In 2002, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, Archbishop of Paris, published a book based on retreats he had preached to Benedictine nuns of Bec Hellouin. The book, La promesse, was later published in other languages (including English) and includes a few pages about the Hebrew-speaking Catholic community in Israel. Lustiger, who died in 2007, was a great friend of our communities and we publish here the English version of his reflections.
(in Chapter 11: "Facing Israel - the nation's examination of conscience")
At this point, I must share with you a prayer that is so audacious that I hardly dare express it out loud.
Do you remember what I said at the beginning of these talks about the first Church, the mother-Church, the Church of Jerusalem? The account of its disappearance is a cruel and enlightening page in the Church's history. In order to remain "Catholic" in the original sense - that is, "according to the whole" -recognizes, in a single gift of God's grace, both the Ecclesia ex circumcisione (the Church born from circumcision) and the Ecclesia ex gentibus (the Church born from the pagan nations). Thus, the Church is the Church "of the Jews" and "of the pagans;" both were called "Christians" by the people of Antioch.
James, the "brother" - the term actually means "the cousin" - of the Lord, is the first "bishop" of this Jerusalem Church, which was composed solely of Jews who were disciples of Jesus (1). There is no point in reminding you of the opening chapters of the Acts of the Apostles. Paul was subsequently to mobilize the generosity of all the new churches, made up of either both Jews and pagans or a majority of pagans, to come to the aid of this Church in Jerusalem, which was eliminated over the course of history, first by Byzantium and then by Islam.
This is a tragedy whose consequences are still felt by the Eastern Churches. Especially after the Council of Chalcedon, Byzantium imposed its language, Greek, and its liturgy on the Christian communities of countries where the Semitic tradition had been prevalent (2). Whether Catholic or not, the communities of the patriarchy of Antioch and Alexandria survived only at the price of their resistance and, often, their isolation. The Chaldean tradition has retained Aramaic as their liturgical language. But all that has little to do with the current reality of the Jewish people.
Contemporary history has placed us before us another paradoxical event: the rebirth of the State of Israel. This State was politically inspired by the secularized West and its culture. Even if this is still the object of vigorous internal debates, Israel introduced the idea of a secular state granting equal rights to all its citizens, regardless of their religion, into the Middle East. The paradox is that the people of Israel, all the while claiming its specificity as such, intends to make its entry among other nations on the Western model which is becoming universal. In this situation, a "Church," an Ecclesia ex circumcisione, as it is designated in a mosaic at Saint Sabina in Rome, once again becomes conceivable.
You know this better than anybody, since Dom Grammont recently decided to reopen the venerable monastery of Abu-Gosh in Israel (3). He sent three monks there, among them Brother Jean-Baptiste. You sustain them by your prayer, in the hope that you will be able to establish a new monastic community alongside theirs in the near future (4).
This Ecclesia ex circumcisione which evangelized the Ecclesia ex Gentibus was awakened from its long sleep by an initial gesture from Pope Pius XII. In 1954, Cardinal Tisserand, head of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, had encouraged the creation of an association dedicated to such an awakening, the "Oeuvre Saint-Jacques l'Apôtre," under the aegis of the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Albert Gori. The first mass ad experimentum said in Hebrew, according to the Syriac rite, was celebrated in Haifa in 1956. Finally, in 1957 - well before the liturgical reform of Vatican II - Pope Pius XII granted Cardinal Tisserand the usage of Hebrew in the Latin rite for what we today call the "Liturgy of the Word," and for the end of the Mass, starting with the "Lord's Prayer."
I began to discover all this thanks to Father Jean-Roger Henné, an Assumptionist who dedicated his life to this Hebrew-speaking community. I met Father Henné in 1951 when, still a seminarian, I made my first pilgrimage to the Holy Land (5). He made me promise that, once ordained, I would join him in serving this small, very small flock. Until now, I have not been able to keep my word.
Almost every year between 1951 and the time I was appointed a parish priest, I made the pilgrimage to the holy sites, accompanied by university students. I followed the growth and trials of that impoverished community -fragile and wounded. Its members - regardless of their origins - are presently subjected to every contradiction: those that the Jewish people have always had to bear; those that, over the centuries, Christians have endured in that so complex country. Among the community are a majority of consecrated individuals - priests, nuns and lay people. Everything seems to suggest that God wanted to bring together in this strange little flock only those called to bear the highest witness to charity and perseverance, individuals dedicated to holiness. And yet, what weaknesses, what poverty, what wounds, what tensions...
I was given the grace, about a year and a half ago, to be able to visit your brothers from Bec Hellouin in their Abu-Gosh foundation. The three of them were a sign of peace in a suffering and divided Hebrew-speaking community, which was rejected by most of the local congregations. While praying and sharing with your brothers the impressions gathered from my month's stay in the Holy Land, I came to feel that they were a promise for the future of this Church ex circumcisione. What will that future be? Only God knows. Perhaps, after all, this Hebrew-speaking community, in its hidden and humiliated condition, gives Christians of Gentile origin the sign of the suffering Servant and the Lamb.
And yet, if the Church granted it an existence in its own specificity, this group could fulfill, in association with the Arab Christian communities, the mission entrusted by Jesus to his disciples. Between Judaism and Islam, between the Arab and Western cultures, among all the contradictory political claims being made in that region, who else could be called on to live this Beatitude: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God"? (6) Saint Paul says of Christ, Son of God: "In his blood is our peace..."; he has made us both one, and had broken down the dividing wall of hostility." (7) It is this witness that the torn and divided Middle East awaits from Christians.
During this trip I came to feel that the way in which the Hebrew-speaking community was viewed both by Jewish Israelis and established Christian groups was beginning to change. I entrust it to your prayer. Because if God permits it to regain its identity within the Church, it will be an inestimable blessing for the faith of all. It would be the sign and pledge of God's faithfulness to his Promise. It would root the Christians' mission more deeply in the history of salvation, as the Council of Vatican II so vigorously reminds us.
(1) Cf. Galatians 1:19.
(2) Convoked by the Emperor Marcian, a council was held at Chalcedon in 451. On March 21, 453, Pope Leo approved the decisions concerning faith in Christ, but did not recognize the privileges granted to Byzantium. Through this Council, Byzantium's appropriation of the Eastern Church became apparent. The Church of Alexandria and the Syriac Church became largely separated from Rome. Scripture attests to the link between these Churches and the Church of Jerusalem (cf. Acts of the Apostles 2:10; 6:9; 18:24-28 for Alexandria; cf. Acts of the Apostles 11: 19-26, and Galatians 2:11 for Antioch) The presence of an important Jewish community in Alexandria as well as in Edessa (north of Antioch, in non-Hellenized Syria), no doubt explains the rapid spread of Christianity. The hellenization of these Christian communities began in the third century. The councils of Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon engendered profound separations and tragically weakened these Eastern Churches In February 1988, a common christological expression was approved by the Catholic and Orthodox Copt Churches. In June 1984, christological and pastoral declaration was signed between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Syrian Church. The dogmatic reconciliation between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East took place on November 11, 1994 through a common christological declaration.
(3) Dom Paul Grammont was born on February 20, 1911 in Troyes and made his monastic profession at Mesnil Saint-Loup (Aube) on September 19, 1929. He was elected prior in 1939 and founded a study house in Cormeilles-en-Parisis with the religious community of Sainte Françoise- Romaine. After the Second World War, the monks and nuns joined to give new life to the Bec Hellouin Abbey, which had been deconsecrated after the French Revolution. Dom Paul became the abbot in 1948. In 1976, brothers and sisters from Bec Hellouin installed themselves respectively in Israel, at the Monastery of Abu Gosh, and re-established monastic life at Mesnil Saint-Loup. Having reached the age of 75, Dom Grammont retired from the abbey's direction in 1986. He died on July 30, 1989 and is buried in the choir of the Bec Hellouin Abbey. Crusaders settled in the village of Abu-Gosh in the eleventh century and renamed it Emmaus. They built a church (Saint Mary of the Resurrection) in memory of the encounter of the Resurrected Jesus with the pilgrims on the road to Emmaus (cf. Luke 24). The territory of Abu Gosh became the property of the France in 1873. In 1899, Benedictines from La Pierre-qui-Vire came to pray there, but did not stay. In 1976, three Benedictine monks belonging to the Congrégation des Olivétains at Bec Hellouin arrived.
(4) The monks eventually built their monastery as an abbey, and the sisters of Sainte-Francoise Romaine subsequently came to join them. Father Jean-Baptiste Gourion became its first abbot in 1999. The Patriarch of Jerusalem charged him with overseeing the Hebrew-speaking Catholic communities in Israel, and on Nov 9, 2003, he was ordained as their bishop. He died on June 23, 2005, and was succeeded by Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, o.f.m., as the pastor of this "small flock", with episcopal powers granted by the Pope.
(5) Father Henné died on September 5, 1979.
(6) Cf. Matthew 5:9.
(7) Cf. Ephesians 2:13-17.