Ed. This article was first published in The Hebrew Catholic, #80.
A Short Interview with Bishop Jean-Baptiste Gourion
by S. R., Israel
During the month of April 2004, I met, for a short interview, the new Bishop of the Catholic Church in Israel, serving Hebrew speaking Catholics – the Father Jean-Baptiste Gourion.
I was happy to meet a person with a big smile and a big heart who spreads around him a warm atmosphere.
We met in St. Mary of the Resurrection Monastery, of the Olivetan Benedictine Congregation in Abu Gosh, where he serves as the Abbot.
The monastery is divided in two different buildings with a garden that separates them. Their activities are separate, but they use one church where they celebrate Mass and other prayers together.
The order has a rich tradition of Gregorian Chant. The official language there is French, but when they pray they add to it also some Latin and a bit of Hebrew.
Father Jean-Baptiste Gourion has been appointed as a Bishop on 9 November 2003 in the church at Abu Gosh. In his new role, he will assist the Patriarch Michel Sabbah, but he will focus especially in taking care of the very small community of Catholics that use Hebrew as their main language. This appointment reconfirms the task he has doing since the year 1990.
We do not know much about his life and about the circumstances that made him embrace the Roman Catholic faith. However, we do know that he was born in Algeria to a Jewish family, on 24 October 1934. After he finished high school in Algeria, he traveled to France, where he registered in the university to study Nature Science and Medicine. He didn’t finish his studies but chose to enter the French Army and take part in the war against Algeria. In 1961, he joined the Benedictine Monastery in France. In 1967 he was ordained a Priest. In 1976 he came to Israel with two more monks to rebuild the old monastery that was in Abu Gosh. In 1999 he accepted the position of Abbot of the monastery.
Many questions arose during the interview, mainly relating to theology and liturgy, how to celebrate in Israel, and how the Catholic church in Israel should respond to the authorities and to the Israeli people. However, at this time, the Bishop asked to refrain from answering these questions as he wants to organize a committee that can discuss all these questions.
SR: What is the meaning of your nomination?
BG: My role is identical to any other bishop. I’m not the main Bishop, as the principal one is Monsignor Michel Sabbah, but I am an assisting Bishop. Also, I’ve got special authorities / ordinations. My special tasks are that I’m allowed to establish a seminar for Priests that will be part of the Israeli society and her heritage – whether the ancient one or the contemporary one. From the theological dimension, it is important for me to deepen our knowledge with the Hebrew Bible, with the Jewish Religion and her culture, with modern Israeli literature as well as the ancient literature (including the “Talmud”, etc.).
Economically, we are independent and we have our income, so we don’t need any financial help from the Patriarch. My role allows me to build more churches, if our people will need it.
However, it is very important for me that the Priests that speak Hebrew will be connected to the Israeli culture and heritage, exactly as the Priests that speak French are connected to the French culture and heritage.
SR: Is there any connection between the primitive church that existed in Jerusalem 2000 years ago – a church where most of the members were Jewish – and the contemporary church?
BG: It is impossible to go back to the past. There was a big cut off of hundreds of years. However, the church in Israel (in the Hebrew language) is back again. “We are back home”. This church is supposed to be involved in the Israeli culture and it should be part of the Israeli society, and in this way she can be the living and dynamic continuation of the ancient church.
SR: In the day of your nomination, you said one sentence that in my opinion was very moving. Four words only, but their meaning was so wide. “Finally, we are back home”, you said. What was the meaning of this sentence?
BG: I, by myself, am not so sure… However, the meaning is that until now the church functioned as a disconnected part of Israeli society instead of an integral part of it. The church wasn’t involved really in the society as a living and a fruitful part of it, of the state, the culture and the heritage. “We are back home” – the meaning: we came back to our country, to our homeland, to our roots and we would like to take part in all that is happening here. We want to belong, to be a non-separated part of the Israeli society, nation and state.
SR: How do you see the role of the Church inside of the Israeli society?
BG: The important thing is to emphasize that the Church has been born from the Jewish nation and the purpose is to live in peace and fraternity with everyone. The Catholics that speak Hebrew should be an example of fraternity and to be the bridge between the Catholic Church and the State of Israel. Another role of the local church is to exterminate the prejudiced opinions that exist in both sides. This is possible to do by meeting and knowing one another – between the foreign Catholics that live among us or the Catholics with Israeli citizenship and the nation of Israel. The church should help both sides to know one another and to learn to live side by side as brothers and sisters, in spite the differences in the ways of interpreting the faith. Also, the local church should help change the prejudiced opinions that exist abroad about the State of Israel, her citizens, and the Jewish Nation.
Another role of the local Church in Israel is to emphasize the connection between the faith and the Land of Israel. The reading in the Holy Bible in the light of the Christian feasts, while in the background are also the Jewish feasts, the Jewish ancient books and the Jewish heritage, are an especial occasion and experience living in the Holy Land. It is indeed a unique dimension that you can’t find in another country.