Catholics in Israel, who also has a Jewish background. “Some of us are, in fact, Jewish; others are part of Jewish families or live and work among Jews — so the Jewish background is very important to us.”
There are seven communities of Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Israel, with the first founded in Jaffa in 1955. The six other established kehillot (parish communities) are in Jerusalem, Haifa, Beer Sheba, Latroun, Nazareth and Tiberias.
According to Father Neuhaus, the celebrations common to all Catholics during Lent “take on a remarkable echo” for Hebrew (and Hebrew-speaking) Catholics living among their Jewish brothers and sisters, who “can strongly identify with what we are trying to do at Lenten time.”
“We are particularly aware of a strong emphasis on the penitent value of fasting,” he said. The kinds of fasting practice cover a spectrum, from those who perform the full fasting of the Jewish tradition — no food or drink from sunup to sundown — to those who adopt what Father Neuhaus described as a “post Vatican-II” tradition: a fast from such things as Internet, movies and sweets.
But coupled with these fasts is the “very strong theme of returning back to God.” This theme, Father Neuhaus explained, is experienced by devoting more time to reading and meditating upon sacred Scripture, having days of recollection and taking more time to go to Mass.
“We also try to devote more time during Lent to studying the word of God,” he said. “Here, listening to the word of God, pouring over the word of God, is a very strong tradition and is also a good time to do that,” he said.
It is also a time when the pastors invite their flocks to go on pilgrimage to the holy shrines and perform the Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrows) to draw close to the passion of Jesus.
“Because it is the Year of Mercy, and there is a door of mercy at Gethsemane — the Basilica of Gethsemane — it will certainly be a time to encourage the faithful who have not gone there to pass through those doors at this particular time during Lent,” Father Neuhaus said.
This theme of drawing close to God through the 40 days parallels the people of Israel wandering for 40 years in the desert before entering the Holy Land under Joshua. For Hebrew-speaking Catholics, the parallelism is linguistically even clearer: Jesus and Joshua are different renderings in English of the same name in Hebrew: Yeshua.
The Church’s Jewish Roots
Father Neuhaus said that the Hebrew-Catholic communities bring out the shared resonances between Catholic practice and the Jewish tradition. This was particularly evident he said, when a group of Hebrew Catholics spoke recently about Ash Wednesday and the Lenten tradition with a group of Jews as part of a regular monthly dialogue at their synagogue.
“They very strongly identified with what we’re saying,” he said. “It was very moving to hear the Jews saying, ‘But that is exactly the same as our tradition,’ particularly where we underline what return to God means to us with prayer, fasting and deeds of mercy. And the Jews say, ‘But that is exactly what the rabbis teach us as well when we go through a period of penitence.”
There is a spectrum for how Hebrew-Catholic identity is lived out in various communities throughout the world, and Hebrew Catholics serve as a bridge that help Catholics in the wider Church connect to the Jewish roots of the Catholic faith, including the liturgy.
Roy Schoeman, a Jewish convert and author of Salvation Is from the Jews, told the Register that “my Jewish identity is a lens through which I see all of my Catholic identity,” particularly in his relationship with Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary, who were both Jews.
“My whole relationship with Jesus has in its foundation our common Jewish identity,” he said.
The Mass and Catholic sacramentals, he added, “echo very heavily with Jewish sacramentals, Jewish synagogue service.”
Because Jewish liturgical life largely “revolves around the home,” Schoeman said that one Jewish-Catholic practice that is catching on among Hebrew-Catholic communities is the “Passover Seder in the Light of Christ.”
“One is because the Passover seder is so central to their experience of being Jewish; the other is that the Passover seder is where Judaism met the Catholic Church,” he said. “The Last Supper, one can say at the same time, was the last sacramental Passover seder and the first Catholic Mass, where they, too, come together.”
“The liturgy of the Passover seder is absolutely saturated with Christological references,” he said, noting that within Judaism, “the Passover seder is saturated with Messianic liturgy: There is a continual reference to the Messiah. So it is the perfect celebration for the Catholic.”
The Association of Hebrew Catholics is another international organization that is trying to help Hebrew Catholics in various intentional communities (called Havurah) live their Catholic faith through the Jewish experience.
For example, the New Zealand branch has provided resources on its website for observing Lent through the “Hebrew-Catholic perspective.”
David Moss, president of the Association of Hebrew Catholics, which was invited by Cardinal Raymond Burke to base its headquarters in St. Louis and praised for its fidelity to the magisterium, told the Register that one recent development is “a Hebrew-Catholic celebration of Holy Saturday and the harrowing of hell” that began in 2015.
“We do that to honor our Blessed Mother and to commemorate Jesus’ descent into Hades, when he opened the gates of heaven for all the faithful departed Jews and, of course, Gentiles,” he said.
“We light candles, and we say some prayers,” Moss said, with 12 candles representing the Twelve Tribes of Israel. He explained that the event drew from on a series of lectures given by scholar and Catholic convert Larry Feingold delivered at the Cathedral of St. Louis. The event is important for Hebrew Catholics, because Holy Saturday is the day when God fulfilled his promise to their ancestors who had remained faithful in the hope of salvation. He added the celebration also was to “commemorate all the Jews who were faithful and holy people before the coming of Christ.”
Recovering Jewish Tradition
In many ways, the Hebrew-Catholic movement seeks to revive a Jewish identity within the Catholic Church that became nearly invisible after two successive catastrophes devastated the Jewish Church headquartered in Jerusalem: the first Roman suppression of the Jewish revolt in the year 70 and the Bar Kokhba rebellion (132-135).
Schoeman, who organizes a pilgrimage to the Holy Land called “Exploring the Jewish Roots of Christianity,” said that his understanding of that cataclysmic period is that while common worship at the Temple was no longer possible — this Jewish-Christian practice is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles — after the Romans’ destroyed it, there were still communities of Jewish Christians that continued to pray and worship with their fellow Jews in the synagogues. However, Simon bar Kochba, the commander of the revolt, had proclaimed himself the Messiah, and as a result, the only Jews to refuse to take up arms were the Jewish Christians. The revolt failed, and the Romans proceeded to annihilate the native Jewish populations of Judea and Israel. Schoeman explained that the Christian Jews who survived that shared fate found themselves forever outcast of the synagogue and cut off from the Jewish community.
The foundation of the state of Israel, however, provided a context and impetus on the part of the Catholic Church, starting under Pius XII, to regenerate and nurture a new shoot of Hebrew-Catholic life from the stump of the tree that had been cut short so early in the Church’s life.
Schoeman said there are a number of values to the re-establishment of a recognizable Jewish identity in the Catholic Church helpful for evangelization.
“It is very useful for Jews to see that there are Jews in the Catholic Church and to get in touch with Jews in the Catholic Church if they have an interest in Catholicism — and even to realize that there are Jews in the Catholic Church who think that they are still being faithful Jews and are not turning their back on their Jewish identity.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.
A Brief History of Hebrew Catholics
- The Jewish branch of the early Church was led first by St. James the Greater, the first bishop of Jerusalem.
- The Acts of the Apostles describes the Apostles and other Jewish Christians worshipping in the Temple and attending synagogue alongside Jews who did not follow Jesus as the Messiah.
- The Church in Jerusalem had 16 bishops of Jewish heritage until 135 A.D., when the Romans crushed the Bar Kokhba rebellion and banned Jews from Jerusalem.
- The last Jewish bishop of Jerusalem was Judah Kyriakos, the great grandson of the St. Jude the Apostle, a cousin or step brother of Jesus.
- The Saint James Vicariate for Hebrew Speaking Catholics was founded in 1955, and cares for the pastoral needs of Hebrew-speaking Catholics, including Jews and non-Jews.
- The current leader of Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Israel, Jesuit Father David Neuhas, SJ, has credited his emigration from South Africa for planting in him the desire to become Christian.
- Hebrew was first used in a Catholic liturgy in 1956, with a Mass offered in Israel according to the Syriac Rite. The following year, Pope Pius XII gave permission for large parts of the Roman Mass to be offered in Hebrew instead of Latin.
- Many Jews who enter the Catholic Church prefer the term “Hebrew Catholic” out of sensitivity to fellow Jews who feel that one can either be a Jew or a Catholic, but not both. Others, however, use the term Jewish Catholic because it affirms their identity and status as Jews whose identity is fulfilled, not destroyed, by joining the Catholic Church.
- Jewish practices, holidays and observances that Hebrew Catholics keep are considered devotional, but not binding for their salvation.
- Three main organizations dedicated to promoting Jewish identity and community life in the Catholic Church are the Association of Hebrew Catholics, Remnant of Israel, and Miriam Bat Tzion (Mary Daughter of Zion).
- Cardinal Raymond Burke sits on the board of advisers for the Association of Hebrew Catholics and has praised its work in the Catholic Church since he was archbishop of St. Louis.
Peter Jesserer Smith