(Ant. While they were at supper, Jesus took bread, and blessed and broke, and gave it to his disciples)
”בשעת הסעודה, ישוע לקח את הלחם ברך ובצע אותו ונתן לתלמידיו”
”אין דער שעה פון דער סעודה יאט ישוע גענומען דאס ברויט, געזאגט די ברכה און געראכן און געגעבן צו זיינע תלמידים”
“λαβων αρτον εν ταις αγιας αυτοθ και αχραντοις και αμωμητοις χερσιν, ευχριστησας και ευλογησας, αγιασας κλασας, εδωκε τοις αγιοις αυτου μαθηταις και αποστολοις”.
I met with Pope John Paul II in 1996 in a private audience that had been scheduled. Msgr Dziwisz, his private Secretary and now archbishop of Cracow, had called me to say that the Pope will meet with me after the early morning Mass and his private audience. Some of my books and the translation I had made into Yiddish of the Latin Mass and the Byzantine Liturgies had been approved as stated some years before by Mgr. Virgilo Noé. The Pope had been told of my books and articles and the teachings I was giving both in the Catholic and Orthodox Institutes.
Late Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger had curiously accepted that I got married as I had told him that it is impossible for man of Jewish tradition not to be married and to remain a celibate. I had known him upon my return to Paris at the Sainte Jeanne-de-Chantal church where the future bishop was serving, a bit in exile. It was a very good experience for him, kept him both highly active and innovating, outside of his student groups. He also discovered then the reality of a parish – he had no experience of this, had always been active among the youths and the students. He found a “usual, quite normal French and Paris parish”, a bit “aging”, quite still as things were “before Council Vatican II”.
We met and we came to develop real spiritual ties. I did not get first tot the fact that the was of Jewish origin. But we spoke of this. Slowly, he asked me to help create some “Hebrew Christian groups”, one of them was then gathering in the flat of a lady whom he trusted. I later “required” that, since prayers are ecclesial actions”, we could move to a real church and we moved to the noted “Maison d’Ananie”. I also gave him a Jewish siddur (as a priest, Fr. J.M. Lustiger had a low knowledge of Judaism and quite none of Hebrew but he was highly interested in the matter). Along the years, as I used to always pray in Hebrew and Yiddish, Russian, he read in the siddur, used to call me and he wrote his very special post-Conciliar “cantates” in French from some texts common to both the Jewish siddur and the Christian Catholic (in fact all-Christian) traditional texts. It was quite special because I used to give him a word-to-word translation and he only could answer to me with a laugh or at least a smile: “I cannot write some like that”. Tracking back to the concerned texts, it is easy to understand that he had asked different people for some insights, beside his organist Henri Paget. The last piece we had “reviewed” was “Sanctus” that he had shaped on the Hebrew Siddur (Ashkenazi) style. It was special, because he managed to talk and talk while discussing on anything but not really the text that we had re-re-read too many times! In fact, the next day, he told me he was called to be the bishop of Orléans.
He once came to the Hebrew Christian group that I animated liturgically, in brand new and stylish clothes, which was not that usual. He was simple. And we all had been quite astonished of such a “dressing”. Less than a fortnight later (he had 15 days to give his answer), he came back from a retreat, sat behind the bench in the church where I used to say the Psalms in Hebrew then asked me to pray for him, a bit stunned. The bigger part of the book he wrote after having preached a retreat for the Sisters of Bec-Hellouin show the “boiling reflection” we had shared beforehand at this group, after the prayer.
He was ordained and spent one full year in Orléans. Then, he was appointed to Paris after the visit of Pope John Paul II in Paris (the famous words “France, qu’as-tu fait du don de ton baptême? – France, what have you done of the gifts of your baptism?). The encounter between Pope John Paul II corresponds to a full mystery of the Holy Providence. There are special times when God unites those He loves and He knows how to build up the links for the good of all, to begin of those concerned. Fr. Lustiger had thought to settle in Israel, as a “sort of monk and solitary” witness. Quite a dreamy project that made no sense, except that he did not see and could not anticipate any future for him. He had been “located” by the Vatican Nuncio in Paris who had felt his creativity was need at the rank of a bishop in the French context.
Fr. Lustiger had never spoken of his Jewish backgrounds. As all of us, he was born to keep silent, because of the impossibility for the clergy (even those who were close to him) to understand his backgrounds, personnel way through WWII, his conversion and refusal to return to Judaism after the Shoah and slow coming-back to the roots of the Christian faith, which does not directly mean a true link and connection with the “living Judaism” .
Pope John Paul II was a Pole, a real one. He had been the Cardinal of Cracow/Krakow, i.e. of Auschwitz-Oswiecim. Fr. Lustiger’s father had left Bendzin (Poland) for Germany and France. There was some Polish backgrounds and his father was a very nice and sweet man, we spoke Yiddish. After the war, he had returned to Bendzin and seen that the family had been destroyed. Pope John Paul II, when on the way to appoint Fr. Lustiger at Orléans, firstly asked the French Rabbinate whether they would have objection to his assignment as a Catholic (Latin) bishop. The answer was that since Fr. Lustiger did not return to Judaism after World War II and was not a bar-mitzva, he was not a member of the Jewish community. This is evident. It may not be that evident for some people, in particular for the Christians and also some “secularized” Jews or Israelis.
This action of John Paul II’s has strongly impressed me. It was quite unique in our generation. Quite a lot. In Israel, I knew and know of people and children, family members that had been robbed via baptism to the dignity of Judaism and never returned. Or broken by crazy twisting. As a priest then archbishop of Cracow, Fr. Karol Wojtyla never baptized any rescued Jewish child and also searched to know what the attitude of the mother would be.
When Abp Lustiger was appointed at Paris, he called me to teach at the then Ecole Notre-Dame and I also developed a rather long-term program at RAdio Notre-Dame that presented for years the readings of the Churches of the West and of the Byzantine traditions with the texts of the weekly reading portion of the Jewish tradition.
Since he had arrived at Paris, he had always considered favorably my ordination as a priest to serve for the Slavic people of Israel. Curiously it is clearly meant in the record we have of the preach he pronounced during my marriage with my presvytera whose hand I had asked with his blessing at the Sea of Galilee, where I served all this year at the “Church of the Apostles” in Capharnaum. She had been volunteering in Nazareth and we were visiting the sick at the hospital where I was the regular “lay manager”. At that time, I had worked the whole year with late R. Leo Yehudah Askenazi (Manitou), every two months in Jerusalem and Israel.
To make it short, Abp Lustiger called me to be a deacon and accepted to bless this as being in charge of the Catholic Oriental Church to serve in the Byzantine rite of the Russians (inter alia) and for the Aramaic-speaking communities that then started to develop in Europe. This has required the personnel consent, approval and blessing of Pope John Paul II and I got the official documents on the day of my deacon ordination.
As years were passing and the communist regime fell, it became real to consider the spiritual assistance of the Easterners; by the way, I was one of them, born a Soviet citizen, a full Orthodox Jew and thus a man of the Aramaic tongue.
I had been appointed at the Russian Byzantine Catholic Church led by Msgr Georges Rochcau whom I knew from the time I was working at Caritas and the Secours Catholique (VietNam war, Lebanon and all the refugees from Ethiopia, Africa, the first Iraqis and Christians of the East). He had introduced me to the Russian Orthodox clergy and lay people and, after the death of Fr. Kurt Hruby who was the lecturer on Talmudics at the Saint Sergius Orthodox Institute of Theology, I replaced him officially.
Some of the consultants of Abp Lustiger (late Fr. George Wierusz Kowalski and his brother Thomas Kowalski) told that it could be time to consider my ordination as a priest to serve among “mines”. There have been different speculations on such a decision.
I was then proposed by reliable clegymen, “close to the Pope” to meet with Pope John Paul II. I had been quite nicely welcomed to eventually become a Greek Catholic Byzantine priest under the authority of late Cardinal Lubatchivsky. Late Bishop Michael Hrynchyshyn intervened positively in that sense.
I could meet with Pope John Paul II through these contacts and other ones (Cardinal Sin of Philippines had considered it was significant and useful in the new context of the Church). He listened to me very carefully. I never spoke so “well” in Polish in all my life! Except we we met again in Jerusalem in 2000 for the Millenium. Pope John Paul II took the documents, smiled nicely and blessed me.
It took some time – then Abp Lustiger sent me a letter – i.e. as an answer from Pope John Paul II – in which he acknowledged the visit, the reason for the visit to the Pope and allowing me to look for an patriarchal Oriental rite bishop to accept to train me and then ordain me as a priest for the Israeli Hebrew and Slavic faithfuls, provided that he would confirm his consent.
I visited Israel via a professional journey and paid a visit to Oriental hierarchs. I also considered the local situation. During the sojourn, I got aware of something I could feel as a Russian deacon of a “side” part of the Catholic Church. Those new immigrants, newcomers to Israel from the East and former Soviet Union had first to become aware of their Jewish identity, if any. They had lived in a country that suddenly had re-discovered the reality of the living Russian Slavic immense heritage of the Orthodox Church BEFORE they could arrive at Israel. It is quite a question.
They had no idea about the West, no idea about who the Catholics are and they could not even imagine anything. For many, who were new converts, newly baptized and still hesitant to say that they were of Jewish identity or backgrounds, the Latin Catholic realm of the Church was just unfathomable. Or some, mostly those who had lived in big cities, liked the Latin language and chanting, quite remote for the present Church.
It became clear to me that it “made no sense” to be a Catholic priest” of Byzantine rite in Israel. I am not an Arab and the Russians are wowed by the Catholics for some reasons, it is not sufficient, even it is evident that a lot of Israelis would feel more at ease and “cozy” in the small Hebrew Catholic communities.
The challenge was special. Upon my return, I was received more than 20 times by the Archbishop of Paris’ representative for the Catholic Eastern rite communities. He acted with much care. I finally told him with the consent of my wife and the children (they were Eastern rite), that I would join the Orthodox Church, pointing out that I would not go to any Patriarch but that I would ask for the consent and blessing of the “second after the servant of the servants of God”, i.e. the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople.
I did it because I always work for the reality of unity, even if the reality of the Body of Christ is apparently segmented if not split. Msgr Georges Rochcau had understood this when I had told him that, once I had left the most holy community of the Jews, I had entered a Christian “body” as the one and unique reality of separated entities. It was evident: oneness of the Body of Christ as those who are called to confess the resurrection of the Only-One begotten Son.
By joining the Church of Constantinople, I addressed the second Patriarch of the original Pentarchy, inside of the “Roman Catholic and Orthodox Church of the Roman Empire”, the “Rum Church as it is also present in Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem. It also took some time to be implemented, also with the assistance and care of late Metropolitan Emilianos of Geneva.
I sent a letter to Pope John Paul II explaining that, for the service of the whole Church, in particular considering the fact that, after the encounter at Jerusalem of Paul VI of Rome and Athenagoras of Constantinople in 1964, the anathema had been “virtually lifted”. They are still in force in most of the Orthodox Churches as in the Church of Jerusalem and Moscow among other ones. But the reality of the “Church of the East and of the West” of the Roman Empire is, for many theologians, the reality of a unity rooted in the unity of salvation.
I saw Pope John Paul II during his one hour first visit of a Pope to the Patriarch of Jerusalem, late Diodoros who had welcomed me as I personally got sent to Jerusalem as a “Hebrew for the Hebrew” by the Ecumenical Patriarch.
Still, I am often glad that the documents written by all the concerned people are here and show a special way, that led from the Jewish Antwerpen Yeshivah, to the service of all those whose “nostrils are filled with the breath given by God”. At least they do show this profound desire and reality to always act for the spiritual benefit of all the faithfuls, namely of varied linguistic and cultural backgrounds and unting them as the existing substance of human oneness in face of the One God and Creator of all human beings.
Still, I only can convey this as I am a Jew in the Church, firstly referring to true traditional Judaism while serving in the Church of Jerusalem, the Mother of All the Churches of God. It only implies a sacrifice and be aware that people are blurred with opacity. Let’s go on the earth of the living and I do thank the Lord I could approach a saint and quite several exceptional men and women of God.
It means nothing to leave a community because of some possibile disagreement. Who can measure the depth of real life? On the other hand, knowing Judaism and serving it in Israel as a Hebrew priest of the One Church it is a grace to understand that the Body of Christ sharing the same Mysteries must be understood and sustained from inside, without exclusion but promoting all possible means of inclusiveness.