ROME, FEB. 24, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Father David Neuhaus was born into a Jewish family and yet at an early age he converted to Christianity.
Mark Riedemann for Where God Weeps in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need spoke with the priest, who serves as the Patriarchal Vicar of the Hebrew-speaking Catholic vicariate in Israel.
Q: Father, you were raised in a Jewish family. Did you have a strong religious upbringing?
Father Neuhaus: I had what might be called a traditional Jewish upbringing. I was sent to a Jewish day school; a wonderful school. If I had children, I might send them there even now. And so we were schooled in the Jewish tradition at home. My parents were very open and not very religiously practicing.
Q: How did you perceive Christianity at that time?
Father Neuhaus: It was a very complex issue. My parents are refugees from Nazi Germany and so we grew up with a very strong awareness of history and of course history is one place where Jews and Christians met in rather traumatic interaction. But at the same time my parents are very open and are loving people and so that message of the traumas of history was balanced with an openness toward our neighbors.
Q: You converted to Christianity at an early age. What was it that inspired you to consider conversion to Christianity?
Father Neuhaus: It was at the age of 15 upon first arriving in Israel that I made the acquaintance of one of the great spiritual figures at that time in Jerusalem, a Russian Orthodox nun who was the abbess — the mother abbess of a convent — her name was Mother Barbara.
Q: I think she was even Russian nobility?
Father Neuhaus: A countess, a member of the Russian aristocracy and through her I met Jesus Christ. She was a woman who by the time I met her was already 89 years old, paralyzed, unable to move from her bed, but shinning with the joy of Christ and it is that which struck me. I did not go to see her because I was interested in Christianity but rather because I was interested in Russian history and meeting her was truly a meeting with Jesus Christ. I did not believe in too much at that time and religion did not interest me in the least but what attracted my attention was the great joy with which she spoke about anything and it was a joy that provoked me to ask her: “Why are you so joyful? You’re 89 years old, you can’t walk, you can’t move, you are living in a tiny little dingy room. What makes you so happy?” And that provoked her in turn to give witness to her faith. That simply trapped me; caught me.
Q: You didn’t choose the Orthodox faith. What inspired you to choose the Catholic faith?
Father Neuhaus: The intermediate step of course was going back home and telling my parents that I had met Mother Barbara and through her this man Jesus.
Q: What was their reaction?
Father Neuhaus: My parents were shocked. They had sent me to Israel. They didn’t expect their Jewish son being sent to a Jewish school in Israel would come back speaking about Jesus — and in the course of the conversation I made a promise to them that I would wait 10 years. I was only 15. I said: “I will wait until I’m 25. If this is still true when I’m 25 you will accept,” and they immediately agreed. I think what they thought was: “He is going to grow up and grow out of this.” And indeed they did accept and I have a very, very close relationship with my parents. What happened in the intermediate period was trying to come more and more to terms with what this implied; believing in Jesus and then slowly but surely searching to be integrated into his body in the Church.
Q: What did this imply?
Father Neuhaus: First and foremost, as a Jew it implied trying somehow to deal with the very hard and difficult themes of Jewish-Christian relations in history; being drawn to the Catholic Church because of the Church’s attempt to deal with that history, a road of asking for pardon and a road looking for reconciliation. The Orthodox Church, particularly the Byzantine tradition, is one that attracts me enormously; aesthetically I love the liturgy, the chants, it’s beautiful, but what I found in the Roman Catholic Church was a real attempt to take on our responsibility as a historical body in the history of the world. The person who opened the door was Pope John XXIII. Pope John XXIII’s willingness to convoke the council and take on these very, very difficult themes of what is our responsibility for the history of the world made me able to think that I could be Catholic and I could be Jewish and I could go to my family and say, I am not betraying the people that I belong to. With my parents the dialogue lasted 10 years and as I say, by the time I was baptized at the age of 26 my parents were somewhat reconciled to having a son who was a real “black sheep” and as I say the relationship with them is very strong.
Q: At what point in this process did you sense an inkling of your vocation?
Father Neuhaus: It came almost immediately to be honest; at the age of 15, three months after meeting Mother Barbara, the kids in my school asked one another to write where we would be when we were 30, in other words, in 15 years after the time that we were together. I wrote, I will be a monk in a monastery. At that time I still thought in terms of the Orthodox Church, but I think that there was already a clear sense that my Christian life would be lived out in this kind of consecration to the people of God and the attempt to live a life dedicated to reconciliation.
Q: What would you say is the sacrament with which you have the greatest affinity?
Father Neuhaus: It was very clear right from the very beginning of my Christian life that I was very much drawn to the Eucharist; to be in contact with the Body of Christ in the Eucharist. And of course, I repeat again for 10 years I attended the Eucharist regularly without being able to participate.
Q: So the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist was never a question for you.
Father Neuhaus: Absolutely no question and not only that but I was regularly going to adoration long before I could even take Communion.
Q: What was it that drew you?
Father Neuhaus: The realization that Christ is keeping His promise in the Sacrament; the promise that He would be with us always, that we are not alone, that He is there until the end of time. I think that I was only really interiorly touched by the Sacrament of Confession when I studied here in Rome and took the classes to prepare future priests to hear Confession and then realizing that the presence of Christ in this Sacrament of Reconciliation; in this Sacrament of pardon, is a very, very powerful way to make God present in the world. I would say that all the Sacraments, of course are very, very strongly felt in the life of a priest but for me personally the Eucharist and the Sacrament of Reconciliation are where I have a very strong personal sense of Jesus’ real presence in the world.[Part 2 of this interview will be published Monday.]
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This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for “Where God Weeps,” a weekly television and radio show produced by Catholic Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.
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