Pope Benedict XVI’s “First Convert”
So began my witness testimony at the Easter Vigil on April 7, 2007, when my wife Barbara and I entered the Catholic Church. For a New York Jew, who’d detested the name “Jesus” for as long as he could remember, to be standing before a packed congregation at Sacred Heart Church in Prescott, Arizona, having to recount in three minutes how he got there—well, you can imagine what a surreal a momentthat was.
Yet now, when instead of three minutes I have three thousand words, plus six years as a Catholic, the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the election of Pope Francis for perspective, the task is, if anything, even more daunting. But Carl E. Olson, editor of Catholic World Report, asked me to give it a shot, so here goes.
On April 2, 2005, there came the news of the death of Pope John Paul II. I’d always admired the pope for his courage in confronting the horrors of communism, and for aligning with President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher in a united front that led to the downfall of the Soviet Union. Yet as a spiritual leader he meant nothing to me.
Nevertheless, Barbara and I found ourselves becoming involved in the events and the funeral as they unfolded on television. Even the typically skewed commercial coverage couldn’t disguise the tributes from all corners of the globe, and the love for the pope and grief at losing him from Catholics and people of every faith. At some point in the two weeks following, Barbara—a long-lapsed Protestant who’d never lost her regard for Christianity—turned to me and said, “You’ve got to get religion, Roger. You’ve been drifting way too long.”
Early on the morning of April 19, I left on a business trip, first taking the commuter flight from Prescott, our home since 2001, to the Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix. There was a wait before my next flight to the west coast, so I stopped for coffee, and soon after I arrived at the gate, the white smoke appeared over the roof of the Sistine Chapel on the television monitor. Sipping my cappuccino, I watched with a large group of travelers, interested—as a news hound mostly—in who’d been chosen. From my casual observation, however, quite a few in the crowd were Catholics, and far more invested in the outcome than I.
When the announcement was made that Cardinal Ratzinger had been elected, people around me seemed to register either shock or joy. I had a pretty good sense of the reason for the split. In the days following Pope John Paul’s passing, I’d noted the avuncular and, to all appearances, mild-mannered cardinal playing a high-profile role in the funeral and related proceedings. I’d also heard quite a bit of commentary about his staunchly conservative stance as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, set in contrast to the “modernization” and “progress” many were hoping for and demanding. That hoary theme, complete with groan-inducing code words and liberal shibboleths straight out of American politics, brought on a depressing sense of déjÀ vu. “God’s Rottweiler,” some even called him, a denigration that struck me as both outrageous and naïve, though I knew almost nothing about him.
I’d been a senior corporate executive for many years, I’ve had my own consulting business since 1996, and I understood that the cardinal, like the centurion in Matthew 8:9, was “ a man under authority.” Which meant that whatever he’d done to garner his reputation had been undertaken with the guidance and approval of his boss. Yet the criticism fell on him, which also told me he was a loyal lieutenant, willing to do his superior’s will and take the hit himself without complaint. People who viewed it otherwise, I grumbled, likely had an axe to grind, or were reluctant to criticize Pope John Paul, or were simply fools.
That’s not very charitable, I admit. But remember, I was nowhere near being “Christian” in my judgments at the time. (Actually, I’m still nowhere near where I should be, yet I’m trying.) How often I’ve marveled since then at Pope Benedict’s kindness to everyone, even as he took on the agonizing work of expunging the “filth” from the Church and laying the foundation for renewal. How often I’ve wished I could feel his Christian charity towards the enemies within. But the rockiest rise on the road to becoming Christian, at least for someone like me, is learning to love as Pope Benedict loves—especially those whom you’d much rather smack upside the head and who richly deserve far worse. I suspect I’ll be wrestling with that one for a long time.
So there I was at the gate—standing now, with just a few minutes left before I’d need to board my flight. If I had to miss the introduction of the new pope, it was no big deal, though I was vaguely hoping I wouldn’t. And then Pope Benedict XVI walked onto the balcony. The camera zoomed in, his eyes seemed to look right at me and through me, and that’s the exact instant my conversion happened.
I’ll tell you more about that a little later, but first I want to affirm what I bet some of you are already thinking. I, too, have seen reruns of the video of that moment, and the reality is, the camera does not zoom in, certainly not in the way I experienced it. Nor do the pope’s eyes appear to look right at me, much less through me. I guess that was just one more minor miracle of that miraculous morning.
In the years since, I’ve enjoyed saying that I’m Pope Benedict’s first convert, or tied for first, which marked an inauspicious beginning indeed to his pontificate. I’ve also joked numerous times that my conversion was like Saint Paul’s—one of my huge heroes—minus the saint part. I suppose I tend to make light of it all because the event remains utterly inexplicable to me. Indeed, with the passage of time, I’ve wondered occasionally if it actually occurred. The only concrete evidence is that I am Catholic, though that’s evidence enough for anyone who’s ever known me.
I was raised in a family of Russian heritage that was troubled, dark, and often violent—thanks to my poor late father’s volcanic temper—among wealthy, successful relatives whose Judaism was solely about tradition, survival, and identity, not God. My little sister was born autistic, my elder sister and I fought, and my mother was completely overwhelmed. Not at all a happy home, and when I could escape, I would shut myself away and read—searching, I came to realize later, for something beyond, for truth, for understanding, for what it all meant. Because somehow, despite my parents’ agnosticism and my father’s draconian regime, I believed in God. Though I didn’t like him much.
For the sake of tradition, my mother attempted—risking derision and explosions from her husband—to have us observe the High Holy Days, and urged me to become Bar-Mitzvahed for the same reason. The ceremony was rather a sham: a long-suffering rabbi crash-tutored me, taught me my Hebrew phonetically, and walked me through a Cliff Notes version of the Old Testament and the Torah. But it pleased my mother and my relatives.
As for the New Testament, that was another matter entirely. My rabbi never once mentioned it, I knew little about it, and what I did know I viewed with suspicion. Yet I’d picked up the basics from my own reading and the movies—the big Technicolor sword-and-sandal epics of the time in particular, which I liked because they were, well, big, and in most cases about God in some fashion, and offered something more nourishing than popcorn to chew on. I understood how Jesus Christ came to be crucified, and the role of the Jewish leaders of the day in the show trial and sentence. Nevertheless, it was still bizarre and infuriating when I had several encounters regarding that general topic with Catholic boys. Evidently, I’d personally murdered their Lord (guess I must have dozed off there, for a couple thousand years), and they were none too pleased about it. Fists flew on both sides, despite the insanity of it all.
To say I developed an antipathy towards Christianity would be an understatement. It was a prejudice shared by most among my relatives, though especially towards Catholics—who were blamed for the medieval passion plays, the pogroms, the worldwide discrimination, even some aspects of the Holocaust. I don’t recall whether it ever occurred to me that this prejudice was as irrational as the one that held me responsible for killing Jesus, but probably not.
Being Jewish in my clan was more about what we were against, than what we were for—except for supporting Israel; about huddling together, not reaching out—except to help other Jews; about grim fatalism, not faith in God—except to complain about him. Perhaps understandably, as I became a young adult, I would rarely mention my being Jewish unless I sensed someone might be anti-Semitic. Then I’d drop the potential bomb to gauge the reaction. Words, by that point, had taken the place of fists, and I learned to wield them like a lepidopterist, leaving the moths pinned to their hatred and illogic.
But the truth is, I never felt Jewish, in any God-centric way, until I became Catholic.
All the foregoing, though, still doesn’t explain my loathing for the name “Jesus.” The reason I acquired that was the manner in which popular Christianity had abused it, and overused it, and commercialized it, and exploited it; and the way—in art, movies, and written depictions—the person of Jesus Christ himself was so often feminized: like some long-haired, blue-eyed flower child, floating just above the ground, spouting weightless fluff about peace and love. Maybe that’s unfair, but it’s how it came across to me and it made me ill.
After all, he was a Jew, I reasoned, and a carpenter’s son to boot. That was hard work in a hard time; you needed to be tough and strong to do it. In fact, I figured the Yeshua who strode the dusty earth of ancient Israel had to have been a powerhouse—with one hand holding a dove, but the other a hammer, and always the smartest guy in the room. Otherwise, what Jew would have followed him? And where was the Christ who said in Matthew 10:34—yes, even I couldn’t avoid picking up some actual quotes from the New Testament, as long as they fit my viewpoint: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
I liked that mental picture a lot: a muscular Jesus wielding a sword. Evidently no one else did, though, at least not since the good old days of the Knights Templar and such. Whoever Jesus really was I assumed was unknowable, given all the myths and hoo-hah about him, but my guess was that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob probably felt much the same as I did about who he’d become in modern times. Kind of like Brando in The Godfather, when he uncovers James Caan’s body at the undertaker’s and weeps, “Look how they massacred my boy.”
In any case, at the age of 16 and just graduated from high school, I’d had enough of everything. I lied my way into the Merchant Marine and shipped out as an ordinary seaman on a decrepit tramp freighter bound for North Africa. When I came home, I embarked on what became a series of regrettable forays into several colleges—the regret was mutual, mine and the colleges’—and then, at the age of 22, I drifted “east.” What I found in the concepts of karma and reincarnation, and the moral relativism inherent in eastern mysticism and the New Age, was a way to understand God that let me off the hook, so to speak, for my sins and transgressions. Which, unfortunately, were legion.
Following a first marriage that produced no children and failed in four years, and a rootless life as a professional musician, writer, and editor, in 1981 I met my wife Barbara—a gifted and inspired fine artist, and a guileless and giving human being. She had two children from her former marriage and had been a single parent for three years. Although fatherhood was not something I’d ever desired, her children—ages three and six at the time—were well mannered and charming. Barbara and I fell in love, got married, and I legally adopted the little ones.
At around the same time that I’d drifted east, Barbara had experienced a sudden and intense pull to Christ—toward the very source of the forgiveness, kindness, and optimism that was the gentle Christianity she’d grown up with. Yet without a church to fulfill her needs, she was soon seduced by the New Age as well, though her reasons were nothing like mine. She was attracted to the emphasis on creativity that matched her fire and joy for life, the sense of freedom within God’s kingdom, and the concept of being a co-worker with God throughout eternity. Her Christian values, ethics, and view of humanity, however, never left her; indeed, as the years went by, her main goal was to help other New Agers become more Christ-like, for she discovered that so many of them were off-track. Perhaps not surprisingly, in the 1990s she felt herself drawn again to Jesus. One time—and one time only, she tells me—she dared, after all these years away, to speak personally to him and pray fervently for my conversion, certain that if she came back to Christianity on her own, our marriage would end and our children would suffer.
I know without ambiguity that the detour she made into the New Age was made for my sake. Had she been Christian, we never would have met, and in order for the Holy Spirit to save me, he needed Barbara to reach her hand into my hell, take mine and never let go. I could be glib and call this sacrifice but another of the many she constantly, and quietly, makes for the sake of others, except that this one almost destroyed her. And yet, she has thanked me endlessly for the sole gift I gave her in return: bringing her into the Catholic Church, the very church she’d always imagined was more closed in and confined than any other on earth.
So now, a guy who’d never wanted kids had an instant family. I embarked on a successful, though nomadic, business career, and struggled to make myself a better man. I loved the children dearly, yet couldn’t stop the rages of my father becoming my own. Over and over, the demons of the past would rise up and bring darkness to our family, and over and over the eastern teachings had no answers. The so-called “spiritual exercises” were all me-centered and ego-centered, and the last thing in the universe I needed was more selfishness. It fell to Barbara to hold everything together and bring the light back to our home. Of course, there were many beautiful times too, now glittering memories of their wonderful childhood and adolescence, and we remain to this day a very close and loving family. Yet it’s only because of Barbara’s strength and wisdom that our kids were able to grow into such exceptional adults.
Roughly drawn, then, this is a sketch of the angry and deeply anti-Christian Jew who stood at the gate in Sky Harbor Airport on April 19, 2005, when Pope Benedict XVI greeted the world for the first time. I had neither the slightest inkling of, nor the remotest desire for, what was about to occur. But I had been given a warning.
Almost exactly a year before—I wrote it down—I experienced a dream so vivid that I remember it now just as I did then. I was in a business suit, walking the empty street of a city, going to work. Waiting for me at the entrance of a building, also in a business suit, was Jesus Christ—and he didn’t have to introduce himself. He looked a lot like I’d always thought he must: tough, no nonsense, all man, all-knowing. He certainly seemed to know everything about me, but didn’t care.
We shook hands and he said, “I need you to do something. Go up to the top floor of this building and kill Satan.” Why me? I asked. “Why not?” he replied. I had no answer for that, so in I went. It was ultra-plush—marble and chrome and polished wood. I took the elevator to the top and there, at his massive desk in a huge office, was a handsome, well-groomed executive with a pleasant expression. Still, I knew who it was. He knew who I was too, and who’d sent me, because he stood and came over, intimidating except for the fear in his eyes. I laid my hands on his shoulders and said: “In the name of Jesus Christ…” The next words formed in my mind as “I kill you,” but they came out, “I kiss you.” His face went white, I kissed him on the forehead, and he crumpled down dead.
Clearly, I thought on awakening, this had been some colossal cosmic mistake, as if I’d opened the wrong hotel room door and seen things I shouldn’t have. But I know now that the Body of Christ requires all sorts of parts for all sorts of purposes, and when Our Lord decides—for whatever arcane reason of his own—that he wants to get you, you’re got. Resistance is futile, so you might as well make the best of it.
Because as Pope Benedict walked onto the balcony and raised his arms, and the camera appeared to zoom in, an unstoppable power and presence came through his eyes and sliced me open. I burst into tears, and everything I ever thought I was, or wasn’t, poured out.
It was the Sword of Christ, and there would be no peace in me until I offered him mine.
So ended, with those exact words, my witness testimony on April 7, 2007. I wish I could say that, in the years since, I’ve fulfilled the promise of my conversion, or returned a fraction of the priceless treasure I was given. But I can’t.
I’ve served on the RCIA team every year. I’m on the Pastoral Council. I never miss Sunday Mass, pray every day, sit a weekly hour in the Perpetual Adoration Chapel, and support charities. I could check a few more boxes as well, but why bother? Because on the morning I heard that Pope Benedict had resigned, I was struck with the most crushing sense of personal failure and shame. This profoundly holy, heroic, and humble man—in whose luminous thoughts and words I’ve tried to immerse myself, and whom Barbara and I were blessed to see in person twice, and whose pontificate has been so historic and revolutionary—what have I done to help him? Have I ever really kissed and killed Satan, either in the wide world or my own soul? And as for Saint Paul—have I even attempted to follow his footprints?
It’s all been too easy, being Catholic. Hardly any trouble at all. But no more.
Ever since Pope Benedict’s resignation, I’ve been like Kevin Costner in the movie The Untouchables, and a bullet-riddled Sean Connery is grabbing me by the shirt and crying out with his last breath: “What are you prepared to DO?”