(by Rev. Pierbattista Pizzaballa) An address given at a conference organized by the Vatican Embassy to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council held at Notre Dame de Jerusalem.
Together with the entire Catholic Church, the Hebrew-speaking communities in Israel celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, giving thanks to the Holy Spirit for the renewal of the Church. This celebration coincides with another anniversary of great importance for the Hebrew-speaking communities, the 50th anniversary of the formal establishment of the Œuvre Saint Jacques (Mif’al Ya’aqov HaTsadik), the body dedicated to promoting the foundation and development of Hebrew-speaking Catholic communities in the State of Israel.
It might be said that the establishment of the Hebrew-speaking communities exactly ten years before the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council was not coincidental but rather, in its own small and hidden way, represented a prophetic preparing of the path for certain important themes that emerged at the Council. This is clear if one reads the statutes of the Hebrew-speaking Catholic communities, promulgated and approved by the Latin Patriarch in 1956. I would like to underline three major themes in these statutes that are taken up in the Council and that define the identity of the Hebrew-speaking communities today.
1. The statutes insist that the role of the Hebrew-speaking communities is to develop (and I quote) “a Jewish-Christian culture with its concomitant spirituality” (end of quote). The Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, known as Gaudium et Spes, begins with a resounding call to Christians to live their lives in profound solidarity with all men and women in the world. Gaudium et Spes encouraged Catholics to look positively on the cultures in which they live and participate evangelically in them. In the Hebrew-speaking communities in Israel this orientation is of particular significance as the faithful of these communities attempt to live their lives of faith rooted in contemporary Israeli Jewish culture. Not only the liturgy in these communities is in Hebrew, the language of the society in which the faithful live, but there is an ever developing attempt to express all aspects of the life and faith of the members of the community in an idiom that is understandable within Israeli society. Dialogue with culture here is complex as what is involved is not only the culture of the Jewish religion but also sensitivity to the centuries of Jewish history as well as to the dynamic and developing local Israeli culture, made up of so many diverse strands.
2. The statutes of the communities attribute a very important role to the dialogue with Jews and Judaism. In addition to seeking to understand “the mystery of Israel”, the statutes define as a primary goal of the communities (and I quote) “fighting anti-Semitism in all its forms and exerting effort to develop mutual comprehension, sympathy and friendly relations between the Catholic world and Israel” (end of quote). A decade later, the promulgation at Vatican II of the Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to non-Christian Religions, known as Nostra Aetate, led to a revolutionary change in the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people. The Hebrew-speaking communities, made up of believers of Jewish origin and believers from the nations who have made their home within Jewish society in Israel, sense that they have a special role to play in sensitizing the Church to her Jewish origins and promoting an understanding of these origins and their significance for the Church today. At the same time, the presence of Catholic faithful integrated within Hebrew-speaking Jewish society in Israel offers myriad opportunities to engage in the dialogue of life with Jewish brothers and sisters, working together for reconciliation and better understanding.
3. The statutes of the communities also insist on the biblical formation of their members. One of the most far-reaching of Vatican II’s documents (as we have heard this morning) was the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, known as Dei Verbum. Catholics were encouraged to take up their Bibles in order to rediscover the vitality and contemporary pertinence of the Word of God in the Bible. The Hebrew-speaking Catholic communities have the unique experience of hearing the Old Testament Word in liturgy and poring over it in Bible study in its original Hebrew. Dei Verbum insists on the importance of the Old Testament for understanding the New and the Catholic Hebrew-speaking communities are able to perceive in a particular way that the New makes little sense without the long road of salvific preparation in the Old. God’s fidelity to Israel as retold in the Old Testament is not only fulfilled in the coming of Jesus but the Old Testament also sheds light and gives depth to an understanding of who Jesus is, emerging as he does from the people of Israel and their traditions. Here too, the Hebrew-speaking Catholics have a special vocation to insist upon and constantly clarify the unity of the Old and New Testaments as a permanent testimony to the faithfulness of the God of Israel.
n conclusion, for the Hebrew-speaking communities the heritage of Vatican II defines the contours of their community life and vocation. We could not end without stressing the importance of intercessory prayer in the life of these communities – a constant and fervent prayer for peace, justice and unity especially in this Land. The Hebrew-speaking communities, small and fragile as they are, seek also to serve as a bridge in a time of division and walls. The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, known as Lumen Gentium, insisted, in paragraph 14, that it is the unity of the Church as People of God that is a harbinger of peace. The Hebrew-speaking communities make the intercessions for peace, justice and unity their constant prayer.
Rev. Pierbattista Pizzaballa ofm
Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem Vicariate for the Hebrew-speaking communities