A Kosher Ham Finds Christ

Marty on the day of his bar mitzvah at age 13 wearing a tallit, a Jewish prayer garment.

The Pelham Parkway South neighborhood of the Bronx, where I grew up, was so solidly Jewish that within a 15 minute walk from our apartment were four synagogues and two glatt kosher restaurants. Glatt kosher means “totally” kosher, complete with a mashgiakh. The mashgiakh is not an employee of the restaurant, but of the local rabbinic council. He is present at all times when the restaurant is open. If the owner opened the restaurant when the mashgiakh was not there, the restaurant’s kosher would be suspect and its clientele would vanish. This Hebrew word, mashgiakh, means “to watch.” Growing up Jewish, my faith in God was important, as was my Jewish identity. Christ and Catholics were the furthest things from my mind. I would live and die a Jew – or so I thought. I couldn’t see it then, but I can see now that even in my youth, Christ was watching me, guiding my steps steadily toward union with Him and His Church.

Originally published in Envoy Magazine, Mar-Apr 1997 under the title, “A Kosher Ham Finds Christ.”

Bobby liked to drive fast. One particular day, we were barreling along a straight country road at 110 mph when suddenly the road dipped downhill. As we reached the crest of the hill and shot downward, we saw that the road took a sharp right turn at the bottom. Straight ahead was a stand of massive trees. Instantly, all nine of us realized we had no chance of negotiating the turn. Bobby grimaced. “Goodbye, fellows,” he breathed, his face a mask of terror. My unspoken thought was, “So this is how it ends for me, just 16 years old.”

Instinctively, Bobby slammed on the brakes and tried to make the turn anyway. Somehow, impossibly, that big station wagon made the turn, skidding over the pavement’s outer edge, its two left tires squealing and spewing gravel. The stand of trees flashed by on our left as the car whipped around like a roller coaster.

In a moment it was over. Somehow, we had made the turn. We weren’t dead. And another lazy expanse of Massachusetts highway stretched out before us.

Bobby slowed the car down, lurching to a stop on the side of the road. We all sat in complete silence for several minutes, shaking. The only sound was the rasp of our breathing.

Bobby broke the silence, staring straight ahead. “Did that really happen?” For a moment no one answered. Then I said, “God has plans for someone in this car, and for the sake of that one he saved all nine of us.” We all agreed on that. Bobby put the wagon in gear, pulled out onto the road, and we headed slowly back to the camp. Nothing else was ever said among us about that episode.

But I remembered.

When I was 19, I was living back in the city. Out of high school and brimming with youthful verve and curiosity, I took up amateur radio as a hobby. “Hams” – as we’re called – usually begin an on-air conversation by telling one another their name and location. One Saturday morning I was calling CQ, looking for a conversation.

“Hi! Marty, Pelham Parkway, Bronx, New York City,” I announced.

Seconds later a friendly voice boomed back at me: “Hi Marty! Brother George, Graymoor, Garrison, New York.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Good morning! George, we’re all friends here on the ham bands, but doesn’t ‘brother’ imply a level of familiarity that we haven’t yet reached?” Brother George, amused and astonished, said, “I’m a Catholic friar. Brother is part of my name!”

Realizing pretty quickly that I had no experience with Catholics, much less ones of the friar variety (as a good Jewish boy, I wasn’t exactly sure what a “friar” was), Brother George chatted with me for a bit and then invited me to come up to visit the “Mount,” as they called Graymoor’s mountaintop location. I had no other plans for the day so I hopped in the car and an hour later I found myself standing on the monastery doorstep ringing the bell.

I must have caught Brother George during a work project because he came to the door dressed casually. We shook hands and he invited me inside. When he had shown me into his office I commented that he didn’t look like the friars I had seen in pictures. He rolled his eyes with amusement, left for a few moments, and returned in his Franciscan habit. Now he looked like a friar.

Graymoor gave me a vivid demonstration of Catholic Faith. A young priest, Father Victor, had installed a ham radio antenna off the side of the Holy Ghost Chapel at the very top of the mountain. The ground fell away sharply from the chapel on that side, down a steep slope. It would have been impossible to place a ladder there. Amazed, I asked Father Victor how he had installed the antenna. He explained that he had climbed out onto the very steeply sloping roof and hung off the side. When I remarked that it was a breathtakingly risky thing to do, Father Victor explained quietly that he installed the antenna to let Christ’s teachings go forth from that mountain for hundreds of miles in all directions, by introducing local ham radio operators to the Graymoor Friars. Before going out on that roof he had gone to Confession and received Holy Communion. If he died in the attempt to install the antenna, he explained, he would have been a martyr and his soul would have flown straight up to heaven. I was deeply impressed with this Catholic faith Father Victor was ready to die for. Although at that time I still felt undisturbed in my Jewish identity, this chance experience with the Graymoor Friars prepared me for the first phase of a life commitment to the Catholic Faith.

I had always figured it would be best to marry a Jewish girl who would share the faith of my fathers. I believed that marrying out of the faith would inevitably mean not being married at the deepest level. However, in my early 20s, God introduced me to a beautiful young Catholic woman named Irene. The Graymoor Friars helped me see the Catholic Church in a new light. I could see that many Catholics, especially these remarkable men, were immersed in the one true God. They were eager to serve him, even as martyrs, if need be. Irene was definitely like that. Her home was filled with crucifixes and holy pictures. Her faith had a strong, quiet intensity that was impressive and attractive to me.

Irene and I fell in love and got married. For the next 20 years she lived as a Catholic and I as a Jew. We had no children, but we always helped one another. I drove her to church on Sundays during inclement weather, and she lovingly prepared Jewish meals for me. The years passed. Our marriage matured like vintage wine.

I Hear a Voice

A quarter mile from our home in Burke, Virginia, was a Catholic parish church. A quarter mile beyond that was a shopping center. I had absolutely no interest in the church, but when the weather was fair I often walked to the shopping center for pleasure and mild exercise.

One day, then 43 years old, I set out on a walk to the shopping center. As I approached the church, a wonderful sense of peace began to override my thoughts. An interior voice said, “I love you. I have always loved you. Come home!”

As I continued toward the church, the sense of peace increased. I understood that it was somehow coming from the church. After I passed the church, the sense of peace decreased, and by the time I reached the shopping center it was gone. I wondered whether it was a reaction to something I had eaten, but I had eaten only familiar foods the past few days. I thought it might have been a remnant of some long-ago conversation, but I couldn’t recall anything that fit. Perhaps something I’d read years ago? No.

Finally, I attributed that wonderful and strange feeling to an overactive imagination and forgot about it. But the same thing happened on the way back. It became stronger as I approached the church, and weaker as it receded behind me. By the time I got home the feeling was gone. Mystified, I decided that since I was a Jew and this was a Catholic parish church where the “event” had happened, it must have been a fluke – nothing to do with me.

A few weeks later, I walked the same route again. I had completely forgotten about the earlier episode. But again, as I approached the church, the sense of peace and the interior voice came again. By the third time this happened, it began to dawn that God might be calling me.

The Shroud is Lifted

Irene and I watched a compelling video on the Shroud of Turin called “The Silent Witness.” After watching it, I began to do more research. Over time I became convinced, based on an objective assessment of the evidence, that the Shroud of Turin was the actual burial cloth that covered Jesus of Nazareth as he lay in the tomb. Then I noticed something crucial. The Shroud image appears to be a light scorch on one side of the linen cloth. The energy that had imprinted the image on the cloth had to have come from the body of Jesus of Nazareth. Heat travels through linen in thousandths of a second; the only way the cloth could be so lightly scorched on only one side was by an instantaneous burst of energy from the body.

That stunned me. The only event that seemed to fit all the known facts about the Shroud’s image was the Resurrection. Scientific evidence convinced me that Jesus of Nazareth had risen from the dead. Now the ideas came so fast I could hardly think them through. If the Resurrection actually occurred then Jesus is God! If Jesus is God, I had to completely rethink who I was and what I was supposed to do.

I also had to discern whether this growing desire to believe in Christ was a genuine call from God or whether it was merely a human idea. I resolved not to tell Irene about my thoughts. If she knew, she would surely encourage me, and my motives from then on would be mixed – wanting to please God and wanting to please her. I felt completely on my own.

Irene noticed immediately that something had changed. My usual relaxed confidence was gone. When referring to God, I began subtly replacing my usual Judaism-based language with words that might fit either a Jewish or Catholic perspective. She later told me that she had begun praying for me, asking the Holy Spirit what she should do. The Holy Spirit led her to answer my questions and provide what I asked for, nothing more.

“Is there such a thing as a question-and-answer book on Catholic belief?” I asked her one day. The very next day I found a simple question-and-answer Baltimore Catechism right where I liked to sit and read. I read it eagerly, reread it, and read it again. The Catholic Church, as explained in this delightful book, was more clear and consistent than anything I had ever encountered. I asked Irene whether there was a similar but more comprehensive book that explained the Catholic faith. She said she’d look into it for me.

I had to smile when, the next afternoon, I found a larger catechism on the table next to my recliner, Father Hardon’s The Catholic Catechism. I closed the door and began to read the book, trying to understand better the Catholic Church’s teachings.

I had plenty of questions now. Irene could have answered most of them. I knew by this time that she was aware of what was going on with me, but I still felt that openly acknowledging my odyssey could lead to my having mixed motivations for continuing. I asked Irene whether there was a class I could take that would be a tour of the Catholic Faith. The Holy Spirit was still very much at work. The parish Irene attended had just announced it was starting an inquiry class the following week.

I decided to attend the classes. It was quite a ride! I asked questions – lots of them. My questions were often asked in a combative way, but the Holy Spirit had chosen my teacher well. Deacon Nick La Duca had been raised in Brooklyn and knew that Jews have an age-old tradition of asking deep questions about their faith. It’s how they come to know God. Anyone who reads the Talmud will discover this. I challenged the deacon’s assertion that the Catholic Faith was the only true one. Jews make the same claim, as do some Protestant denominations. So why are the Catholics right and everyone else wrong?

Deacon Nick replied that a thousand years of Jewish prophecy had stopped shortly before Jesus of Nazareth arrived, and that Jewish blood sacrifices stopped after Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. He noted that the Gospels were eyewitness accounts of Christ’s incarnate life, and describe events that only God’s true Messiah could accomplish. He pointed out that Jesus only instituted one Church which, while St. John the Apostle was still alive, had already begun calling itself the Catholic Church. He explained that every Catholic bishop, priest, and deacon had been ordained by a bishop who had been ordained by a bishop, and so forth, in a direct line of apostolic succession back to Jesus Christ personally.

Catholics are signs of contradiction, he explained. They are called to be different from everyone around them. Christ taught that the first shall be last, and the last shall be first, and that he who would be the greatest is the servant of all. This wisdom seems inconsistent with our experience until we realize that God, the highest sovereign, did exactly these things for us. Loving one’s enemies and doing good for them, blessing those who hate us, witnessing to a hostile world about Christ, the Prince of Peace, all of this was so contrary to what we experience as the world’s values.

Deacon Nick also emphasized that Catholics should be prepared to be martyrs. Martyr means “witness.” Catholics should be prepared to give their life for Christ, as Christ gave his life for the Church. Deacon Nick read from Scripture Jesus’ words, “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” Mt 10:37-38. But Jesus also promised the payoff by adding that, “He who loses his life for my sake will find it” Mt 10:39.

I began to see that becoming a Catholic means to give one’s life to Christ and, in exchange, that Christ gives himself utterly to us in the New and Eternal Covenant, lived out in heaven forever.

The classroom had a picture of the Last Supper. I remember looking at that picture for a long time and thinking, “That’s a picture of God!” Jews do not make graven images because of the First Commandment: “Since you saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a graven image for yourselves, in the form of any figure” Deut 4:15-16 Among other explanations surrounding the Catholic use of statues and images, I learned that though we saw no form of God at Horeb, we did at Calvary. Crucifixes and statues are remembrances of that fact.

From God or Man?

As the class continued into spring, Deacon Nick asked which of us would like to be baptized into the Catholic Faith. Everyone expected me to come forward, but I could not. Deacon Nick had presented the Faith so convincingly that I wondered whether my flashes of spiritual insight and my gradual sense of transition from Judaism to Catholicism were the Holy Spirit’s inspiration or merely the work of a persuasive deacon. It was the old question: Was it from God or man?

I couldn’t tell, so I chose Rabbi Gamaliel’s solution. Soon after the Holy Spirit descended, the Sadducees captured the Apostles and took them before the Sanhedrin. Most of the Sanhedrin wanted to execute the Apostles and stop Christianity in its tracks. But the immensely influential Rabbi Gamaliel urged the Sanhedrin to release them, saying, “If this plan or this undertaking is of men, it will fail; but if it’s of God, you will not be able to overthrow them” Acts 5:38-39. I decided to give myself a year’s time for study and reflection, to see whether this inspiration would stay with me.

During the year the transition continued. More and more I felt Catholic in my heart. When the year was over, in early March, I realized I was stuck. I had always loved and worshiped God, but I knew Catholics worship Jesus as God. I felt I couldn’t go back to Judaism because I had become Catholic in my heart, but I couldn’t go forward formally into Catholicism because I could never abandon my Jewish monotheism. I struggled with that for some time. Then it dawned on me to simply ask God what I should do.

One day in Washington, DC, on the Ellipse, a large open grass field, I walked and prayed. “Father God, I need to know your path for me. You raised me a Jew, and for 46 years I have been a Jew. Now I sense you are calling me to the Catholic Church. You know I will always be yours, but Catholics worship Jesus. If You give me to Jesus, I will worship him. If you don’t, I will return to Judaism. Show me your will, Father. And please, let it be so clear that I will not be wracked by doubt.”

As I lowered my eyes, I saw a vision of Jesus walking beside me, dressed in a humble shepherd’s robe but transfigured, clothed in pure white light. I also heard the same interior voice I had heard three years earlier, this time saying, “I love you. I have always loved you. Welcome home!” I tried to greet Him, but everything I started to say seemed so inadequate. “Thank you” was so inadequate to describe the profound sense of gratitude and joy that flooded my heart. As I struggled, I could sense the Lord’s reassurance, “I understand. I know what is in your heart. You don’t have to say anything.” After a time, this intense awareness of Christ’s radiant presence stopped. I was stunned. Did that really happen? Yes, it had.

I raced home to tell my wife. “Irene, call your priest! I want to be baptized now.” Stunned, she asked what had happened to me. I tried my best to explain, and in moments she was on the phone with Father Salvator Ciullo, then pastor of Nativity Parish. Father Sal was willing to adjust his busy schedule to see me that same evening. After a long and very helpful meeting, he looked me in the eye and said, “As Christ died for us and rose from the tomb, you will die to self and rise new in Christ.”

What Will My Family Think

Easter Vigil 1989 was the greatest evening of my life. I received all three sacraments of Christian initiation. First I was buried with Christ through baptism into his redemptive sacrifice, so that as Christ was raised from the dead, I too might walk in new life. The sacrament of confirmation strengthened me with special graces from the Holy Spirit for battles ahead. The Sacrament of Holy Eucharist sealed his covenant of love with me. This covenant is the heart and soul of the Catholic Faith: Christ gave His life for me, and I give mine to him. By receiving his Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity in that Holy Communion, I gave him my body, blood, soul and humanity.

When the Easter Vigil Mass was over, I reflected on the incredible reality that I was now a Catholic. Now I had to tell my side of the family. I had resolved not to say anything until after I had been baptized. I had been concerned that telling Irene too early would create undue influence on me to proceed, and that telling my family would create undue influence on me to turn back.

I told them that as a Catholic I was really a Jew who accepted Jesus Christ as the promised Messiah and that I accepted his Deposit of Faith as the completion of my Jewish heritage. I told my family that where the synagogue has a tabernacle with the written Word of God in it, the Church has a tabernacle with the Word of God made Flesh. Where the synagogue places a red candle above the tabernacle representing God’s protecting pillar of fire, the church tabernacle has the same. Where the Jewish home has a yahrzeit candle to remember the dead, Catholics place memorial candles in the church. The Catholic priest continues, as the Messiah instructed, the Final Sacrifice that the ancient Jewish priests prefigured.

My family members whose attachment to the Jewish faith was primarily cultural were the most distressed at my conversion. Having little experience with divine revelation, they thought my experiences must have been imaginary and that I had betrayed the faith of my fathers. Interestingly, those family members with a deep Jewish faith knew that God does transform lives, and they understood that I had to follow God’s call obediently, even though I didn’t fully understand it.

One of my cousins, a serious Orthodox Jew, looked at me with great intensity and asked, “You’ve come much closer to God, haven’t you?” I answered, “Yes.” His gaze held steady. “Good. Being close to God is the most important thing.”

Several weeks later, I sat in my living room praying, “Jesus, you did a lot to get me into the Catholic Church. I know you didn’t do all that just to plop me down here, so there has to be a mission. Lord, I’d like to get on with it. What’s my mission? What do you want me to do for you?” At that moment I happened to glance down at a copy of a book I had written called How We Communicate: The Most Vital Skill. Written before my conversion, it had been published just a few months before my baptism and was selling well. I felt the Lord’s interior command, “Communicate My Word as far and wide as you can.”

“How, Lord?” I prayed. “How will I know what to say?”

I sensed that my gifts in the field of communication were those Christ wanted me to use for his purposes. He wanted me to take the principles of communication I had written about and put them to work in the cause of telling others about him.

I smiled at the thought that flashed through my mind: “Moses had the same concern when the Lord called him.” As I prayed I pondered the story of Moses and his mission for God. He was a great Jew, sent forth by God to be a sign of contradiction. He too believed that he did not have what he needed to do the job the Lord was asking him to undertake. But God gave him what he needed to carry out his great mission.

I knew the Lord would give me what I needed to carry out my small one.