Bishop Jean-Baptiste Gourion

Controversial convert bishop of Jerusalem
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The Independent Online

Jean-Louis Gourion, priest: born Oran, Algeria 24 October 1934; entered the Benedictine order 1961 taking the name Jean-Baptiste, professed a monk 1965; ordained priest 1967; Auxiliary Bishop of Jerusalem 2003-05; died Jerusalem 23 June 2005.

Jean-Baptiste Gourion's nomination in 2003 as an auxiliary bishop to the Palestinian Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah of Jerusalem with responsibility for Hebrew-speaking Catholics sent a frisson through the Church. While indigenisation for the Holy Land's Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran churches had until then meant appointing local Palestinians to the episcopate (the troubled Orthodox Patriarchate remains Greek-dominated), appointing a Jewish candidate was unprecedented. Indeed, it was less than a decade since Pope John Paul - who worked hard to improve Catholic-Jewish ties - had first established diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the State of Israel.

Gourion's friend Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, the Archbishop of Paris, who was also of Jewish background, described the Pope's choice of candidate as one of prophetic courage. "After such a long time, Jerusalem finally has a Jewish bishop again!" Indeed, Gourion was possibly the first Jewish bishop of Jerusalem since St James the Less in the first century.

Jean-Baptiste Gourion had settled in Israel as a Benedictine monk in 1976 at the monastery of St Mary of the Resurrection (based around its Crusader church) at Abu-Ghosh, a mainly Christian Arab village six miles west of Jerusalem, said to be the site of Jesus's walk on the way to Emmaus after his resurrection. Gourion later became Prior and, when the monastery was raised to an abbey in 1999, the first abbot.

He was active in the Work of St James, a ministry founded in 1955 to serve Hebrew-speaking Catholics. Although they numbered only several hundred, Gourion saw them as a crucial part of the Church's life. In 1990 Sabbah appointed Gourion episcopal vicar, entrusting him with pastoral care of Hebrew-speaking Catholics.

Born Jean-Louis Gourion into a family of French Jews in the Algerian Mediterranean town of Oran, after completing school he left his home town to study natural sciences and medicine at the University of Paris. Drawn to Catholicism - to the horror of his family - he was baptised as a Christian at Easter 1958 in the Benedictine Abbey of Bec-Hellouin in Normandy. "They had a very hard time. They were shocked and saw me as a traitor," Gourion recalled later of his parents' reaction. "My brother and two sisters could hardly get over my belief in Jesus." His long-suffering family then saw him enter the monastery in 1961, taking the name Jean-Baptiste. He made his final profession as a monk in 1965 and after completing his studies was ordained priest in 1967. His three siblings were present in 2003 for his episcopal consecration and, as he recounted proudly, "gave me God's blessing".

The bishop was a controversial figure in some quarters. His relations with Patriarch Sabbah were often strained over attitudes to the State of Israel. With Israeli backing for the appointment of a separate bishop to serve Hebrew-speaking Catholics, suspicion was widespread that the Israelis would use his appointment to undermine Sabbah, their bête noire for his constant (and largely justified) criticism of Israeli policy in the occupied territories.

Gourion claimed that he had not been put off by the Catholic Church's view of the Jews at the time of his conversion. "I knew then that the Church's theology was wrong concerning the Jewish people," he declared boldly:

In the Second Vatican Council [1962-65], the Church adopted a new theological position toward Israel as God's chosen people. The Catholic Church does not replace the Jewish people with whom God made an eternal covenant.

Some Catholics objected to what they regarded as Gourion's denial of the need for Jews to convert to Christianity to gain salvation. "For me, Christianity and Judaism are the same. I didn't have to leave Judaism to come to Christianity," he declared after he became bishop. "The Catholic Church has no intention of converting Jews to Christianity. Therefore, the Pope advocated a Jewish bishop in Israel."

Felix Corley