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The Association of Hebrew Catholics (AHC) is an apostolate whose time has come.
So says David Moss, its president. Jews who have joined the Catholic Church would agree heartily. Moss frequently discovers them -- nuns, priests, and laity. "Some of them have said to me, 'You know, I thought that Jesus, our Lady, and myself were the only Jews in the Church!'"
The fact that most of these converts are "hidden" from each betrays a "historical pastoral problem," Moss says. "Most Jews who enter the Church disappear into the woodwork. They become assimilated and their Jewish heritage eventually disappears. They remain Israelites, but they aren't able to pass their God-given identity on to their children."
Fr. Elias Friedman, a South African Jew and Holocaust survivor who entered the Church in 1943, eventually becoming a Carmelite monk, was deeply troubled by this phenomenon. His reflections on the Church and the Jewish people, specifically Jewish converts, led him to found the AHC in 1979.
Although the Catholic Church was founded by Jews -- Christ and the apostles and the first Christians were all Jewish -- the Church has become sociologically Gentile. Thus, since approximately the third century, when the last Jewish Catholic communities disappeared, the Jew who enters the Church has had no way to preserve his or her identity. This formidable barrier keeps most Jews from even considering becoming a Christian.
Moss explains this problem, which Gentiles have difficulty comprehending. "The greatest fear of the Hebrew people has always been their own annihilation. The destruction of the Hebrew people could occur in one of two ways -- through violence, such as they experienced in the Holocaust -- or through assimilation." This explains the marked failure that Gentiles have had in evangelizing the Jewish people since the early centuries of the Church.
"Why aren't the Jewish people even able to examine the claims of the Church? Because they have had the experience of 1700 years watching Jews enter the Church, assimilate, and become Gentiles. Why? Because there's no way within the Church to preserve their identity." In other words, if all Jews became Catholics, the Jewish people would cease to exist, and this is their great fear. "That's against the will of God as the Jews see it. And I think that now the Church would agree," Moss says.
Vatican II represents a landmark in Catholic theology regarding the Jews. In that Council, the leaders of the Church explicitly recognized the eternal election of the Jewish people. While the Jewish religion has been fulfilled in Christ and the Catholic faith, the special vocation of the Hebrews as the people first chosen by God has not disappeared. In Nostra Aetate, the Council Fathers stated, "God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their fathers; He does not repent of the gifts He makes or of the calls He issues." (4)
What often makes the Jewish issue confusing for Catholics is the problem of what constitutes Jewish identity. This is not surprising, since the Jews themselves continually argue over this question. "The question isn't an easy one," Moss admits.
However, "I think that one of the great gifts that Fr. Elias has given all of us is his analysis of Jewish identity. A Jew has traditionally and historically meant a person who was 1. bound to the observance of the Torah under Mosaic Judaism, and 2. who was born of Jewish parents, and was accepted as a member of the people of Israel."
When a child is born to Jewish parents, "the Jewish people through their ceremonies accept that child into their faith, and also into their People. They intercede between the individual and God to identify who's part of their faith and their people." The same is done with adult converts to Judaism. It's analogous to the Church, who intercedes between the individual and God to incorporate the individual into the Body of Christ."
The second component -- being a part of the Jewish (Israelite) people -- is the everlasting part of Jewish identity. "It isn't Judaism as a religion that represents the election, it's the people -- the descendants of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, who were first chosen by God."
So essentially, Moss says, a Jew is "an Israelite who practices the Jewish faith. Now what happens when the Jew becomes a Catholic? He is an Israelite who now practices the Catholic faith. But he's still a member of the People Israel. What has changed is his religious faith and practice. At one time, he was under the authority of the rabbis. Now he's under the authority of the Magisterium. But he's still an Israelite."
That God-given historical identity ought to be preserved within the Catholic Church, just as the Church has allowed Greeks, Africans and other races to preserve their identity. The fact that the Israelite's identity was given to them by God gives it even greater significance.
Just as the People Israel have the authority to identify who is a member of their people, so the Church, the New Israel, has that same anointing. "The Church now has the divine authority to say, 'You're a member of the People Israel. Therefore your children are, too,'" Moss points out.
The AHC's first goal is to help Catholics, especially Hebrew Catholics, understand the election of the Hebrew people and its implications. Once that has been done, the AHC hopes that bishops worldwide will petition the Holy See for the establishments of an Israelite community in the Church. Already, the bishops of South Africa have twice petitioned the Holy See calling for the establishment of such a community.
But there is a deeper, more prophetic aspect to the AHC's apostolate. They believe, as many of the Church Fathers taught, that sometime in the future, God will call all of Israel into the Church. St. Paul spoke about what might be a massive, communal conversion of the Jewish people when he said, "A hardening has come upon a part of Israel, until the full number of Gentiles come in, and so all Israel will be saved." (Rom. 11:25-26)
The Fathers thought that a sign preceding this conversion would be a massive loss of faith. St. Jerome wrote, "The incredulity of the Gentiles will occasion the conversion of Israel." St. John Chrysostom agreed. "Seeing the Gentiles abusing little by little their grace, God will recall a second time the Jews." The Lemann brothers, Jewish converts who became priests, coined the term "the apostasy of the Gentiles" to describe this occurrence. They saw its manifested in their own time, in the aftermath of the French Revolution.
Moss asks, "Do we have an apostasy of the Gentiles now? I don't think anybody denies that any more. I mean, in a country that was supposedly founded on Christian principals, we kill a million and a half babies a year. In Europe, what was once called 'Christendom' no longer exists."
While not all Christians have abandoned the faith, "the Christian understanding no longer permeates the juridical system, the economic system, the political system, the culture itself. I think that constitutes a sign of apostasy."
There are other "signs of the times" that indicate to the AHC that the time that the time when the Jews will enter the Church is coming -- for example, the return of the Jews to Israel after almost 2000 years of exile. Christ Himself prophesied, "Jerusalem will be trampled down by the Gentiles until the time of the Gentiles is over." (Luke 21:24) The Jews recaptured Jerusalem in 1967, regaining control of their capital city for the first time since 70 AD. Moss says, logically, "Well, if Jerusalem is no longer in the hands of the Gentiles, then the time of the Gentiles is over!"
When the time of the Gentiles is over, God will begin to call the Jewish people to Christ once again, stimulating in turn a rebirth of faith among even the most hardened apostasized Gentiles. As St. Paul says of the Jews, "If their rejection of Christ means the salvation of the world, what will their acceptance mean? No less than a resurrection from the dead!"(Rom. 11:15) Moss speculates, "If corporate Israel were to enter the Church, what an effect that would have on so many unbelievers! Because that could be nothing less than an act of God."
He cautions, "Now, remember, when we talk about the 'time,' we're not talking about an exact day or hour. We could be talking about a period of history that could take fifty, a hundred, or a thousand years to transpire. We have no idea. But we believe we have passed into a new era, a new phase of salvation history, one marked by the fulfillment of that prophecy in Luke along with many other signs."
Because, contrary to what some Christians have believed, the vocation of the People Israel to be a "blessing to the Gentiles" (Gen. 12:3) did not end with the birth of Christ of a Jewish mother, or even with the establishment of His Church.
Even now, individual Hebrew Catholics continue to bless the Gentiles in their service to the Church. Moss says, "That is the vocation of Israel, and it's not a vocation that ended with Christ. It continues, partly through the Church and partly through the restoration of Israel through Christ."
The AHC is a partnership of Gentile and Hebrew Catholics working together to preserving the identity of Catholic Israelites. Although the Association exists for Hebrew Catholics, Moss says that much of their support come from their Gentile members.
One unexpected aspect of the AHC's presence has been questions directed at them from priests counseling Catholics who are married or engaged to Jews. Moss has received calls from these couples or from their counselors regarding Jewish faith and practices. For him, this is "just one more example of why the Association is needed, from a purely pastoral point of view." He points out that diocese have helped establish associations for Italian Catholics, Polish Catholics, Chinese Catholics, and other races, while the whole pastoral question of Hebrew Catholics has been overlooked, until this juncture.
"The time has only recently arrived for the problem to be solved. It's not our place to say that the Church was wrong for 2000 years. It's God's timing. Everything is God's timing. This is the time."
While the AHC believes that the Jewish people will ultimately find a home in the Catholic Church, Moss insists that their apostalate is not for proselytizing Jews. "We don't evangelize. Our mission is to the Church. We're trying to correct a problem that needs to be corrected, out of justice.
"I don't think we need to evangelize. I think that if we succeed in our mission, one cosequence will be that the Jews will come into the Church, as St. Paul said." Many Jews who are searching for truth have entered the Catholic Church as a result of finding out about the AHC. Moss admits, "We haven't reached out to anyone, but our flag is up, and they see it. And they come to us saying, 'Hey, why did you Jews become Catholic?'"
He tells the story of a Jewish woman who had become a Messianic Jew through the Protestant Church. When she attended her first Mass ever with a Catholic friend, she immediately recognized its Jewish origins. She demanded that her friend explain what was going on, and when her friend explained about the Eucharist, "this woman immediately believed in the Real Presence, and she wanted to enter the Catholic Church. But she didn't want to throw away her Jewish heritage." When she came across the AHC, that obstacle was surmounted. A year ago she entered the Church.
He mentions another Jewish woman who had long been an evangelical Christian. But when she became Catholic, her Orthodox Jewish family held a funeral service for her. She also faced rejection by her church, and ended up losing her job at a Christian publishing house. The AHC has been "an unbelievable comfort to her," Moss says, "because she and many others who have entered the Church have made tremendous sacrifices. They feel very alone. Most of the Gentiles in the Church don't understand what she's going through. For her to find people who've been through similar things has been a consolation. It's a very normal, human, psychological thing."
The woman is now entering a cloistered community, "and she is just ecstatic. With all the losses, suffering, and pain she's been through, when you talk to her, she sounds like an angel -- so full of love for Jesus, so happy to be in the Church and so grateful that she's found us to be her prayerful support. There's lots of stories I could tell you about people like her."