A true Catholic friend of Israel

The story of an American Catholic priest and his journey of discovering Judaism.

Father Barry Bercier in desert 521 (photo credit: Courtesy Barry Bercier)
Father Barry Bercier in desert 521
(photo credit: Courtesy Barry Bercier)
Sitting in a Jerusalem coffee shop, Father Barry Bercier, a Catholic priest, speaks about Israel with a kind of cultivated passion. A teacher of theology at Assumption College, a private Catholic liberal arts institution in Worcester, Massachusetts, his first visit to Israel took place nearly 30 years ago.
“I first visited Israel in 1985,” Bercier tells The Jerusalem Post in an exclusive interview. “It was a very significant trip for me. I found myself dazzled by the country and people.”
Since then, Bercier has brought countless groups of students and colleagues to visit the Holy Land, which he knows quite well – having spent much time studying in Jerusalem and traveling the country throughout the years. But what makes his approach to Israel unusual is his both his reverence and acknowledgment of the role of Judaism and the Jewish people.
“I was always sensitive to the Jewish people and Jewish tradition,” he explains. “Even as I was growing up in Connecticut and going to Catholic school, stories of the Holocaust had a deep impact on me as a child.
Later on in my studies, Jewish thought and theology interested me.”
During Bercier’s first visit to Israel, he describes a moment where he realized that Christianity had what he described as “an older brother.”
“During my first visit to Israel, I would often go the Western Wall in the evenings. I never went right up to the Wall. I would stand at a distance, watching, because I felt that this holy area belonged to Jews and it wasn’t for me to enter,” recalls Bercier.
“One evening, a Brooklyn-sounding Jewish man invited me to go up to the Wall and pray. Thanks to his invitation, I went up to it. When I touched the ancient stones for the first time, I felt something. It was a kind of realization for me that I had an older brother in my faith – Judaism. It was an older brother that I didn’t know, but that knew me,” he explains. “From that point, I knew I had to get to know this older brother of mine.”
“Now it was my turn to pay more attention to Judaism’s role in the unfolding story of history,” he says.
For Bercier, acquiring knowledge of Judaism had to be done by first learning the Hebrew language. “I tried to do so on my own,” he says. “But Hebrew is a difficult language to learn.”
Ironically, Bercier found himself learning the Hebrew language and Judaism in a place quite different and quite far from Israel. In the late 1980s, Bercier taught philosophy at Assumption College for a time, before moving to northern Quebec, where he served as a priest in a remote village. During those two years, he began to study and research Judaism on his own.
But it was when he moved to Indian Township, a reservation in eastern Maine, that he happened upon a religiously observant Jewish couple, Rachel and Harold Silverman, who lived in nearby Calais.
It was they whom Bercier credits with his knowledge of Judaism and Jewish roots.
“I wanted to learn both modern and scriptural Hebrew and I had no idea how I would do this in Maine. Someone told me about a Jewish man who lived in Calais. I gave him a call, having no idea that his wife was Israeli and that they followed Orthodox Judaism.”
Following the approval of the couple’s rabbi, Bercier began both Hebrew lessons with Rachel and a lifelong friendship with the family. “Of all places, it was in Maine where I began to cement my knowledge of Judaism, thanks to the Silvermans,” recalls Bercier.
“And I learned some Hebrew.”
It was also in Maine that Bercier brought his first group of students on a trip to Israel. At Indian Township, he invited the Catholic deacon, George Stevens, and his grandchildren, to come with him on a trip to the Holy Land. Stevens believes it was the first time that anyone from the Passamaquoddy tribe, the First Nation people of northeastern Maine and New Brunswick, Canada, had visited Israel.
To this day, Stevens recalls the memorable trip with Bercier to the Land of Israel. “I had always wanted to visit Israel,” says the 91-yearold great-grandfather, who had 16 children with his wife, Pauline.
“Some of the family was apprehensive about us going, but I was going to the Holy Land no matter what,” Stevens tells the Post. Stevens and Bercier visited in 1995, and Stevens still remembers the two bus bombings that ripped through the capital during their stay.
Sitting in his enclosed porch –with a pair of snowshoes and a photo of a Native American patroness hung up on the wall, and a canoe lying in the yard – Stevens talks about Israel with fondness.
The deacon, who speaks the Passamaquoddy language fluently with his children, still remembers one Hebrew word from his journey to Israel nearly 20 years ago – abba, father.
“We were in a post office in Jerusalem and a little girl kept repeating ‘abba.’ I still have that word in my memory,” said Stevens with a smile.
“You see religion in Israel like you don’t see anywhere else,” Stevens points out. “In a way, it makes you feel that we are too modernized for religion here.”
For Bercier, the visit to Israel with the Passamaquoddy Indians was also significant. “I wanted to show that the origins of Christianity originate from an ancient land where tribes practiced Judaism – not directly from the European continent.”
But Israel’s significance as a Jewish state in the present day is just as important as the land’s historical and biblical past for Bercier.
“Israel as a Jewish state is of huge importance to the world. The land is the center of God’s revelation to the world, and what happens to the Jews matters – you can’t ignore 2,000 years of exile coming to a halt,” he says.
As a teacher of theology with a focus on Jewish roots, Bercier says that he has no problem getting his students to visit Israel. “Except for the years of the intifada, I have always found that students are interested in coming to visit.”
This past spring, Bercier brought eight students from Assumption College. “It is important for Christians to learn about the Jewish people in relation to Christianity with a visit to Israel,” he explains.
“I plan to organize these visits to Israel for many more years,” he says. “I know my students come away with a greater understanding of Israel’s importance, which is more than I could ever teach in a classroom.”