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HAIFA-HEBREW Apr-23-2009 (950 words) xxxi

Catholics in Holy Land include small Hebrew-speaking communities

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

HAIFA, Israel (CNS) -- At the back of a stone house, in a small chapel decorated with green plants, icons and Easter lilies, two dozen members of Haifa's Hebrew-speaking Catholic community gathered for Mass.

Visitors were introduced and welcomed to the Mass April 18, then Miryam Rosenthal started quietly strumming her guitar, and the singing began.

Jesuit Father David Neuhaus, vicar for Hebrew-speaking Catholics in the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, presided and Deacon Roman Kaminski -- one week before his ordination to the priesthood -- assisted at the altar.

The announcements at the end of Mass included information about getting to the ordination in Abu Gosh and about transportation to the Mass Pope Benedict XVI will celebrate in Nazareth May 14 during his May 8-15 visit to the Holy Land.

Of the four Hebrew-speaking communities Father Neuhaus oversees, the little parish in Haifa has the most members with a Jewish background. Many -- like Rosenthal, a 35-year-old nurse -- have a Catholic mother and a nonobservant Jewish father.

When she was a child, she said, her French mother would take her to Haifa's Arab neighborhood -- where the Christians were -- at Christmastime, and she remembers singing songs about "Baba Noel" or Santa Claus.

"I was raised in a family that was very open," she said. "I went to church with my mom and to synagogue with my dad. When I was 8, I decided to be a Catholic."

Still, it was not until she was an adult that she began seriously to search for a community where she felt she belonged. First, she looked for a French- or English-speaking community, never imagining there was a Hebrew-speaking parish.

"I was like, 'What? Mass in Hebrew?' It was like something from out of this world," she said.

Rosenthal, who was baptized at the Easter Vigil in 2007, said she and other Hebrew-speaking Catholics will be on one of the 10 buses carrying Haifa's Catholics -- mostly Arab-speaking Melkite Catholics -- to the papal Mass in Nazareth.

Before each Saturday evening Mass in Hebrew, members of the community spend an hour studying the Bible.

Father Neuhaus, a Scripture scholar, said, "It is not a prayer group; it is not a form of piety, but real study, adult catechesis."

He also oversees the pastoral care of Russian-speaking Catholics in Haifa and the city's mixed Hebrew- and Polish-speaking community. The mixed community was started by a Polish convert and initially made up mostly of the Catholic wives of secular Jews or of Poles who received Israeli citizenship because they were recognized as "righteous Gentiles" who saved Jews during World War II, Father Neuhaus said.

Hebrew-speaking Catholic communities also meet for Mass in Jaffa, Jerusalem and Beersheba.

While there are "very few occasions for bringing Hebrew-speaking and Arabic-speaking Catholics together," he said, the only Catholic Church in Beersheba belongs to the Hebrew-speaking community, so Arabic speakers often worship with them.

It also is not unusual for Arabic-speaking Catholics married to secular Jews in Haifa to bring their spouses to the Hebrew Mass to give them an idea of what Catholic liturgy is about.

Looking at the reading from the Acts of the Apostles for the Sunday after Easter, Father Neuhaus' homily included a reflection on what it means for Christians to be of one mind and one soul.

Even in Haifa, a very religiously mixed city by Israeli standards, "it is not simple," he said.

"Christians here are divided, not only along political lines, but along cultural lines. There are Arabs who are Catholics and there are Israeli Jews who are Catholics," he said.

Building unity "is a constant challenge and an important one," said the Jesuit, who also describes himself as an Israeli Jew.

In addition to caring for the very diverse Hebrew- and Russian-speaking communities, Father Neuhaus said another part of his job is "to try to be a voice of the Catholic Church in the midst of Israeli, Hebrew-speaking society; to be someone from within who is able to present what is the church, what is Christianity, who is Jesus Christ in an idiom that is not foreign to the Jewish, Hebrew-speaking society."

For example, the bishops of the Holy Land have been encouraging Israeli television stations to use Father Neuhaus as a commentator or guest adviser for their coverage of Pope Benedict's visit, but it was not certain they would do so.

The priest said that more Hebrew will be used at Pope Benedict's liturgies than was used when Pope John Paul II visited in 2000, but it will still be very little because of the sensitivity surrounding the tiny Hebrew-speaking Catholic community's place in the Holy Land.

"There is a generalized fear among some Israelis -- particularly the more religious Israelis -- about Christian mission, so we need to be discreet," he said.

"We are not on the street corners" trying to win converts, he said. The Hebrew-speaking communities want "to educate our own believers, to respect dialogue and to deal with the reality that is here. We have not created this reality -- it exists. There are Hebrew-speaking Catholics who have the same right as anyone else to have their pastoral needs met."

Members of the community "are very concerned about Christian-Jewish relations because it touches our own identity" as people who come from Jewish families and were formed by Jewish history and traditions, or simply as people who live fully inserted into Israeli society, he said.

"Part of our vocation as a Hebrew-speaking community," he said, is to raise the consciousness of the entire Catholic Church with regard to the Jewish roots of Christianity and the need for repentance for centuries of teaching contempt for the Jews.


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