‘A battle inside us’: Hebrew Catholics in the Holy Land wrestle with challenges of war

Advent candles are lit at the foot of the altar in the Church of Sts. Simeon and Anne in Jerusalem. On Sunday, Oct. 8, 2023, the Hebrew-speaking Catholic community began the “Great Advent.” This period spans seven to 13 weeks before Christmas and commences the day after the celebration of Simchat Torah (Joy of the Torah), which this year fell on Saturday, Oct. 7. This is the sixth week, as indicated by the number of candles lit. Credit: Marinella Bandini

The day after the attack, Sunday, Oct. 8, the Hebrew-speaking Catholic community began the “Great Advent.” 

This period spans from seven to 13 weeks before Christmas and commences the day after the celebration of Simchat Torah (Joy of the Torah), which this year fell on Saturday, Oct. 7, Zelazko explained. For Jews, this day marks the conclusion of the annual cycle of Torah reading and the beginning of a new one. Similarly, Advent inaugurates the new liturgical year for the Catholic Church. 

“During the Great Advent, we add a reading to the Mass, drawn from the biblical passage read in synagogues that week (the Torah corresponds to our Pentateuch). It is a way to resonate with the same word and make evident the relationship with Judaism and the points of connection between Jews and Christians.”

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Song No. 66 from the song book of the Hebrew-speaking Catholic community is a praise to the Lord, the rock from which nourishment for his people flows. Credit: Marinella Bandini

Zelazko shared some of his insights into the small but diverse Hebrew-speaking Catholic community in the Holy Land.

“Many of our faithful are migrants — mostly Filipinos who came to Israel for work reasons,” he said. “There are several people of Jewish descent but also Arab families who moved from the north to the south of the country for employment and whose first language became Hebrew. For their children and the second generations of migrants, Hebrew is the main language: They were born in Israel and attend school in Hebrew.”

A growing number of young men and women from the community are now serving in the Israeli military. According to Zelazko, “they are like our children: We have seen them grow in our parishes, in catechism, and at camps.” 

Since the beginning of the war, he said, “we try to stay in constant contact with them, to make them feel that they are not alone, that we pray for them. Sometimes we manage to send them some small gifts, and occasionally a priest can reach some of them. When a young person enters the army, we give them a special blessing and pray that they don’t forget the values they learned in Church, which are Christian values but above all, human values.”

More than 20 young men and women from the Hebrew-speaking Catholic community are currently in military service or have been called up to serve. Some are on the front lines, others in offices, and still others are involved in missile defense systems. Some have returned to Israel to serve their nation. 

On Oct. 7, Eitan (not his real name) was in Italy when he was called back to duty. He told CNA that his heart “was torn to hear the testimonies that reminded me of the horrors of the Holocaust. I was worried that the flight back to Israel would be canceled, and indeed when I landed in Israel it was under threat of missiles and it was the last flight.”

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Even before the war, Eitan was already working with the military.

“Everyone knew about my Christian faith. I chose the Christian religion and not the Jewish one in which I grew up, but I am very proud to be a soldier and to help in the war for the very existence of the Jewish people in the land of Israel.” 

In these weeks, he is also trying to safeguard his spiritual life.

“I pray the rosary every day and ask Mary, the queen of peace, for an overwhelming military victory over Islamic terrorism, that will hopefully bring peace. I ask my community to pray for the safety of the IDF soldiers and for peace in the Holy Land between Muslims, Christians, Jews, and Druze.” (Druze are ethnically Arabic-speaking Arabs whose religion incorporates beliefs from Islam, Judaism, and Christianity as well as ideas from Greek philosophy and Hinduism.)

Father Benedetto Di Bitonto, the parish priest of the the Church of Sts. Simeon and Anne in Jerusalem, elevates the host during Mass. Credit: Marinella Bandini

Another member of the Hebrew Catholic community, “Michael,” grew up in the kehilla of Haifa. Today, he lives in France, but when the war broke out, he felt the need to return to his country.

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