Ed. The following article, reprinted with permission in The Hebrew Catholic, #79 Winter 2004, came from the online magazine www.chiesa and may be found at: http://22.214.171.124/ESW_articolo/0,2393,41875,00.html.
Arab Patriarch Sabbah has an Auxiliary – But He Speaks Hebrew
By Sandro Magister
ROMA: In mid-August, John Paul II placed beside the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, Michael Sabbah, an auxiliary bishop with a special task.
The task is that of “the pastoral care of the Catholic faithful of Jewish expression” who live in the Holy Land.
The new bishop is Jean-Baptiste Gourion. And his background is perfectly in line with the task the pope has given him.
Gourion is a converted Jew. Born in Oran, Algeria in 1934, he received baptism at the age of 24 and entered the French abbey of Bec as a Benedictine monk. In 1976 he moved to Israel, to the village of Abu Gosh, and founded a new abbey. Since 1990 he has headed the Œuvre Saint-Jacques for the pastoral care of the Hebrew Catholics.
His nomination was considered for a long time, and has always had more opposition than support. As recently as last May it was seen as not being very likely. But then John Paul II became personally involved. He pulled it off, but at the cost of displeasing many.
One sign of this discontent is the interpretation with which the French Catholic weekly “La Vie” gave the news of the nomination. It described it as “completely political,” done to “restabilize the Vatican’s relations with Israel” and destined to “divide the Christians of the Holy Land even more.”
But even more expressive of the opposition to the nomination is an important article by Drew Christiansen published on May 10 – before the Vatican decision – in the weekly magazine of the Jesuits of New York, “America.”
Christiansen, a Jesuit, is not only the associate editor of “America,” but also a counselor for international affairs to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “with special responsibility for the Middle East.”
In his article – entitled “A Campaign to Divide the Church in the Holy Land” – Christiansen attacks, name by name, those who supported the creation of a special ecclesiastical jurisdiction for the Hebrew Catholics.
These would be, in the first place, Abbot Gourion and the leaders of the Œuvre Saint-Jacques “in alliance with sympathetic elements in the French Church” (read: the cardinal of Paris, the Jewish convert Jean-Marie Lustiger); in the second place, in the Vatican, Dominican Father Georges Cottier, official theologian of the pontifical household, and Ignace Moussa Cardinal Daoud, prefect for the Congregation for the Eastern Churches; then the apostolic nuncio to Israel, Archbishop Pietro Sambi; and, naturally, the government of Ariel Sharon, which is interested in harming the Palestinian Christians and Patriarch Sabbah.
To this list of kingpins Christiansen adds the spokesman for the Franciscans of the Holy Land, David-Maria Jaeger, another converted Jew, a canonist, and one of the negotiators of the 1994 agreement between Israel and the Holy [See]. But in his case, Christiansen acknowledges attenuating circumstances. Jaeger had always supported an ecclesiastical jurisdiction, not for Jewish converts, but rather for the non-Arab Christians who have emigrated to Israel from Russia, Poland, the Philippines, etc. – somewhere in the tens of thousands, all told. Gourion and his friends – Christiansen writes – “hijacked” Jaeger’s idea and turned it to the advantage of the Hebrew Catholics, “who number fewer than 250 and are not even united by the Hebrew language,” concentrated in the cities of Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa, and Ber Sheva.
The problem with all of this would seem to be that of wanting to divide the Church in Palestine into two parts, denying its Arab character and delegitimizing Patriarch Sabbah, who has always been against the idea of naming a bishop ‘ad Judaeos.’
An Arab himself, Sabbah is a fiery champion of the Palestinian cause, and for biblical and dogmatic reasons as well as political ones. The book “Paix sur Jérusalem,” which he published two years ago, is a condensed example of his theological Arab-Christian ‘patriotism.’
One of Sabbah’s central theses is that “just as anti-Semitism and the Holocaust set the context for Jewish-Catholic relations in the West, in the Holy Land the agenda ought to be set by a century of Zionist nationalism, the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.” Sabbah says of the Israelis: “In the end, we will send them away just as we did to the crusaders.” The idea is widely held in the patriarchate that the Islamic conquest of Jerusalem in 683 was a “second Pentecost.” One distinguished Israeli leader, Ambassador Gadi Golan, the head of the department of interreligious affairs for the foreign ministry, has called Sabbah “the Islamic patriarch.”
Jesuit Father Francesco Rossi de Gasperis of the Pontifical Biblical Institute of Jerusalem – a friend, contemporary, and teaching colleague of Carlo Maria Cardinal Martini – has written acute analyses on this Arab-Christian theology. He has shown that it leads to a “theological negation of the people of Israel, a kind of cultural and spiritual Shoah, not dissimilar to what was seen in the churches of Europe during the age of ‘Christendom’.”
On the current situation he comments: “The opposition to creating within Israel a Church ‘for Israel’ finds its deepest reason in the denial of the very existence of the state of Israel. But such a Church is the original figure of the Christian identity; it is the Church of the Apostle Peter, a community made of Jews faithful to the Torah and also believers in Jesus, the Son of God. Gourion’s nomination as a bishop ‘ad Judaeos’ signifies an historic turning point.”
But it is a shift that will be accepted with great difficulty within a patriarchate of an intentionally overwhelming Palestinian character. Last November, Abbot Gourion was the object of a smear campaign after he received an honorary award in one of the halls of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament.
Strong criticisms were also launched against the Melkite pastor of Nazareth, Émile Shoufani, an Arab but not anti-Israeli, who was guilty of leading a pilgrimage of Jews and Palestinians together to Auschwitz.
The absence of a Catholic library in Jerusalem is another indication of the patriarchate’s lack of interest in approaching the Hebrew people.
Another such sign was the closing of the Pontifical Institute “Ratisbonne” in Jerusalem, a place of dialogue between Jews and Christians, in 2001. The building is now for sale, and is being sought by the Salesians, the Neocatechumenal Way, and Opus Dei.
With Gourion’s nomination as a bishop ‘ad Judaeos,’ the pope has established the conditions for an about-face. Beginning with the enfranchisement of the Hebrew Catholic community from the bullying Palestinian stance of the patriarchate.
As for the Jews, Rossi de Gasperis hopes they are not afraid of “taking seriously” the revival of Hebrew Christianity. Because there is fear among them, as he has written: “They see the conversion of Jews to Jesus as a threat to the survival of Judaism.”