As co-founder of the Association of Hebrew Catholics (AHC), I am often asked as to the number of Christian believers in Israel.
This is not an easy question to answer, especially with regard to Catholics, as most are reluctant to reveal their faith in Jesus publicly. Why is this?
Perhaps you will understand the problems involved by way of an example. Many years ago, father Elias Friedman OCD, with whom I co-founded AHC in 1979, alerted me to the presence in Israel of a young (at that time) Iraqi Jew who became a Catholic in Israel.
His Hungarian Jewish wife was not aware of his baptism: neither was his daughter, nor the girl’s school where he was teaching.
As the school was “religious”, he wore a kippah (skull-cap) to disguise his Catholicism. Sadly, if his wife had found out, he told me, she may have divorced him, and if the school had found out, they would certainly have fired him on some flimsy ground: technically, he could not have lost his job due to his Catholic faith, as there is anti-discrimination law in place.
When I was next in Israel, I made it my business to meet him personally. He told me about his difficulties of living a double life: outwardly, Orthodox Jewish, while inwardly trying to be a good, faithful Catholic.
This was quite tricky from the perspective of attending weekly Mass, as he lived in Ramat-Gan, a suburb of Tel Aviv where there is no Catholic church.
He had to take a bus on Saturday evening to Jaffa, a satellite town of Tel Aviv, in order to attend a vigil Mass at the historic St Peter’s Church. He could not go to church on Sunday, since in Israel the only day off in Saturday (Shabbat, i.e. “rest”, the Sabbath), and Sunday is a normal work-day.
Thus, regarding the number of Catholics in Israel nowadays, they appear to number only in their hundreds. They are being spiritually cared for by Hebrew-speaking priests of the Hebrew Catholic Vicariate of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, at Mass centres in different locations in Israel, but mostly in larger cities like Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa.
On the other hand, the situation of the Messianic Jews in Israel seems to be much better. It is an open secret that they under well in excess of 200,000, and are better organised than the Hebrew Catholics.
They even have their own synagogues (they don’t call their places of worship “churches”) all over the country.
The ultra-Orthodox are apparently so scared about the Messianics’ expansion that it is notorious that they even resorted to arson in not a few instances.
For us Catholics, the Messianic Jews are, for all intents and purposes, Sabbath-observing Jewish Christians, who practise circumcision, observe the Jewish holy days and many or most of the precepts of the Torah (“Law).
They prefer to be called “Messianic Jews”, thanks I believe to the antipathy to the name “Christian” (“Christ” and “Messiah” are of course the same word: the first is anglicised Greek, while the second in anglicised Hebrew), due to centuries of Christian anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism.
Quite a few years ago, I met a young Messianic Jewish woman at a bus stop in Tiberias, near the shore of the beautiful Sea of Galilee, an inland lake formed by the River Jordan.
As is usual in Israel, one tends to talk to “strangers” at bus stops, and especially on buses. She told me her story: she migrated (“went on aliyah", i.e. went up to Jerusalem) to Israel, with her young son from the US. In Israel, she lives with him at a very secular kibbutz (communal farm) belonging to haShomer haTzair (“Young Guard”) of the left-wing Labour Party.
She told me that on one occasion, during “Bible class” where the Old Testament is studied not only from a religious perspective, but as Jewish history and Jewish literature, since the ethos of most kibbutzniks was atheist, the teacher asked the students of this primary school class whether they knew about whom Chapter 53 of Isaiah was talking, after they finished reading it.
Her young son put up his hand, and when asked to answer, said “Yeshua ha-Mashiah” (Jesus Christ).
Most interestingly, at least from a believer’s perspective, the teacher answered “Yes!” Now, if this had been a religious school, she would have been sacked almost certainly.
It is very interesting what is happening in Israel among not a few Messianics vis-à-vis Catholicism. Even though the number of Jews in Israel who have become Catholics is quite modest, I have found that more and more Messianic Jews are turning to Catholicism, so that one can regard their accession to Catholicism as a culmination of a process of becoming “fulfilled Jews”, in the fullest sense.
I believe that this is taking place mainly for the following reasons:
1. There is a hunger among Messianic Jews for a greater sense of certainty, which their denomination, being a kind of sabbatarian Protestantism, cannot provide. Sooner of later, some come to realise the benefits of papal infallibility: that by observing the precepts of the teaching authority, i.e. the Magisterium of the Church, they will have the guarantee of the fullness of truth taught by Christ.
2. With only two Sacraments, Baptism and Communion, as per most Protestant denominations, Messianics who enter the Catholic Church feel greatly enriched by being given the spiritual benefits available through all the seven Sacraments.
3. However, the greatest gift that a Messianic Jew receives by becoming Catholic, is the inestimable treasure of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist: the most precious gift from Jesus that the Catholic Church possesses, that no Protestant denomination can offer.
So whether Jews in Israel become Catholics or Messianics, they in fact fulfil St Paul’s prophecy in Romans 11:26, when he concludes by saying, “And so all Israel shall be saved.” Halleluyah!
Andrew Sholl is co-founder of the Association of Hebrew Catholics. He lives in Townsville, Queensland. Readers interested in joining his memorable and inspiring 15 day Walk the Bible Pilgrimage to the Holy Land in October can contact Mr Sholl on (07) 4723 7406.