Holy Land Catholic Explains Price Tag Vandalism, Catholic Immigrants in Tel Aviv, and More

What a whirlwind trip to the Holy Land!  Pope Francis, if he’s tired or ill as some journalists have suggested, shows none of that–as he moves smoothly from one event, one teaching opportunity to the next.

First, I’d like to share a couple of great shots from the Pope’s journey:  First, Pope Francis in Bethlehem, at the site of some of the recent vandalism; and second, at the River Jordan, at the site where Jesus was baptized by his cousin John.

Pope Francis stands beside the Jordan River, at the site where Jesus was baptized

Pope Francis in Bethlehem, where Jewish extremists have painted “price tags” on the wall

Thanks once again to my friend and guest blogger, Cecilia (Cia) Lakin.

Cia has continued to send updates from her perspective, on the ground in the Holy Land.

And as long as our Holy Father is there, I’ve promised to keep sharing Cia’s reports, unique as they are, with my readers.

This time, Cia talks about

  • practicing the Catholic faith in a Jewish state;
  • the Pope’s Mass (and how very hot it was!);
  • “price tag” vandalism; and
  • the Catholic immigrant community in Tel Aviv.

First, how practicing the Catholic faith is often a challenge when our teachings are contrary to popular norms.  Cia writes of her experience in the Holy Land:

Practicing the Catholic faith is often a challenge when our teachings are contrary to popular norms. Being Catholic in the Jewish state of Israel brings the additional challenges of observing time-specific religious requirements in a society where cultural and social norms are informed by Judaism.

Here, Sunday is the first day of the work week, not a day of rest. Shabbat, the Jewish holy day, begins at sundown each Friday.

In Jerusalem, midday Friday sees a hectic activity, both women and men hurrying about to buy last minute items for the rituals and family dinner which will welcome the “Sabbath Queen” to each home. By late afternoon shops are closing, streets are becoming quiet, and fragrant odors are coming from homes as we walk through the Jewish Quarter of the Old City.

At the exact moment determined by the rabbis, loud air horns sound over Jerusalem announcing that Sabbath has begun. Few cars will be on the streets, families will light candles to mark off sacred time from the ordinary week, and the Jewish people will begin a day of worship which praises and thanks God who created the world and rested on the seventh day.

After sundown Saturday, they will again observe a closing ritual marking the end of this sacred time and the beginning of the work week.

And on Sunday morning, about the time most Catholics would be thinking about dressing for Mass, they will be heading off to work or school. If you are a Catholic citizen of Israel, you will be doing the same. Christmas and Easter are ordinary days here. Instead, a calendar of lunar religious holidays and fixed national holidays mark off the passing of each year. Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Passover – these are important days. A Catholic wishing to observe Easter Sunday must make special arrangements at work, just as a Jewish person wishing to spend Yom Kippur at the synagogue must do in the U.S.

When we are in Jerusalem, we attend the daily and Sunday Mass at the Jerusalem Kehilla (parish). Mass is always at 6:30 p.m., a convenient time even on Sunday. Mass is in Hebrew, as are the many sung parts and hymns.

Even that required adaptation:  The community has had to construct a body of liturgy and music, since normative prayers and songs did not exist in modern Hebrew. To catechize, Fr. David Neuhaus, S.J., Parochial Vicar for Hebrew Speaking Catholics here, has commissioned a series of books translating the teachings of the Church into the everyday language of this country. Many new songs have been written and Hebrew versions of the Hail Mary and Our Father have been set to music.

On one Friday during our stay here we set out from our hotel for a 30-minute stroll to the Vicariate House, which contains the chapel where Mass is celebrated. Streets were nearly deserted, though it was not quite 6 p.m. We carried sweets purchased in an Armenian shop in the Old City to share with the men attached to the kehilla at dinner after Mass. Perhaps fifteen people were there for worship, together with four priests from various communities near the Vicariate. HaAv (Father) Piotr, an engaging Polish priest not yet 40 who is the popular pastor of the kehilla, was the celebrant. Music was provided by an Italian man, Benedetto, whom the Vicariate supports as he studies toward the priesthood. The chapel has no organ, but Benny is a skilled guitar player. Many of the songs and melodies are his compositions.

Looking around the chapel as Mass begins, I guess that as many as a dozen languages could be spoken by those present. The priests routinely speak three or four languages each – Hebrew, Arabic, Polish, Italian, German, English – and members of the congregation come from many countries.

When one settles in Israel, one must learn Hebrew. However, to call these people “Hebrew-speaking Catholics” is to make an accurate statement, but it is also to suggest a homogeneity which does not exist. Some of them are Christians who have found themselves in Israel after emigrating with Jewish spouses, some were themselves Jews who were attracted to the Church and have converted. One or two at any Mass might be locals trying to discern if they are called to make major changes in their lives and the lives of their families by seeking baptism. All know the liturgy, some by heart and some by use of the small missals which have been prepared and printed by the Vicariate.

While the vast majority of Catholics in the Holy Lands (Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority) are ethnically, linguistically and culturally Arab, this small group of mostly Israeli citizens is a minority within a minority, Christians among Jews and Hebrew speaking among those whose tongue is Arabic.

HaAv Piotr consecrates matzah, which is kosher for Passover. It is precisely the same content as the hosts used in the U.S., and is approved for use here, where it is readily available. At the exact moment when he elevates the host and the chalice, 6:55 p.m., a loud air horn sounds nearby to announce that the most sacred of days, the Sabbath, has begun in the Jewish state. I find this juxtaposition of sacred time and sacred species to be satisfying, almost as though Israel is saying to this small Catholic community, “Yes, you are here. Yes, you are welcome.”

Then, Cia writes to me about returning to Tel Aviv with HaAv Piotr and some pastoral workers from the Vicariate, to visit the large kehilla there.  It is largely composed.” she explains, “of immigrants from Philippines. The Vicariate is charged with care of immigrant populations as well. In addition to Filipinos there are Eiretreans, Russians, and many other groups.”

Here is her report on preparations in the kehilla to go to Bethlehem for the Pope’s Mass:

Israeli Catholics are preparing to travel into the Palestinian Authority to attend the Holy Father’s only large liturgy during a whirlwind visit to the Holy Lands of Jordan, the PA, and the State of Israel. Mass will be on Sunday in Manger Square in Bethlehem.

Friends tell me that the Palestinian Authority is charged with protection of the Pope while he is in Bethlehem, which is under their control. The Christians of Bethlehem are Palestinian Arabs.

I have wondered aloud what political conclusion is to be drawn from the Holy Father’s choice to schedule his Sunday in the Holy Lands in the PA, and to celebrate his only public Mass during this visit in Bethlehem. To be sure, this facet of the visit will analyzed and over-analyzed; but in fact, it may serve a very practical choice to spend Sunday in the place where there are many Christians, rather than in the place where their numbers are small.

Another commonplace is the oft-repeated claim that numbers of Christians in the “Holy Land” are diminishing. Many Westerners understand this to mean than Christians are leaving Israel. However, a large number of historically Christian areas are located in Palestinian areas. Fr. David Neuhaus, SJ, has told me that the numbers of Catholics served by the Vicariate of St. James are growing, an observation I made independently during a visit to the Divine Mercy Center run by the Vicariate of St. James in Tel Aviv.

Fr. David’s multiple kehillot (parishes) received small numbers of permits to attend the Mass in Bethlehem. The Jerusalem kehilla received twenty-five. Members of several kehillot will travel to Jerusalem well before dawn, where breakfast will be available as groups arrive. Once all are assembled they will board two busses and travel the couple hours into the Palestinian Authority and to Bethlehem.

There will be no seating for ordinary pilgrims at this Mass, a fact which concerns HaAv Piotr, pastor of the Jerusalem kehilla. One of his pilgrims is a lady well into her 90′s, the Square is likely to enjoy an almost never-ending dose of Middle Eastern sunshine, and the Mass is likely to span two hours. HaAv Piotr will be concelebrating along with Fr. David and a large group of other priests.

Israeli authorities have agreed to permit pilgrims from Gaza to travel over Israeli territory to see the Pope in Bethlehem, news which was greeted with pleasure by the Catholic Community in Israel. The Pope will not be entering Palestinian Gaza during this trip. Many Catholics in Israel have mentioned their disappointment that so few Carholics here will have an opportunity to see the Holy Father. Quoted in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, Fr. David commented that the Pope’s short visit “is very sad for a lot of people. We are hoping that he comes back again so he can meet the faithful.”
Cia has learned more about the “price tag” vandalism, and sends the best explanation I’ve read to date:

The wall of the Latroun Monastery was defaced by vandals last week; but it’s been cleaned. Life goes on.

Price tag stuff: The perplexing mystery of “price tag” vandalism has finally been explained to me in a convincing manner.

In keeping with the oft-repeated notion that when Israel takes an action the rag tag group dislikes, it will place a “price tag” on the action and extract payment through vandalism or petty violence. I’ve continued asking why this amorphous group would object to Pope Francis celebrating Mass at the Cenacle, on the supposed grounds that it is above a space some people traditionally have seen as the tomb of King David and thus claim as a holy place, when scholars know the tomb was not there.

Further, as has each Pope who visited Israel, this Pope will visit and pray at the Western Wall, a place indisputably holy as the remaining vestige of the Temple in Jerusalem, where the Holy of Holies was located and Jewish worship was centered. The Temple was destroyed in the year 70, with only this portion of the retaining wall remaining. The Pope will approach and touch the huge stones closest to the ancient location of the Holy of Holies…and no one is making a fuss.

Finally, piecing together statements from Jewish and Christian sources, scholars, and journalists, some clarity has arrived.

At root appears to be a long-standing dispute between the Vatican and the State of Israel over which entity will administer certain pieces of real estate in this country. As far back as the early 1990′s, when Israel and the Vatican established diplomatic ties, there have been ongoing discussions over parcels of property held by Israel and desired by the Vatican. There are complex issues about management, taxes, use, and other aspects, most of which can be worked out eventually. In fact, a special Commission of representatives from the Holy See and the State of Israel exists to address these issues.

The Cenacle/Davidic Tomb structure on Mt. Zion is one of these pieces of real estate, and therein lies an explanation for the current brouhaha over the Pope’s visit there. Unconfirmed reports that an accord has been reached giving the Holy See rights to this piece of history have angered the right wing Price Tag people, who hold that at no time and in no way should any square inch of Israeli land be given to any one else, and especially not to the Christians. It has been suggested to me that the notion of sanctity and outrage attached to King David’s putative burial site is a ruse, and the real reason is the possible agreement.

In fact, neither the Israeli State nor the Holy See has claimed that an agreement is in place, and the Israeli envoy to the Holy See expressly denied that any accord was imminent, though discussions are currently continuing. However, hate groups being what they are, starting and using rumor to advance its agenda and fuel its motley group of followers would not be beyond the Price Tag faction.

And a delightful report on the Catholic immigrant community in Tel Aviv:

In Tel Aviv, Fr. David Neuhaus, SJ, Patriarchal Vicar of the Vicariate of St James for Hebrew Speaking Catholics, has renovated a building and established a new pastoral center for the large immigrant population served by the Vicariate.

An older center named for the Divine Mercy, which I visited last year, was a grim and awkward space which included room in a former bomb shelter. In an act of faith, Fr. David arranged for the faithful to find a light-filled center for their spiritual lives in this still-grimy corner of Tel Aviv.

Our Lady of Valor, the icon written for the inauguration of the new pastoral center in Tel Aviv. Among the figures sheltered by Our Lady’s cloak are those associated with the Vicariate of St. James.

This new center, only recently opened, is called Our Lady of Valor Center. A new icon of Our Lady of Valor was written for the center, depicting Our Lady in the Tel Aviv neighborhood where the center is located, with the bus station and other local structures in the background. Vicariate personnel, including Fr. David, are among the people shown sheltered beneath Our Lady’s mantle.

Our Lady of Valor Center is one of several church buildings opened recently in Israel, something which would be unthinkable – even illegal – in much of the Middle East.

I watched HaAv Piotr and Benedetto conduct a lively catechetical session for some 60 Filipino children around the ages of eight to ten. Wiggling like any group of kids anywhere, the youngsters were nevertheless engaged and attentive. Benny led them in opening and ending songs, words displayed on a large video screen.

The mother tongue of their parents is Tagalog, but these children have been born and raised in Israel while their parents worked in the service industry. They are native Hebrew speakers. Their enthusiasm and age-appropriate knowledge base gave credit to the solid catechesis offered them, and to their parents’ determination to preserve active Catholic faith while living in Israel.

The catechetical session for Filipino children at the Our Lady of Valor Center in Tel Aviv ( photo courtesy Cecilia Lakin)

Upstairs in another room Kiril taught a smaller group of older children. Normally, Claudia would also have a group to teach, but her children were excused this week.

On any given Saturday as many as 120 children will be at the Center, learning about their Catholic faith.

Following catechesis, HaAv Piotr vested for Mass, which many of the parents arrived to attend. Children followed the Mass in Hebrew missals, while HaAv Piotr addressed them directly multiple times, helping them to connect with the liturgy.  During the homily, a rapid Hebrew interaction with the children, HaAv Piotr explained who the Pope is and how he is related to the Church and all the faithful.

“Who is the boss of Our Lady of Valor Center?” he asked.

“Fr. David!” they shouted with giggles.

“And who is the boss of the whole Church?” he asked, pointing to a large photo of Pope Francis displayed on the video screen.

Some hands rose eagerly and HaAv Piotr pointed at one little boy. “Elohim!” he shouted. God.

Later HaAv Piotr told me, “He’s smarter than I am.” When a small, Hebrew speaking Filipino child living with his Tagalog speaking parents in the Jewish State of Israel knows that God is the boss of the whole Catholic Church, tiny miracles are happening in this grimy corner of a big city in the Middle East.

The news from Pope Francis’ visit is happening so fast.  Cia reported that the day was VERY hot and sunny, and everyone who had traveled with her to Bethlehem was exhausted, sunburned and dehydrated.  “Except for the Pope,” she notes, since he was under a canopy, along with a few lucky bishops who got to be up there, too.  HaAv Piotr,  with his fair Polish skin, looks like a beet all around his head.

This was Cia Lakin’s third of four reports from the Holy Land.  To read her other in-depth reports, click here and here, and for her final installment, click here.


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