Bishop Gourion Installed as Leader of Hebrew-Catholic Community

ABU GHOSH, Israel — On a rainy Sunday morning in early November, hundreds of worshippers as well as diplomats and clergy of many faiths gathered in this picturesque Israeli-Arab village a few miles outside Jerusalem and packed Notre Dame Church to overflowing. Others sat outside, protected by an overhang, and watched the historic proceedings taking place inside on a large video monitor.

They had braved the inclement weather to witness the ordination of the first Hebrew-speaking Catholic bishop in the history of the Holy Land.

In August, Pope John Paul II appointed Abbot Jean-Baptiste Gourion, a youthful man of 68, to be the auxiliary bishop to Israel's tiny but growing community of Hebrew Catholics. Bishop Gourion, who has lived in Israel since 1976 and is fluent in French, Arabic and Hebrew, was the community's longtime episcopal vicar.

Bishop Gourion's ordination was the climax of a decades-long struggle for recognition by Hebrew Catholics, who say their pastoral needs were not being fully met by the Latin Patriarchate of the Holy Land.

Michel Sabbah, the patriarch, is an outspoken Palestinian nationalist and critic of Israel, and virtually all local priests are Arabs. The overwhelming majority of Holy Land Catholics are Arabic-speaking.

In contrast, Hebrew Catholics — who officially number only 400 to 500 but whose ranks are gradually being swelled by foreign workers and more than 100,000 non- Jewish immigrants — live and work among Jewish Israelis. Many immigrated to Israel under the Law of Return, which permits the children and grandchildren of a Jew to settle in the Jewish homeland even if they themselves are not Jewish. Most are Israeli citizens and view their world through an Israeli prism.

In making its decision to appoint a Hebrew-speaking bishop, the Holy See sought a way to meet the community's unique needs while at the same time taking care not to undermine Patriarch Sabbah's religious and diplomatic authority or cause a schism within the local Church. For this reason, according to knowledgeable sources, the Holy Father opted to appoint an auxiliary bishop under Patriarch Sabbah rather than create a separate apostolic administration that would have reported directly to the Pope.

Any tension that might have preceded Bishop Gourion's appointment was absent during the festive ordination Mass. To the delight of those present, Patriarch Sabbah himself presided over Bishop Gourion's ordination, conducting much of the proceedings in the Hebrew he picked up during his childhood in Nazareth, in the north of Israel.

In greetings relayed during the ordination, John Paul referred to Bishop Gourion as his “dear son” and authorized him to “help Hebrew-speaking Catholic believers in the best possible way.”

Following the service, which concluded with Bishop Gourion's exclamation, “Finally, finally, we have returned home,” community members discussed the ordination's implications.

“This is an important day,” said Bioletta Bento, 18, a Catholic young woman who was adopted by a Jewish Israeli family as an infant but who has since rediscovered her Christian faith. “I feel we have been recognized. Today I feel closer to God.”

“Until now, I felt we were ignored,” said Cheryl Augustine, who traveled to Abu Ghosh from Beersheva, in the south, for the ceremony. “Now we have our own bishop who can address our spiritual and practical needs as Israelis.”

Another community member, who asked that his name not be used, noted that “the Arab and Israeli communities have a different way of looking at things.”

The Second Vatican Council “stressed reconciliation with the Jewish people and the State of Israel” and “recognized the Jewish roots of the Church. The Arab Church has not always embraced this message,” he said.

‘A Gift’

In an exclusive interview with the Register, Bishop Gourion downplayed his own appointment.

“By itself, it isn't important whether or not the community received a bishop,” he said. “What is important is the official recognition by the Church. We are grateful to the Pope and accept the position as a gift. It is the prophetic vision of the Holy Father.”

Until now, Bishop Gourion said, “we have had the same needs as any Arab church or any church elsewhere in the world” but “these needs were not being met. We were like Italians living in France or Germans in Portugal. They have priests to serve them but no local church. They are strangers. We were not a church in and of ourselves.”

Hebrew Catholics, Bishop Gourion said, “are Christians who live in a Jewish culture and in an Israeli society.” At the same time, Bishop Gourion warned, “it would be dangerous and wrong to turn this into a political issue. We are not talking about Israeli and Palestinian nationality but about the difference between two cultures that are different in nature but not in opposition.”

In the future, Bishop Gourion said he hopes to establish a parish, organize cemeteries, set up schools and educate new priests.

“In short,” he said, “we have a lot of work ahead of us.”

Michele Chabin is based in Jerusalem.