On Saturday, September 26, 2015, more than six hundred people gathered at the Church of Our Lady Ark of the Covenant in Kiryat Yearim to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the Work of Saint James.

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The Work of Saint James was founded in 1955 to promote the development of kehillot – Hebrew speaking Catholic communities in Israel. The solemn mass to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary was celebrated by the Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Giuseppe Lazzarotto, Vatican ambassador in Israel, and concelebrated by two other bishops, Latin Auxiliary Bishop in Nazareth Boulos Marcuzzo and Emeritus Bishop Kamal Bathish. Also present was the Syrian Catholic Bishop in Jerusalem Pierre Melki. Among the many priests who celebrated were Latin Patriarchal Vicar Father David Neuhaus, responsible for the Saint James Vicariate for Hebrew Speaking Catholics in Israel, Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Franciscan Custos of the Holy Land, Father Pietro Felet, Secretary of the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries in the Holy Land, Father Jamal Khader, Rector of the Latin Patriarchate Seminary, all the thirteen priests of the Saint James Vicariate, many other priests, including a few from the Coordination for the Pastoral Among Migrants. A welcome face among the priests was Father Jacques Fontaine OP, one of the pioneers of the Hebrew speaking communities in Israel.

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Right at the beginning of the mass, Father David read the message that had been received from Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, which transmitted the wishes of Pope Francis to the kehillot. (For the text of the message read here) The mass was celebrated by the Nuncio in English but the responses, readings and singing were in Hebrew. The group of musicians and singers was ably led by Benny, seminarian for the Vicariate. The singing was heavenly! The Nuncio, in his homily, focused on the challenges the Vicariate faces in a mission he described as “beautiful and demanding”. He particularly underlined the importance of living at the heart of the Church and at the heart of society, thus serving as an instrument for the propagation of love and peace. He assured the faithful that we are in his heart and prayers and that the Church is proud that she has Hebrew speaking communities in Israeli society. He said: “Just as a building that is sixty years old shows that it has been built on solid foundations, so the Hebrew speaking communities show that they have been built on a rock and not on sand, as Jesus exhorts. This Rock is Jesus our Lord!”

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At the end of the mass, the entire assembly was invited to watch the premiere of the documentary film, produced by the Christian Media Center, “The Kehillot – 60 Years”. The film traces the story of the kehillot and describes the challenges today. (The film can be viewed here). When the film ended, Father David thanked the Christian Media Center for its excellent work and in particular thanked Miriam Hazou, the producer of the film, and Father Apolinary who had helped her.

The entire assembly was invited to leave the church and gather for the cutting of the cake and the raising of a toast to the kehillot. The Ordinaries present were invited to cut the huge, beautifully designed cake with a sword. They followed the directions of the makers of the cake, Ibrahim and Paula, from the Tiberias kehilla.

It was then time for lunch and the hundreds of people gathered in groups to share the delicious meal they had brought with them. As is habitual in these gatherings, the multiplicity of cuisines matched the multiplicity of ethnic origins in these gatherings of Hebrew speaking Catholics: Polish, Russian, Hungarian, Rumanian, French, Italian and German alongside Filipino, Indian, Sri Lankan, Ethiopian, Eritrean and Latin American. There was more than enough for everybody.

After sufficient time to eat and chat, the crowd gathered again in the church for a photo quiz on the history of the community. All were invited to look at a photo and name the place, the people and the occasion in the photo. The veterans did better than the young people in finding the answers. This was followed by a delightful show put on under the direction of Father Rafic from the Jerusalem kehilla and performed by five children, dressed up as ninja warriors.

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At the end of the day, those present gathered in the church for the final prayer. Within the context of the prayer of thanksgiving, seven candles were lit on a menorah, accompanied by seven blessings: for the founders, for those in authority in the Church who agreed to the founding of the kehillot, for those who consecrated their lives to the kehillot, for the various responsible for the Work of Saint James and the Vicariate, for the benefactors, fort the non-Christian friends of the kehillot and for the future: the families, youth and children. At the end of the day, the prayer at the end of the Pastoral Letter, 60 Years, was sung. (To read the Pastoral Letter here).

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This was a day to remember!