Hebrew-Language Mass in the Holy Land: Will It Worsen Divisions?

JERUSALEM — Every evening at 6:30 two to three dozen people attend Mass at SS. Simeon and Anna Church in western Jerusalem, the part of the city with a Jewish majority.

The beautiful modern sanctuary, with its crisp white walls, simple, tasteful decor and high ceilings is cool and airy, in contrast to the stagnant air outside the landmark building located in the bustling downtown area.

While the Eucharist is identical to the one celebrated in churches in the Muslim-dominated eastern part of the city, there is one vital difference: This liturgy is being conducted entirely in Hebrew, the language of the Jewish people and the State of Israel. In the eastern part of the city, as elsewhere in the Middle East, the language of prayer is overwhelmingly Arabic.

According to Father Pierre Battista, pastor of the Hebrew Catholic community in Jerusalem, there are approximately 400 Church-affiliated Hebrew-speaking Catholics living within Israel's pre-1967 borders, an area that does not include eastern Jerusalem, the West Bank or Gaza Strip.

The community, which is comprised mostly of older immigrants from Europe, some younger immigrants from the former Soviet Union and a few native-born Israelis, has four focal points: Jerusalem, Tel Aviv/Jaffa, Haifa in the north and Beersheba in the south.

Father Battista estimates 90% are Israeli citizens. Many entered Israel under the Law of Return, which grants citizenship to those with a Jewish parent or grandparent.

Almost unknown to Israeli Jews and other local Christians, the tiny community recently came under intense — and unwanted — scrutiny after a May 19 article by Jesuit Father Drew Christiansen in America magazine criticized the Hebrew Catholics’ long-standing desire for an ecclesiastical jurisdiction for Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Israel separate from that of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem.

The article, titled “A Campaign to Divide the Church in the Holy Land,” said such a split is at best unnecessary, due to the community's small number, and at worst could undermine the standing of the Latin Patriarchate. It also accused the Israeli government of backing the move out of its enmity for Patriarch Michel Sabbah, the first Palestinian Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem.

Traditionally, all Catholic communities in Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories have fallen under the jurisdiction of the Latin Patriarchate. Patriarch Sabbah has been highly critical of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.

Franciscan Father David Maria Jaeger, a convert from Judaism who teaches canon law at the Pontifical Anthenaeum Antonianum in Rome, is a supporter of the community's efforts.

“There is no proposal here to divide the Church,” he told the Register. Rather, he said, “there is a proposal to create a diocese in accordance with the directives of the Second Vatican Council — namely, that the dioceses should correspond to actual human and civil communities. That is not the case in Israel.”

Father Jaeger, who is an Israeli citizen and a spokesman for the Franciscans who run the holy sites in Jerusalem and its environs, said the lack of a Hebrew-speaking diocese is an anomaly.

“[Israel is] the only nation in the world that comes to mind where the Church is not implanted,” he said. “It is the only nation where we do not have a single bishop who is able and willing to address the state and society in their own language and from within shared experience.”

Although the Vatican has diplomatic relations with Israel and is therefore able to negotiate diplomatic issues, Father Jaeger said, there is no local advocate for Israel's Hebrew-speaking Catholics.

No Boundaries

Father Jaeger, who is widely credited with being the principal drafter and lead negotiator of the 1993 Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and the State of Israel, said the Vatican is mulling over the Hebrew-Catholic issue. Its reluctance to create the diocese, he said, stems from the delicate nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

“There are no agreed-upon boundaries,” Father Jaeger said of Israel and the Palestinian Authority. “The whole world recognizes [Israel's] pre-'67 boundaries, but Israel does not. The Church cannot prejudge the political issue.”

According to canon law, Father Jaeger said, a new diocese must have territorial boundaries. The only way to resolve the issue would be to create “a personal diocese based on culture and society,” he said. “This means that Palestinian Catholics in Israel [would] continue to be cared for by the patriarchal Diocese of Jerusalem,” even if a Hebrew-speaking diocese were eventually created.

In a press release rejecting the assertions in the America article, the community's leaders underscored that Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Israel have their own unique needs.

Community members, they said, are “integrated into Israeli society with all that this implies regarding mentality, culture, way of life.” This way of life is “different to Arab society. In the families taking root in Israel, the second generation speaks Hebrew. A structure is needed that is able to respond to these people's needs and expectations.”

While Hebrew Catholics “understand the suffering” of their Palestinian co-religionists, Father Battista, the community's pastor, said, “our social context is different. The young serve in the Israeli army; they have no choice. They are afraid of terrorist attacks. Their mentality and aspirations are different.”

Gadi Golan, head of the Religious Affairs Bureau in Israel's Foreign Ministry, told the Register the Israeli government “is not involved in this internal Church matter. There has never been a discussion on the topic between Israel and the Vatican.”

However, when pressed on whether Israel would welcome an independent diocese for its Hebrew-speaking Catholics, Golan answered in the affirmative.

“When people ask me, I say,’ Yes, I support this,’” he said. “The local community here has needs that are not being met by the patriarch.”

By way of example, Golan leafed through a book on his desk.

“This book is called The Jewish People and Its Holy Scriptures in the Christian Bible and it was published by the Pontifical Biblical Commission,” he said. “It has come out in Italian, French and English. When I asked the Vatican why it has not be translated into Hebrew, I was told,’ That's the responsibility of the local church.’”

“Michel Sabbah will never translate it into Hebrew,” Golan asserted.

The patriarchate declined to comment on the matter.

Golan insisted the patriarch is opposed to a separate Hebrew jurisdiction because he fears it will weaken his influence.

“Look at the demographics,” he said. “You have in Israel proper 150,000 Christians, most of them Arabs, but the number of non-Christian Arabs in Israel is growing all the time due to immigration. Then you have the Palestinian Authority, where the number of Christians is decreasing every year. It's obvious that the future of Catholicism in the Holy Land will be in Israel.”

Michele Chabin writes from Jerusalem.