Jewish and Catholic: An interview with my father, Phil Prever

Back in 2018, I interviewed several people for an article about what it means to be both Jewish and Catholic. The interview never made it to print for various reasons, but I have always wanted to share the conversation I had with my father.

He and my mother both grew up in Brooklyn with a cultural Judaism. They married young, had two children, became hippies, drove cross country and back, moved to Israel and back, dallied with Buddhism, moved to a ski lodge in Vermont, had a dramatic conversion to evangelical Christianity, briefly landed in a cult, had two more children (including me), and eventually made their way into the Catholic Church, where they stayed (and had four more children).

 

 
My parents with their eight adult children
 
Here is my father’s account of what his Jewish origins meant to him. 
 
What was your experience of Judaism growing up?
 

We were cultural Jews. We celebrated Chanukah, but it didn’t mean a whole lot. It was just something Jews did around Christmas time. We never had a “Chanukah bush!” 

My grandmother, Anna Olshansky Prever, with my father
 

The only other thing we did in my family was we fasted on Yom Kippur. My father . . . I don’t even know what he believed. He felt a great lack in his life, because he had never been bar mitzvah’d. His parents wanted to get away from all that. He felt he had missed out, so when I was studying for bar mitzvah, I had to learn scriptures, and recite in front of the congregation in a synagogue, and he asked the rabbi if he could be bar mitzvah’d, in his 50’s.

 
My grandfather, Jacob Prever, with my father
 
On Yom Kippur, we would all fast. He would sit in a room with the lights off, no radio, no entertainment, wouldn’t read, would just sit there for all of the whole day and night. I don’t know what he was doing. It was a very solemn kind of thing, really spooky. Everyone tiptoed around him.
 
As kid, on the whole block, we were all Jewish. The joke was, “Are you fasting, or are you feasting?” Most of the kids fasted. We didn’t go to the synagogue, but we hung out around the synagogue and peeped in the windows.
 
Everything was done in Hebrew. The way they did it, the men who went there knew the prayers so well, they recited them at a very high speed. I don’t know if they knew what they were saying, but it was just a jumble and it didn’t seem very meaningful to me, but that’s what you did. 
 
Why did you hang around, if it wasn’t meaningful?
 
There was a lot of horseplay. We weren’t in a devout frame of mind, or anything. But we were drawn to it. We didn’t understand it, but we knew we were Jews and this was what Jews did on the high holidays. Our families didn’t go to Shul, but somehow we wanted something to do with it. 
There was a synagogue where I was growing up, and one day I’m walking along the street and a man comes up and says, “Are you Jewish?” 
“Yeah.”
“Have you been bar mitzvah’d?”
“Yeah.”
“We need one more for a minyan.”
I must have been in my early teens. I sat through the service that was meaningless to me, but on the other hand, I felt like I was doing something devout. After I was bar mitzvah’d, I took it somewhat seriously. I got phylacteries, and for at least a month I used to put on the tefillin every day and said the prayers. Eventually I got tired of doing it. 
 
Some years, we would go to my uncle’s father from the old country. He used to do a seder. He did it all in Hebrew. That’s the only time I ever went to a real seder. Other than that, on Passover, we’d have a special meal with Passover foods, but no seder. I went to Hebrew school until I was bar mitzvah’d, to read and write Hebrew to an elementary level. Then once I was bar mitzvah’d, that was all over with. 
 
My mother used to light yarhzeit candles on the anniversary of someone’s death, which I still do. That’s about it. And a lot of Jewish food. 
 
My father with his parents
 
All the people we knew were like us. None of my friends were observant. I didn’t know any Catholics or Christians when I was growing up. I never saw anyone who wasn’t Jewish until I was in sixth grade. There was an Italian girl in my class from a couple of blocks away. 
 
How did your parents respond when you converted? 

My mother was distressed. Ima’s mother was, too, even though they were less observant than my family.
 
My father’s father, my mother, my father, and my mother’s father at a party
 
But what happened was, they saw we started to live differently. We had lived a crazy life before, with drugs and hippie craziness. We were leading a disordered kind of life, and they saw we cleaned up our lives and stopped messing around so much, so they were impressed by that. That made a difference. My mother softened over the years. She wasn’t actively hostile. She got over it. She came to live with us, so it couldn’t have been too uncomfortable for her. 
 
 
My grandmother with my younger brother, Jacob
 
Early on, when we were protestants, Ima’s mother and my mother came to visit. They drove up. At that time, we thought it was our duty to preach the Gospel to everybody we met, so we started working on our mothers. They weren’t having any of it. We tried to explain to them why they needed to be saved. They didn’t want to hear it. I said something like, “You know, driving home, you could be in an accident and die, and where would you be then?” That was the wrong thing to say. That was the approach that was favored at the Community Bible Chapel: Hit ’em between the eyes. They were horrified, probably rightly so. We never did that again. 
 
Does anyone respond negatively to your explanation of who you are?
 
Early on, Ima and I ran into some Catholics who didn’t understand why we, as Jews, wanted to become Catholics. They had been taught the idea that there were two covenants, and that Jews belonged to one covenant and Christians to another, and there was no necessity for Jews to become Christians to be saved. There was a time in the Church when that was the going explanation of the relationship between Jews and Catholics. It’s kind of passé now. That was in the early ’80’s. Ima converted in ’78 and I converted in ’79.
 
My parents with my three older sisters and me
 
I know some christians have a kind of fascination with Jews. Did you run into that?
 
People were interested in us because of that. The priest at St. Mary’s where we first started going said, “You know, people are watching you.” Really? What do they expect to see? They wondered how a Jew would deal with all this Catholic stuff. But nobody said anything to me.
 
My father with me and my sister Sarah
 
When we were protestants, we had a special status as Jews who had become Christians. It was kind of a special prize, because here we were, members of the chosen people, and we had converted, when so many Jews were against Christianity. 
 
We were kind of minor celebrities when we were protestants. Once Ima and I were up in front of some protestant congregation explaining Judaism, which we didn’t know all that much about. I remember explaining about the mezuzah on the door post, and the pastor said, “That has the blood of a lamb in it, right?” And I said, “No! It has the scroll that has the Sh’ma in it.” “Oh!” he says.
 
People expected us to be well versed in the Old Testament, which I was not. I became well versed in it when I became a Christian. Certain things in my background that I didn’t quite understand the significance of became clearer to me when I became a Christian.
 
a print my parents made for a card shortly after their conversion
 
Like what?
 
I’m trying to think of an example. I had a cousin, quite a bit older than me, more of my mother’s generation. When there would be a funeral and the whole family would be there, he would stand outside the fence and not go in the cemetery ground, and I never knew why, until I read somewhere in the Old Testament that because he was called a Cohen, born in some kind of priestly line, he was forbidden to set foot in a cemetery. Some kind of taboo against dealing with the dead, somewhere in Leviticus, no doubt. A light went on over my head: Oh! That’s why Seymour Katz never went into the cemetery. 
 
Why is it important to you to preserve your Jewish identity?
 
There’s a feeling among the Jewish people that Jew who becomes a Christian is kind of a traitor to his people I don’t believe that. Because I think Jesus is God, you know? And I believe in God! I don’t feel that I’m betraying the Jewish people. I feel like I’m accepting the Jewish messiah. But maintaining my Jewish identity is important to me because I want to assure myself that I’m not a traitor, I guess. I’ve never reasoned it out on such an explicit level, but I think that’s how I feel.
 
It’s a wonderful thing to be a Jew. It’s special. The Jewish people are like no other. I’m glad some of you kids have maintained that. Some of you haven’t. We let you go your own way on that, presented it as something that was meaningful to us. I feel a deep bond with the state of Israel and the fate of the Jewish people around the world, wherever they are. I feel connected, and I don’t want to lose that.
 
Do you also feel connected to Catholics around the world, or is it a different kind of thing?
 
I feel like I’d like to, but it’s not on the same emotional level. I do feel some connectedness, but it’s not the same. 
 

How do you express your Jewishness now? 

I go to my parents’ graves once a year. I say the kaddish prayers over their graves, and put a stone on the gravestone. One other thing: I’m a lector at church. There’s a three-year cycle of readings. Once every three years comes the passage from Deuteronomy 6: “Hear, o Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Before I read it, I say the Sh’ma in Hebrew in front of the congregation, and no one has ever asked me about it. Once or twice I even chanted it, just for the hell of it. I don’t know why I do it. It seems like it should be said in Hebrew. 
 
 
You’re pretty conservative. Does it bother you that many American Jews are liberal?
 
It bothers me. I wish they’d open their eyes a little and see who the friends of the Jewish people are. The left in America is getting really anti-Israel. On the other hand, who knows if the Christians in America are really friends of the Jews when push comes to shove. I always think of The Sopranos, with the Jewish character Hesh. He and his daughter go to visit Tony in the hospital, and this evangelical preacher comes in to visit. He wants to pray with Tony. Hesh is rolling his eyes around, but his daughter says Evangelical Christians are great friends of the Jews. And Hesh says, “Just wait.”
 
Catholics, Catholics are all over the place. Although it seems like, among Catholic theologians, there’s been an awakening to the connection between the Catholic religion and how it grew out of the Jewish religions. 
 
 

Have you encountered antisemitism in your lifetime? 

Believe it or not, I have hardly any experience with antisemitism in my life, that I’m aware of. Growing up, I never ran into it because I was surrounded by Jews. 

I remember once, when I must have been a Christian already, and I was at a gas station in New York. I must have gone down to visit family. This guy also filling up gas was talking to me, and I could tell by his accent he’s from down south. He looks at the price on the gas pump, which was much higher than what he was used to, and said, “Aw, G-ddamn Jews.” Blaming the Jews for high gas prices. It was insane. I was shocked. I had never run across that kind of overt antisemitism. Afterwards, I thought of a thousand things I could have said, but I didn’t say anything. It was a moment of realizing what’s out there, so many people who feel that way. 
 
Didn’t you once have a customer for your book business who made some antisemitic remarks?
 
Oh, this guy was a nut. He turned out to be Pope Pius XIII. Fr. Pulvermacher, was his name. He ordered a traditional Catholic book. I started out selling pre-Vatican II books, before I understood what a trad was. Now I look back and I realize I was getting a lot of orders from trads. They assumed I was one, too. Little did they know I was a Novus Ordo Jew!
 
Some of them found out we were Jewish and were thrilled, but not all of them. This Pulvermacher passed some kind of remark. Ima wrote back to him, had some kind of back and forth with him, and he backed off.
 
My. mother
 
He didn’t want to kill us or anything. He’s the one who said, “If you disagree with me, you’re a heretic.” Later years, we found out he became Pope Pius XIII.
 
Why do you think antisemitism is such a perennial thing?
 
Historically, I think antisemitism was basically a kind of hatred of God. That’s not the basis of all antisemitism; but in Europe, some of the pogroms was done trying to get at God through the Jews in some weird kind of way. And it sure has lasted a long time, huh? Three, four thousand years. Come on, enough already. 
 
 
My father was born in America in 1900, so his family came over in the 1880s or 90’s. The pogroms has something to do with it. Being a Jew in Eastern Europe was not a comfortable thing. My mother’s father, at one point, they were trying to get him to come into the Russian army, and he didn’t want to go. It’s a good thing; he would have been slaughtered in World War I. Living under the Czar was not a comfortable thing. You were on the razor’s edge all the time. There were pogroms, and no one knew when they were going to start up again. By the time he left, there was a lot of communist agitation or socialist agitation. They got out a year before the 1917 revolution.
 
My father’s maternal grandfather, Phillip (Feivel) Olshansky, shortly before the family fled Russia
My grandfather would not have done well. He was a capitalist, so that was part of it.
 
A visa photo of my great grandparents Zelda (Jenny) and Feivel (Phillip), my grandmother Hana (Anne), and two of my great-uncles, Gosel and Schloima.
 
Other than that, I don’t really know why they left, other than that they figured they would be better off in America, and they were. 

 

My grandfather in his pharmacy

There’s nobody to ask anymore. There’s a lot of things I wish I knew, but now there’s nobody to ask. 

My father with his mother’s sister, Mickey (Miriam)
 
How did you come to do the seder that you do today?
 
When we first started doing it, I had a Haggadah which was a Christian seder, and it was put out by protestants. It was completely Christian prayers all throughout, always drawing out parallels. After a couple of years, I said, “I don’t feel comfortable doing this.” It didn’t sit right. I went back to using the traditional Haggadah and adding onto it, and I feel more comfortable with that. I’ve never done a seder in a Christian setting, for a church group or anything. I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that, but I know I reacted against over-Christianizing it. 
 
My parents at a seder in 2016
 
If your Jewishness were somehow taken away, what would it do to your faith, or to your relationship with God?

Why would such a thing be necessary? I would feel less like myself. I would feel I had lost something, and I was less of the person I had been all these years. I don’t think I would feel like I had less of a relationship with God, but it’s hard to say what that loss would consist of. 
 
Do you pray as a Jew?

Sometimes.What does that mean?
Sometimes I think of Abraham praying for Lot. Sometimes I fall into that mode of praying. I speak to God in a kind of overfamiliar way, and I say, “Hey, you know, what’s the deal here?” I’ve been in that frame of mind while praying. Sometimes I find myself davening unconsciously [Note: “Davening” means “praying.” I believe my father was referring specifically to shuckling while praying.] It wasn’t something I grew up with. I used to see the men in synagogue doing it, but I never did. 
 
my father in Brooklyn
 
Have you heard much about a Hebrew Catholic Rite? Would you get involved with it if it came about in your lifetime? 
 
I would be very interested in seeing that come to fruition, but I don’t think I could help, because I don’t know enough. I can sound out Hebrew, but I don’t understand it except a phrase here and there. I don’t have any experience of praying in a synagogue or different Jewish holidays. I just don’t know enough. I would definitely like to see it happen.  
 
You say you don’t have experience, but you spent a whole year living in Israel!
 
We did absolutely zero religious observation when we were in Israel. When we were in Israel, we were Buddhists. I can’t explain how such stupidity can happen, but it did. 
 
What meant a lot to me, living in Israel: At that time, before the Six Day War, we lived in Western Jerusalem. Jerusalem was like a peninsula into Arab territory. It came about during the war of Independence in 1948. They fought so hard to get at least a piece of Jerusalem. They never conquered the historical Jerusalem. It’s mountainous, and when you come up from the farther western part of Israel, you go uphill, and the road winds on these different hills. All along the hill, you see these rusted out military vehicles, relics of the war of ’48. It made a tremendous impression on me. You could see how hard these Jews had fought to get to Jerusalem, at least to get a piece of it. 
 
 
Would you go back if you could?

I’d love to go back. I think about it a lot, but I don’t think I’ll ever do it. It would mean more to me now. We were there for [a year, which extended into] a few weeks after the war in ’67, and we went into the Old City after the war. We were looking at the Via Dolorosa, and I saw lots of ancient sites, and then came up into some kind of building. We looked out a window, and there was the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism. It’s a relic of the temple, all that’s left of the wall that supported what the temple was built on. All these people praying, and I never went down to it. People make pilgrimages from the ends of the earth to get to it. I was there, and I didn’t even take five minutes to go downstairs and go to the wall. It just didn’t mean that much to me. I’ve always been ashamed that I never did. 
 
Do you think Jews have some kind of special mission or place or obligation in the Church or in the world?
 
If you go back to Romans 10, Paul talks about the mission of the Jews. He says the conversion of the Jews will be the resurrection of the dead. I don’t know what that means, exactly, but it’s a big thing, something very important. He says the gift and the calling of God are irrevocable. There’s these gifts that have been given to the Jews, and when they come into the Church, it’s going to be apocalyptic. I don’t know, I don’t know what it’s going to be. 
 
 
What do you want people to know about Hebrew Catholics?
 
There’s the idea that Jews in the Catholic Church will somehow subvert the Church. That’s crazy. I don’t know any Hebrew Catholic who would want to subvert the Church in any way. If you go far enough onto the fringe, they think the great sin of the Church was then the Church said the Jews didn’t kill Christ. 
 
There’s this idea I run into with some Catholics that Catholics are Catholics and Jews are Jews, and Jews don’t need Christ. That bothers me that anyone should think that: That there’s anyone who doesn’t need Christ. Although I think the Jews are special in many ways, they’re not so special that they don’t need Christ. Everyone does. 
 
***
 

My father died just about a year ago on April 3. We had been planning to celebrate Passover with him via Zoom, and instead ended up live streaming his funeral. This year, I was bracing myself for the first anniversary of his death, and then my mother died on March 12. I know what my father would say: The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord. 

 
 

How I sort of left the Church, and why I came back

Here is a little story about how I left the church, sort of, and then came slouching back home, more or less.

The late, occasionally great Mad Magazine once published a bit that showed people’s secret thoughts. A scene looks one way from the outside but is very different and allegedly very funny on the inside. The one I remember showed the inside of a church. The congregation piously bows their heads, apparently engaged in placid worship. But on the inside, the well-to-do man is freaking out over gambling debt, the adolescent boy is slavering over a sexy fantasy and the teenage girl is desperately praying for a negative pregnancy test. It is just as well I don’t remember what the priest was thinking.

This was supposed to demonstrate that religious people are a bunch of hypocrites who pretend to be righteous and clean but are actually a mess on the inside. Har har, religious people! Look how they live.

The cartoonist was, of course, not making this up. When my parents had found Jesus but not yet the Catholic Church, my poor mother was perpetually humiliated when people visited our shabby, disorderly home. She was overworked, outnumbered and struggling with undiagnosed thyroid issues. And their allegedly Christian landlord thought laundry lines made the outside of the house look tacky, so whatever my mother did, she did it fighting her way past a line of damp diapers drying slowly over the hot air vent. A poor substitute for the mighty wind of the Holy Spirit that they sought.

But conversion happens stepwise. She knew her fellow Christians believed that outward disorder and chaos were caused by secret sin, so if anyone came to her door, she fell into the habit of making excuses. “Sorry about the mess,” she would say, and then explain that someone had been sick or they just got back from a trip. Here was always some temporary, mitigating factor that explained the general chaos.

Then one day, she didn’t. Someone came over and saw their typical chaos, and what came out of her mouth was: “Sorry it’s such a mess. This is just how we live.”

I don’t know how long after that moment she began to feel a pull toward the Catholic Church, but this moment in our family mythology feels like a very Catholic moment. This is literally what the church is for: So you can have a house to be a mess in. It is your house; you are a mess. Why try to deny it?

This is just how we live, and it’s not new. Chaucer, anyone? Dante’s “Inferno”? The Gospels? This is just how we live. If there were no mess, there would be no reason for the church to be built to house it. If there were no sin, there would be no need for baptism and confession and the Eucharist. If there were no human misery and wretchedness, there would have been no need for God to become man. I know this, or I thought I did. At home in the Catholic Church, we are a mess, and we cannot seem to help opening the door to show all comers our own weaknesses and sins and hypocrisies.

But as I write this paragraph, it feels a bit like I am distilling the faith down to an Etsy-worthy wall hanging for suburban moms: Bless this mess, Lord!

But the mess of the church is no adorable, kid-style mess, with couch cushion forts and colorful alphabet blocks strewn around the rug. It is the sex abuse scandal, which continues to break and break and break on the shore like a punishing, never-ending tide. It is the scandal of pastors and bishops pitting faith against science. It is the scandal of open disobedience and contempt for basic doctrine. It is the general crappiness and malaise and infighting of Catholic culture and Catholic social media. It is the disorder where culture, tradition, doctrine and lived experience all try to inhabit the same living space. This is how we live, and it is a mess, and the mess goes down deeper than I thought.

A number of personal experiences have widened some cracks in my life that used to be manageable. I used to think my personal faith-house was rock solid. It is not. It was shored up with 10,000 little pebbles, and some of them carried a bigger load than they should have. Many of them have been swept away, and when I look at what’s left, I don’t even know what to call it. “Mess” seems inadequate. It’s nothing comfortable or homelike, anyway.

Read the rest of my latest for America magazine

***
Image by Michael Garlick  (Creative Commons)

Lent movie review #1: USHPIZIN

We launched this year’s Friday Night Mandatory Lent Film Party last week with the Israeli movie Ushpizin (2004).

Before I say anything else, I recommend this movie if you are cold. This is one of the sunniest films I have ever seen. There’s nothing flashy about the way the movie is filmed, but you absolutely feel like you’re in the blazing hot streets of old Jerusalem. You could warm your hands by the natural light emanating from the screen. 

It’s also very emotionally warming, and I was of two minds about that.

The basic plot: A married couple, Malli and Moshe, who fairly recently converted or reverted to their strict Orthodox Jewish faith, have no child and no money, which brings them great grief. They can’t pay the rent, and they also have no means to celebrate Sukkoth, the holiday commemorating the Jews’ exodus in the desert. You’re supposed to erect a booth outside your home and eat and sleep in it, and supply it with “four species,” including a citron, some sort of highly cultivated ceremonial citrus fruit.

I didn’t really understand why Moshe and his wife Malli doesn’t have any money (he works at the temple but hasn’t been there enough lately, so they don’t pay him?), and I was a little confused about who it was who was miraculously inspired to help him; but the upshot is that the couple’s prayers are answered immediately and spectacularly.

But there’s a hitch! Along with the bounty come some guests, one of whom knows Moshe from before his conversion. This puts a strain on everyone, and how they respond to the strain just about wrecks everything. 

One thing I loved is the intimate, friendly way the couple prayed to God. The motions and rituals of their faith felt very foreign, but listen to how Moshe, almost out of hope, talks to God as he sits on a park bench:

Malli has a similarly cozy and intimate prayer life, at one point calling God “a sweet guy,” if I remember correctly. 

But the way God responds to their prayer is the thing that left me feeling a trace bit uneasy about the movie. It was difficult to know how hard to try to analyze what was happening here, because I’m so ignorant about the culture depicted. I want to say what I think it meant that the guests cut the costly citron that was supposed to bring a blessing for a baby boy, but I’m not sure I understood enough of what it meant on the literal level to analyze it on a metaphorical level.  

In any case, it’s definitely a story about trusting God in the simplest way possible, and maybe not trying to over-analyze or comprehend all the twists and turns of providence, but accepting the whole will of God as-is, including the miraculous and the mundane. The couple explicitly references Sarah and Abraham, the faith-filled but childless couple, and also more obliquely Job, the suffering but bewildered servant who accepts that he can’t comprehend God’s ways. And they’re also Moshe and Malli, who have been married five years and buy their clothes second hand. 

This is a couple who love each other so dearly and love God so affectionately and trustingly, it’s lovely to see — and excruciating when those relationships are under stress. In their particular story, they want some things very desperately, and when they pray hard enough, God gives it to them. I have not noticed that this is how it works in real life! But this is a fairy tale or maybe a folk tale.

It’s also very much a beginning. The couple is fairly young in their faith and their life together. Maybe God is showering bounty on them to give them a good start, and it seems very likely that this couple will be up to the challenges the rest of their life together will surely bring, when prayers don’t get answered so directly.

There is also some gentle exploration of what it means to belong to a community, and whether or not it can be righteous to violate the norms. Moshe and Malli are willing to be a little transgressive because they think it’s the best way to serve God, but they also very much draw their strength from the mandates of the community, which is portrayed with utter respect even as its flaws are revealed. Interesting stuff. 

It’s also a very funny movie, with a kind of childlike goofiness that many people don’t realize is very typical of Jewish culture. The couple are married in real life (Moshe, played by Shuli Rand, wrote the screenplay, but neither had acted before), and the connection between them is authentic and familiar. Lots of wonderful, very human relationships in the movie, between friends, between people who don’t trust each other, between elders and the people they advise, between people who feel more or less comfortable in this tiny, intense community.      

We watched the movie on Amazon prime but it’s currently streaming on several different platforms for a few dollars [where to watch]. If nothing else, it will cure you of the idea that orthodox Jews, with all their elaborate rituals and whatnot, use ceremony or spiritual formulas to replace a relationship with God. It’s so tender, intimate, in turn agonizing and joyful — and, as I said, sunny.

Suitable for all ages, although it does have subtitles. Lots of smoking, so if you’re a quitter, watch out. 

Up next: Probably Song of Bernadette, which several people have noted supplies more than you’d expect from the Golden Age of Catholic Hollywood. 

The cracks in the wall of the church

Have you been to one of those churches that is tidy and fine and in good repair, but the architectural style is . . . ongepotchket? A little of this and a little of that, and it all adds up to much too much.

Church buildings like this have clearly gone through countless renovations. Some parts are neoclassical, some are vaguely nautical. The light fixtures are from the 80s; the stations of the cross from the 50s, and the tabernacle is from who knows when. When was it okay to put those particular colors and textures together, and when was that shape ever anything but grotesque? And that’s where we keep Jesus.

It’s not just church buildings, but the Catholic Church itself that is this way. It has undergone more renovations that we can imagine. What we think of as Catholicism is not a coherent, uniform, elegant whole carefully curated by the Holy Spirit, but a sort of yard sale arrangement patched together out of whatever is made available to us in our era, in our region, in our budget, in our tradition.

That goes not only for architecture and decor, but also for styles of worship, for what we emphasize in how we incorporate our faith into our life, and for which virtues and which sins we emphasize, and for how we think about God.

The indispensable core of what unifies us as Catholics is smaller and more basic than we may realize, and so much of what feels normal and even central is actually just cultural, and may very well someday be renovated away.

Does this thought cause some discomfort? It should. The Church is not just about us or our times, and never was meant to be. Even the things that appeal to us and nourish us and give us comfort and support are not as central as we might imagine.

But wait, it gets worse! For some Catholics, living the faith is like coming into their old familiar ongepotchket, hodgepodge, yard sale church building, and one day they spot not only some aesthetic incoherence, but an actual crack in the wall.

And suddenly, they can’t shake the idea that the crack isn’t just a crack, but a portent. That everything they see around them, the things that appeal to them and the things that don’t, are an edifice built over a sinkhole. They feel they must tread carefully or the whole thing will cave in. That the cracks are structural; that there’s a yawning abyss under our feet.

Sometimes that emptiness seems like the only real thing, and every part of the church that has been built over it looks like it’s moments away from tumbling down into gehenna.

Returning to Mass after a long separation can be an emotional experience. Or not.

It’s been a long, dry spell. Many Catholics have never gone this long without receiving the Eucharist since before their first communion.

Now that more and more parishes are finding ways to safely offer public Mass or some form of communion service, many Catholics are taking to social media to describe what an overwhelming emotional experience it has been for them. Some are even sharing photos of themselves with tear-stained cheeks, overcome with emotion after receiving communion again.

Much of this emotional response is surely sincere, a spontaneous outpouring of joy and gratitude after a time of trial and deprivation. It’s understandable to want to share our delight in the Lord with people who will understand.

So let’s set aside the question of how spiritually healthy it is to take and share selfies of pious displays, and look instead to Catholics who aren’t coming to pieces over the opening of churches.

There are a lot of them. There are a lot of Catholics who most certainly want to return to the sacraments, but they aren’t feeling wracking pangs of longing as their separation continues.

They aren’t spending their days in misery and distress, ceaselessly imploring the Holy Spirit to open the church doors again. And when they do receive the Eucharist again after a long time away, they aren’t going boneless with spiritual bliss. They believe in the saving power of God with all their hearts, but they’re not getting very emotional about it.

I’m here to tell you that if that’s how it is for you, it’s okay. It doesn’t prove there’s something inferior about your faith. It doesn’t mean you’re lukewarm or spiritually mediocre. It doesn’t mean you don’t care about the sacraments, and it doesn’t mean you don’t understand how precious they are. It might mean any number of things, but it’s certainly not automatically a sign that you’re the wrong kind of Catholic.

Emotions are just emotions. They are not nothing, but they are not the same as faith. Sometimes emotions come to us unbidden from the Holy Spirit. Sometimes they are given to us as a gift. But sometimes…Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image: Photo by kevin laminto on Unsplash

Precious Blood in the time of Coronavirus

With COVID-19 spreading, more parishes are cautiously telling the congregation to skip or modify the sign of peace, and announcing that the Eucharist will only be distributed under the species of bread, not wine. 

This has happened in other years, when other sicknesses were circulating, and every year, there are complaints. Some Catholics claim we can’t get sick from drinking the Precious Blood, because . . . well, it’s Jesus! Jesus doesn’t make you sick. Only those approaching the altar with a poor and feeble faith would be afraid to drink from the cup. How can we profess our trust that Christ is life, and then immediately turn fearfully away from receiving the gift of His blood?

The answer is that faith might trump science, but it’s presumptuous to assume that it will. So let’s be clear: If I say that I know I’ll be preserved from transmission of disease because it’s Jesus, I’m saying that I know I’ll receive a miracle. 

But let’s set aside this faith-based argument for a moment and address a the second argument I often hear, which is that there’s also no scientific reason to skip the Precious Blood, because the alcohol in the wine would kill any germs anyway. I was surprised to learn that there is a fairly low risk of actually contracting an illness from sharing the chalice, because metal doesn’t harbor microbes well, and because the rim is wiped regularly. Still, low risk is some risk, and some diseases carry more of a threat than others. I decided several years ago that if I have good reason to worry about my family’s health, then we have good reason to reverently bypass drinking from the cup.

Let’s talk about what is actually in that cup. We know that it is actually the Precious Blood. Its substance is the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ Himself. But we also know it still has all the accidents, or physical properties, of wine: grapes, ethanol, etc. It sloshes like wine; it’s purple like wine; it has a little wobbly reflection of the fluorescent overhead lights in it, like wine; if you drink enough of it, you’ll get drunk, just like with wine.

And if it has other people’s germs in it, you might get sick from putting it in your mouth. Just like wine.

Harumph, you may say. I’m no fool. We most certainly can get sick from drinking from the cup – but that sickness is a small price to pay in exchange for receiving the Eucharist. After all, if Jesus walked through our front door during flu season, would we chase Him off because we might catch something?

But this is pride disguised as piety. Unlike the unprecedented house call described above, the Eucharist is offered frequently, every day or at least every week; and it’s offered under both kinds. One reason for this is that, if you need to be prudent and forego this sacrament completely one day (by staying home sick), or forego one kind (by only receiving the more hygienic Host), then the Church, as always, is accommodating.

If we’re going to call the integrity of our fellow Catholics into question, then here’s a better question: How can we say we love and cherish the Church while sneering at the accommodations she offers us? You can come again another day, and our patient Lord – who made the world, germs and all – will be there, happy to see that you’re feeling better now, and happy to know that you take the health and safety of your brethren seriously. 

Because there’s the more pressing concern. If we do get sick, we risk passing along our sickness to others, to the elderly, to people with compromised immune systems, to babies. When we make willing sacrifices, we must be sure that we’re the ones who will suffer, not other people. Deliberately exposing oneself to potentially fatal disease, and possibly spreading it . . . you know, maybe just put a pea in your shoe, instead, or say the rosary on your knees.

So maybe you’re convinced that, for practical and ethical reasons, it does make more sense to avoid drinking from a communal cup. But something about it still feels off. It’s very hard to shake the feeling that, even as we acknowledge it’s possible to transmit germs through the Eucharist, surely it’s still somehow more spiritually elevated to dwell only on the pure, holy, and edifying aspects of the sacrament.

But it’s really not. Here is why:

If the Eucharist were only spiritual and edifying, then Christ would be a fool. Why would He bother to become incarnate, if He expected us to pretend He wasn’t? Why would he bother taking on a human flesh, if He wanted us to flutter our eyes politely and pretend His body isn’t a real body?

Being a Catholic is all about the body. It’s all about manning up and admitting that this hunk of meat that is us – whether it’s athletic, soft, withered, paunchy, or bouncing brand-new – is really us. Jesus’ body was really Jesus. Jesus, like us, saw with His googly eyeballs, all stuffed with jellylike vitreous humor; He moved His limbs with the aid of diarthrotic joints and synovial fluid. He had boogers. Remember? “Like us in all things but sin.”

I have always felt uneasy around the caroling of certain overly lovely traditions: that the baby Jesus, at His birth, filtered through Mary’s hymen like a sunbeam through a window pane; that “Little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes.” Why shouldn’t He cry? I cry.

When I remember that He is really, truly a human, I remember that he really truly understands the burden of being a human. He doesn’t whisk our troubles away, or dazzle us with His divinity to distract us from the real world.  He sees our burden. He stands alongside us and helps us lift it, because He knows that it is real. Because He is real.

Isn’t our faith strange? It would be weird enough if we taught that the Blood of our Savior gave us mystical immunity from the flu. But the truth is even weirder.

What’s weirder still is that what looks all sloshy and purple, and what smells and tastes like something on sale at the Quik-E-Mart, is what will save our souls.

Weirdest of all: Christ is our Brother. His body had germs. His transubstantiated Blood can have germs. If we don’t understand this, we’re in danger of making the Eucharist into something a little bit silly – something removed from us, something utterly beyond our grasp, something nebulous and magical, a magic trick.

But the Eucharist is not magic, it’s better: It’s a miracle. The Eucharist is not removed from the world; it transforms the world.

Maybe God really will protect those trusting parishioners who hope in His mercy, and maybe He will reward their trust with good health. Miracles like this are possible. Saints have survived for years with no physical nourishment other than the Eucharist. St. Claire once frightened off an attacking horde of Saracens by holding up a consecrated Host.

But I don’t think I’m missing anything by taking germs seriously. Thinking of God’s body, of His brotherhood with us, and thinking most of all of His suffering, and of His sympathy, helps me remember something it’s easy to forget, when I’m worn out, disgusted, flattened, fed up, and exhausted by this world and its disease: Jesus is here with us, right now. He is one of us.

 

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Image: Detail of photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

A version of this essay originally ran at Inside Catholic in 2009.

Those people who leave the Church over little things

People leave the Church for all kinds of reasons. Usually it’s more than one reason; but sometimes people will be able to point to the one thing that tipped them over the edge. Very often, it’s the sex abuse scandal. But also fairly often, it’s something that sounds less serious. It sounds like something that people should be able to get past:

“I was going through a rough time in my marriage and a priest gave a jerky sermon about divorce, so I walked out and never came back.”

“I was trying to organize my grandmother’s funeral, and the parish secretary was so rude, and even mocked the music I chose. That was the last time I set foot in a church.”

“I was in the back with my crying baby, and an usher angrily told me to control my kid. I decided if they didn’t want me, I didn’t want them either, and that was that.”

These things are upsetting and demoralizing, and can legitimately make us angry. But are they worth leaving the Church over?

When someone tells stories like these, other Catholics will often respond: Well, if you’d leave Jesus and the sacraments for something small like that, it shows that your faith was weak and shallow to begin with. If you leave the Church because of sinners, your faith was in man, not God.

I used to believe this. I no longer do. Or at least, I see a bigger picture of why humans — including me — do what they do.

Don’t get me wrong. When someone decides to leave the Faith, there couldn’t be more at stake. It’s one thing if someone decides they’re quitting their tech job and taking up weaving, or they’re tired of Twitter and they’re giving up social media. I may think they’re making a mistake, but they can live with the consequences.

But when you hear that someone has had enough of the Church, it’s so hard not to say, “Yes, but . . . don’t you want Jesus? I know that one Catholic you met was so cruel and awful, and I’m so sorry that happened, but are you really prepared to give up Jesus, just because of that? This is your immortal soul we’re talking about! Eyes on the prize! Get over it!”

But it occurs to me that everyone’s priorities are skewed — people who leave the Church because of the sins of other humans, but also people who stay in the Church because of the goodness of other humans.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image via Piqsels (Creative Commons)

Catholicism without Christ

Is there any return from being cancelled? We’re not really sure. But there is wailing and gnashing of teeth until the 24-hour news cycle moves along and you are forgotten.
This is what comes of religious practice without faith, of Catholicism without Christ: At best, you enjoy some faint mimicry of the riches the faith has to offer; at worst, you suffer immensely, without any hope of redemption.

It is sad to live this way. It is ridiculous. But at least there is some excuse.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

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Image via https://fshoq.com/ (Creative Commons)

Fr. Fournier performed benediction inside burning Notre Dame

Here’s a transcript of an interview with Fr. Jean-Marc Fournier, the chaplain of the Paris Fire Brigade. He went into Notre Dame as it burned — standing there below a cascade de feu— and saved the Blessed Sacrament and the Crown of Thorns.

“[W]e had a vision of what hell may be: like waterfalls of fire pouring down from the openings in the roof, due to the downfall not only of the spire but also of other smaller debris in the choir,” he said. (Video in French below; image is a screenshot.)

“Everybody understands that the Crown of Thorns is an absolutely unique and extraordinary relic, but the Blessed Sacrament is our Lord, really present in his body, soul, divinity and humanity and you understand that it is hard to see someone you love perish in the blaze. As firefighters we often see casualties from fire and we know its effects, this is why I sought to preserve above all the real presence of our Lord Jesus-Christ … “

And then here is the part that gave me chills (italics mine):

“The time when the fire attacked the northern bell tower and we started to fear losing it, was exactly the time when I rescued the Blessed Sacrament. And I did not want to simply leave with Jesus: I took the opportunity to perform a Benediction with the Blessed Sacrament.

“Here I am completely alone in the cathedral, in the middle of burning debris falling down from the ceiling, I call upon Jesus to help us save His home.

It was probably both this and the excellent general maneuver of the firefighters that led to the stopping of the fire, the ultimate rescuing of the northern tower and subsequently of the other one.”

Makes me think of St. Clare, standing on the parapets of her convent and holding up the Host, and the invading saracens turned away in terror. (Note: I believe reports which say the Notre Dame fire was not intentionally set, so please don’t make any rash assumptions about the kind of threat Notre Dame faced.) He believed so firmly in the Real Presence, he not only had to rescue the host, but He called on its power and blessed the burning church. WHAT A PRIEST. 

Fr. Fournier was ordained in the FSSP, and survived an ambush during his seven years as a French army chaplain Afghanistan; and he was the priest who came to the aid of the dead and dying in the terrorist attack on a heavy metal concert in 2015. According to Newsweek:

In November 2015 he prayed over the dead and comforted the wounded at the Bataclan music club where 89 people were killed in attacks by the Islamic State militant group.

“I gave collective absolution, as the Catholic Church authorizes me,” Fournier said in the aftermath of the attacks.

Because he knows that Jesus saves.

I want to remember Fr. Fournier and his unflinching faith next time I receive Jesus. 

 

 

Venting is healthy, but the cross purifies

Social media, for all its benefits, has made it all too easy to find a group of people who will take your lowest impulses and hoist them on high, praising and burnishing them until they look like something fine and heroic. As you form relationships in the group and come to know and trust your new friends, and as the group members reward each other for holding fast to its ideals, the thing that used to make you feel a little uneasy about yourself slowly becomes your identity, the thing that fills you with pride.

This is how alt-right groups function. This is how terrorist groups function. This is how abusively rigid traditionalist groups function. And this is how dissenting groups function. Dissent comes to feel normal, even heroic. The subject matter in each group is different, but the psychological dynamics are the same.

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine here.

Image by faungg’s photos via Flickr . (Creative Commons)