Late last year in one of the churches in Abu Gosh — a tranquil Arab village 15 minutes from Jerusalem — Jean-Baptiste Gourion was ordained a Catholic bishop. The event would have been unremarkable were it not for one important detail: Gourion was born a Jew.
A native of Algiers, Gourion lived as a Jew until he was 23 years old. (His given name was Jean-Louis, which he changed when he entered the Benedictine order; his Hebrew name was Asher.) Gourion’s parents were moderately observant Jews who celebrated Passover and Rosh Hashana. His grandmother was more observant; she lit candles for the Sabbath and told stories about her great-grandfather, who was a rabbi. During the Holocaust, Gourion lost some of his relatives, but he escaped the Nazi threat, living in North Africa.
In the early 1950s, Gourion left his family in Algeria to study medicine and biology in Paris. Although his Jewish identity had grown stronger as a result of the Holocaust, the inhumanity of the Holocaust disturbed him, and he could not grasp the enormity of the tragedy. In an interview with the Forward, Gourion, now 69, said that in those days, he was anxiously searching for answers following an event of such enormous sorrow. According to Gurion, he found what he was seeking when he read the works of Simone Weil, a French Jewish philosopher who had converted to Christianity before the war. She died at the age of 34, but impressed a whole generation with her leftist idealism. However, in her conversion process, she attacked Judaism in such a manner that many consider her a classic example of a “Jewish antisemite.”
But Weil’s thoughts on human suffering moved Gourion, and through her, he said, he “discovered again God’s love for all human beings and victims.”
Like Weil, Gourion converted to Christianity. Today, almost 50 years after his conversion, the bishop still lives on the razor’s edge between the two religions. “I consider myself a Christian Jew,” he said. “I know many people consider this impossible, but this is a strong feeling inside me.” Asked how his family responded to his conversion, the bishop sighed and remained pensive for a while, showing that the issue is still a delicate one for him: “My family didn’t receive it very well. It was difficult for my grandmother, my parents and also for me. It was not easy to publicly admit to the change I had made. Many Jews see a conversion as treason.”
But not only Jews view Gourion with suspicion. His ascent in the Catholic hierarchy and the acclaim he has received from the Israeli government — he was recently given an award in the Knesset for promoting interfaith dialogue — attracted the enmity of the powerful Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, the highest Catholic authority in the Middle East.
The Italian online publication www.chiesa — a trustworthy source of information on Catholic issues, according to Gourion himself — reports that a battle has been going on between Gourion and Sabbah, albeit a discreet one. According to the site, Sabbah opposed the nomination of a “Jewish bishop” because he thought this would divide Catholics in the Holy Land and would harm the Arab character of his community. Echoing Sabbah’s opinions, the French Catholic weekly La Vie commented on Gourion’s ordination as “completely political,” a move made to “restabilize the Vatican`s relations with Israel” and destined to “divide the Christians of the Holy Land even more.”
Gourion flatly denies that he has any conflict with the Patriarch. “These are lies, there is nothing like this,” he said. But Sabbah’s opposition to the “Jewish bishop” was so apparent that Pope John Paul II made a unique arrangement for Gourion. According to the Church’s normal hierarchy, Gourion should have stayed under the Patriarch’s supervision, receiving his direct orders like the other three active bishops in the area, whose jurisdiction covers Jordan, the Palestinian territories and the Israeli Arab community, respectively. But the pope instead created a direct channel of communication with Gourion that permits the new bishop to act independently, without the need to report to the Patriarch at all times.
Gourion’s mission, received from the pope, is a particularly delicate one: to lead an unusual community of non-Arab Catholics in Israel. His followers include mixed-marriage families, Israeli Jews who have converted, and Catholics from abroad who have decided to live in Israel because they believe they should share their destiny with that of the Jews in their young state. Over the last decade, the numbers of this once-small community have swelled with the arrival of about 30,000 Russian immigrants who follow the Catholic faith, as well as foreign workers — most of whom identify more with Jewish or secular Israeli culture than with Arab culture. Now, for the first time in history, a bishop — and a “Jewish” one at that — has been designated specifically to serve this community.
Gourion is emphatic that his work has nothing to do with converting Jews. “I am not a missionary and I didn’t come here to Christianize anyone,” he said. “What I do want is to reconcile the two religions, and my main mission here is to show the Church itself that it has Jewish roots. There is an ancient idea that the Church is a branch of a tree called the ‘Jewish people,’ but with time Christianity lost this dimension and now I want to reclaim it.” Gourion went so far as to say what he wants to create is a “Catholic community of Jewish and Israeli culture.”
Gourion expressed his admiration for the pontiff, especially concerning his actions toward Jews. “The pope has already done important things,” he said. “He was the first pope to visit the synagogue in Rome. He declared that Jews are the eldest brother of the Christians, and he asked for forgiveness for the Church’s sins against the Jews. Also, the fact that he chose me to be here shows a process of normalization with the State of Israel. His intention was to show his respect for the Church’s Jewish roots.”
The bishop’s first steps as the leader of the so-called “community of Catholics of Hebrew language” will be modest. He intends to rent a small apartment in Jaffa or Tel Aviv to celebrate a few masses for the Catholics in the area. Nothing grandiose for the time being, Gourion told the Forward, as he knows that he is being closely watched by his friends and his enemies alike, in Jerusalem and Rome.