The leader of this flock, a priest from the Archdiocese of Paris, explains the history and the future of this special group.
Father Rafic Nahra is a priest from the Archdiocese of Paris who has been living in Jerusalem for nearly 15 years. On October 21 he was appointed the vicar for Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Israel. His flock is about the size of the average North American parish, but spread over six cities. And his work goes beyond simply providing pastoral care.
The mission of the vicariate Fr. Nahra leads is to help build bridges between Israel’s Jewish and Christian populations.
In the 1950s, not long after Israel was declared an independent nation, people began moving from Europe and other parts of the world to the newly-created state. Some of those new arrivals were couples in mixed marriages: one spouse was Jewish and the other was Christian. Living in Israel made sense to them because, they believed, both spouses would be “at home.”
This created a new, unique demographic within Israel: Catholics who were fully integrated into secular life in the country and spoke Hebrew.
These Christians faced challenges because political tensions coloured how people of different religions and ethnicities related to each other. Fr Nahra explains, “It was important to help the relationship between Jews and Christians grow. There was a desire to start something new.”
The Association of St. James was founded in 1955 to develop Hebrew-speaking Catholic communities in Israel. Because sharing a common prayer language with their Jewish counterparts was important to the early Hebrew Catholic community, the association received permission to translate some parts of the Mass into Hebrew. A full translation came later.
Eventually the association became an independent vicariate or section of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem (the Catholic diocese in Israel).
The thousand or so faithful who make up the vicariate “live among the Jewish population, they live as part of the Israeli population,” explained Fr. Nahra.
Unlike Catholics in Europe and unlike the Catholics who arrived in Israel in the 1950s, they are minorities in their home country. According to the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land, there are approximately 150,000 Christians in the Holy Land, making up only 2 percent of the population. In the 1950s they made up 25 percent of the Holy Land’s population.
Fr. Nahra arrived in Jerusalem in 2004 to study for his doctorate in Jewish thought at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. While studying he ministered to Catholics in the Hebrew-speaking vicariate and managed Lustiger House, a house for priests and seminarians from the Archdiocese of Paris living in Jerusalem.
“The reality of the Middle East touched me. There has been confusion because of the political situation and it comes through in the way people speak about each other and transforms itself into conflict,” he said, adding, “I wanted to do something [to help the situation], I didn’t know what, but I wanted to do something.”
Working with the vicariate, whose mission includes building relationships across religious lines, turned out to be the way Fr. Nahra would do his part.
The world of building brides “is not about organizing conferences,” says Fr. Nahra. “That is important too but it is not going to change the world.” Instead, he says building relationships is done at the grassroots level by giving average people a concrete reason to connect.
One project that allows the vicariate to open its doors to the wider Israeli community is its support for the children of migrants. Those children and young people, sometimes born in Israel, attend local schools and get their education in Hebrew. Fr. Nahra said the vicariate has programs to offer language classes and other practical support to those young people caught between two cultures. Jewish Israelis help the vicariate with some of those support programs. “It is an active collaboration, not an idea,” he said.
Through his work with the vicariate he said he came to realize that helping young people “develop a Christian identity in an Israeli world,” is key. To develop that identity they need to have a clear idea of “who we are, what we believe,” and learn “not to live in opposition to others.” Fr. Nahra said the politics in the country, especially around ethnicity, make it easy to fall into the trap of “us versus them” thinking.
“We have to help these young people not live in opposition to others, but have a clear of idea of who we are and what we believe,” he said.
In many way though, Fr. Nahra says, the Hebrew-speaking Catholic community is still in its childhood. “Things change and develop in a way we can’t predict,” he says. “We only hope we manage to help people live together.”