By Karna Swanson
JERUSALEM, NOV. 6, 2009 (Zenit.org).- How does a Jewish adolescent’s friendship with a 90-year old Russian Orthodox nun, who also happens to be a princess, lead the youth to become a Catholic? And then later, a Jesuit priest?
It may not seem the likely outcome, but it’s the true story behind the vocation of Father David Mark Neuhaus, Latin Patriarchal Vicar for Hebrew-Speaking Catholics in Israel (www.catholic.co.il).
In this interview with ZENIT, Father Neuhaus shares how he was born into a Jewish family who escaped the scourge of the Nazis in their native Germany.
The family lived in South Africa, but as an adolescent, David moved to Jerusalem. There he met an Orthodox nun, who in talking about her faith, radiated the joy of Christ.
It was through his conversations with this religious that he found his calling not only to become a Christian, but to serve Christ as his vicar on earth.
Father Neuhaus teaches Scripture at the Latin Patriarchate Seminary and at Bethlehem University.
He completed his doctorate in political science at Hebrew University, Jerusalem. He also has degrees in theology from Centre Sevres in Paris, and Scripture from the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome.
ZENIT: How did you view religion as a child? Were you spiritual?
Father Neuhaus: I was born into a not very practicing German Jewish family that had found refuge from the Nazi scourge in South Africa. My father went to the synagogue regularly, but at home religious practice was not very regular. I did attend one of the excellent local Jewish schools where we prayed every morning, studied the Bible, religion and Hebrew.
I was not particularly interested in any of this and thought that religion was for old people who were scared of death. In addition, for me, at that time, Christianity was perceived as being at the root of the suffering of my own family and the rest of the Jewish people, particularly in Europe, rather than being anything spiritual.
ZENIT: You converted from Judaism while living in Israel. What led you to convert to Catholicism?
Father Neuhaus: I arrived in Israel at the age of 15 with a passion for history, and went off in search of a Russian princess who I knew had moved to Jerusalem. I was a Jewish adolescent and the scion of the Russian Empire I met, Mother Barbara, was almost 90, a Russian Orthodox nun for more than 50 years.
We spent hours together, talking about the last days of the Russian Empire, the revolution and its aftermath. In the course of our conversations, I noticed that this very old and frail lady shone with joy. I found that very strange as she was almost completely bedridden, confined to a small room in a convent and the only prospect she was facing was death.
One day, I plucked up the courage and asked her: Why are you so joyful? She knew I was a Jew and she was hesitant at first, but then as she began to speak of the great love in her life, the words came tumbling out and she became ever more radiant. She told me about Jesus Christ, about God’s love expressed in him, about her life of joy with him in the convent.
I was struck and know today that in her radiant joy I saw the face of Jesus for the first time. Our conversations continued over time. As soon as I saw my parents a few months later, I told them that I wanted to be a Christian, and they were shocked. I promised them that I would wait 10 years, but if this remained true they must accept. They agreed, hoping that by the time 10 years had passed I would have come to my senses.
ZENIT: Did you ever think that you would end up a Catholic priest?
Father Neuhaus: I sensed a vocation to the religious life almost immediately on meeting Christ in Mother Barbara. The vocation to the priesthood came as soon as I came to understand the significance of Christ’s presence in the sacrament of the Eucharist. I wanted to be in the presence of Jesus, sought out every opportunity to get to know him and wanted to bring him to others. I sensed that the world was in dire need of joy and that Christ was the key to true joy.
The most powerful moments during the first years of coming to know him were when, as an adolescent, I frequented the Russian Orthodox Church for the divine liturgy. Reading the Bible came a little later and has remained my passion until today. It took some time before I came into contact with the Catholic Church.
What drew me was the Catholic Church’s universality and her love and solicitude for the world. What consoled me was the Catholic Church’s seeking the way of reconciliation with the Jewish people, correcting what was profoundly sinful in the way Catholics were taught about Jews and Judaism.
What inspired me was the Catholic Church’s prophetic teaching about justice and peace and her engagement alongside the oppressed and downtrodden. The resounding interrogation of my Jewish family and friends was: How can you join the community that has persecuted us for centuries?
I found comfort in the figures of Blessed Pope John XXIII, Cardinal Augustin Bea and the other giants of the Second Vatican Council and the reformulation of the Church’s teaching with regard to the Jews. I understood early on that if I, a Jew, entered the Church, I must serve; I could not simply be a regular Christian. Long before my baptism I understood that that service was intimately connected to making Christ present in the world through sacrament and through the Word.
ZENIT: What attracted you to the Jesuits?
Father Neuhaus: It was not Ignatius Loyola at the start, he came later, during the 30-day retreat in the first year of novitiate. At first, I was attracted by the first two Jesuits I met in Jerusalem: Father Peter, an American who had come to work with the Palestinians as a professor of philosophy and theology at the Catholic university in Bethlehem (where I teach now), and Father Jose, a Nicaraguan who had come to work within Israeli Hebrew-speaking society and served the small Hebrew-speaking Catholic Church (of which I am now Patriarchal Vicar).
The dedication of these two men, who had left all to serve Christ, moved me deeply. I was impressed by the solid spirituality and the intellectual stature of these two men. I was impressed by their ability to face complexity and not reduce reality to slogans. Most of all, I was impressed by their friendship with one another in the Lord. One was working in deep solidarity with Palestinians, the other in deep solidarity with Israeli Jews, and yet across the abyss of violence and hatred, they were able to be friends, to pray together, talk together and laugh together.
This opened up possibilities that our reality seemed to seal off, and offered hope and a breath of life where there seemed to be none. Father Jose prepared me for baptism and baptized me, Father Peter coordinated my entry into the Society of Jesus and vested me at my ordination.
ZENIT: You are an Israeli, Catholic priest who lives in Jerusalem, the land where Christ himself walked. What special dimension does this add to living out your priesthood?
Father Neuhaus: Living where Jesus lived, walking where he walked, living among his people in the flesh is an incredible privilege. As Catholics we do believe that the moment of Christ’s Resurrection transformed the face of the earth into a “holy land,” and all people who believe in Christ into a “holy people,” but this particular piece of land carries with it the very traces of Jesus’ earthly life and the traces of Israel’s patriarchs, priests, kings, sages and prophets who preceded him, preparing his way.
To live out discipleship here is to be reminded at every step of the concrete acts of love that Jesus lived here. The land in which we live is a “gospel” in that it proclaims the good news of the victory over death in Christ and all that led up to that victory. For me, the very center is the Church of the Resurrection (call
ed by many the Church of the Holy Sepulcher). I try to go regularly to pray there, and thus to revivify constantly my vocation and intercede for the Church that we might be faithful to Christ’s love for the world.
In addition to celebrating the sacraments and preaching on the Word, I have a very particular privilege in this land as I am professor of sacred Scripture at the diocesan seminary here. A particular mission in teaching Scripture here is to coax our young seminarians, Jordanians and Palestinians, to meditate on the gift of being able to read the Scriptures in the land in which they were written, celebrate the sacraments in the land in which they were instituted.
In addition, here in this land, I minister to the small Hebrew-speaking Church. Praying in Hebrew, studying the Old Testament in its own language, being part of Jewish Israeli society, is a constant reminder of God’s fidelity through the ages, particularly from the moment He told Abraham: “Be a blessing” (Genesis 12:2).
ZENIT: What has been the most important aspect of being a priest for you to date?
Father Neuhaus: I certainly waited with bated breath to celebrate my first Eucharist, to be the minister of Christ’s real presence in a world that needs him so badly. However, I was taken by surprise by the grace-filled character of hearing confessions.
Serving as a confessor remains one of the most important aspects of priesthood for me because it is in the sacrament of forgiveness that we touch in a very real and direct way the concrete figure of a Jesus who preached forgiveness, lived it and died for it. I expected the human transformation that takes place around the Eucharistic table and I was not disappointed but the power of absolution from sin left me breathless. I am constantly reminded of how unworthy I am to be a priest because of my human weakness and yet constantly astonished by the work of love that God works through those chosen by Him to be priests.
ZENIT: You were involved in welcoming the Pope to the Holy Land in May. What was that like?
Father Neuhaus: I was appointed Latin Patriarchal Vicar for Hebrew-speaking Catholics a short time before the Holy Father’s visit in May 2009. As a member of the local Assembly of Ordinaries, I was among those who could accompany each step of the Holy Father’s visit. A visit to the Holy Land is like walking a minefield because of the conflict between the two peoples who live here, Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs, but what was so impressive was the love, solicitude and deep concern the Holy Father radiated for both peoples and the courage with which he proclaimed the message of hope for reconciliation, justice and peace. Undoubtedly, the peak moments were the four celebrations of the Eucharist (Amman, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth). On these occasions, the Holy Father radiated the joy that had first attracted me to the Church. We are in dire need of joy as our political situation is a cause of constant anxiety.
ZENIT: What would you tell a young man who is discerning a vocation to the priesthood today?
Father Neuhaus: I have been professor of Scripture in our diocesan seminary for the past 10 years. I thus have the occasion to speak often, at length and in depth with those called to the priesthood. I tell them: We need holy priests who reflect God’s life among us serving as ministers of God’s presence in the sacraments and who preach on God’s Word with conviction.
We need priests who are full of faith, who radiate hope, who love the men and women of this age and who live in joy … yes, joy is our palpable witness to the victory over fear, sin and death that Christ has already won for us in the resurrection within a world that gives little evidence of that victory.
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This article is part of the column God’s Men — a series of reflections on the priesthood ZENIT is offering its readers during this Year for Priests. If you or someone you know has an inspiring testimony of the priesthood to contribute, please contact our editor at email@example.com.