When I was a very young priest in the fifties, the Catholic spiritual climate was intensely “apostolic.” The walls of the Paulist House of Studies in those days were papered with bright slogans goading students on, inciting us to be apostles. “Make America Catholic” shouted the cheerleader’s banner. Everyone was fair game. Baptize all the African babies. Bring everyone to “Rome”. It is God’s Will! But over the years with the arrival of Vatican II, the computer, television and the Pill, the sharpness of such enthusiasm became dulled and re-directed.
The contemporary softened insight of “fullness” of the Faith has a different flair. Today we all agree that good and fair minded people of every religious stripe have their own kind of true path to God and salvation. However, in spite of the polish of modern social interactions, informed Catholics still believe in the gifts unique to their Church. I suspect that should one dig vigorously into what such Catholics really believe, we would find that many would wish for everyone the gifts specific to the Catholic Faith. But modern sensitivities restrain the ebullience of the behavior so emblematic of the past. Today one doesn’t speak that bluntly and directly as we did in “the old days.” But that really was how it was. Out front. Open. And slightly combative. For example…
I, as an enthusiastic and utterly committed young priest, instructed, baptized and officially received into the Catholic Faith a young (23) Jewish woman whose father and two brothers were Orthodox rabbis. I had, unknowingly, stepped into a theological, sociological, psychological and political mine-field. The young woman had under gone a long series of instructions from me and a staff of lay volunteers. She met all our criteria and we were all agreed that she was ready for Reception into the Faith. Years later she even tried the life of the convent. But I was reported to the Cardinal (Spellman) as an over-zealous cleric. I was criticized for un-ecumenical behavior and in effect should be severely walloped by proper Catholic authorities. When no official sanction came, the three Rabbis demanded that I meet with the three of them for proper discussion of the situation. I couldn’t imagine for what reason. After the fact, the Baptism could not be reversed. Her religious Reception had been concluded. The Freedom of Religious Choice seemed to be set in concrete in the then American framework. What did they want from me?
In any event, the angry insistence of the Rabbis made it impossible for me follow my immediate feeling--to run for the hills! I was still a relative “kid” in the priesthood, awkward and insecure. I could hardly hold my own against fellow priests with whom I had frequent differences of viewpoint. Yet I found myself locked into a meeting with this fearsome trio in the Paulist Rectory. Nervously, I sought some kind of support from my Religious community which apparently looked on me with awe. I felt as if I were going into a boxing ring (all alone) against the World’s champ with throngs of well wishers cheering me on. Well wishers who were “Outside” the ring! It was as if they were chanting “They can’t lay a glove on you…Go for it” That some more experienced and older priest might accompany me into the fray was never a question. The complete assumption was that I was going it by myself!
Well, not exactly! I knew the Holy Spirit was with me and generations of the members of the Church Triumphant were behind me. But my knees were still very shaky and my mind was racing in an indefinable fear. But there was one more support system I never imagined. My Jewish father! I had told him of my quaky spirit in meeting this challenge and he, without solicitation, offered a backup system. Himself. He would show up at the Paulist Rectory on that “Night of Confrontation” and be available should I need him. For reasons of his own, he was incensed that I was being so challenged.
So, they all showed up. I ushered the three black clad, bearded men into a meeting room which was adorned with a crucifix on the wall. Two of them seemed nine feet tall, glowering and itching for a fight. The third, the father of the girl, unexpectedly and profoundly touched my heart. With his long white beard and his wide black hat, he rocked back and forth. With his hands on his cheeks, he moaned and moaned apparently in great pain. Was this moan the traditional Jewish sound of despair—“oiy oiy oiy”? He said practically nothing. His pain, his disbelief were clear. It was as if he were murmuring “How can this be happening?” His distress was patent. He was muted. It was heartbreaking. So, the battle with me was left to the two giants, both PhDs. Meanwhile, my secularized, finger-snapping actor father was “keeping guard” outside the meeting room should those Rabbis step out of what he called “the line.” That I could survive on my own was irrelevant. He was there to protect his “little boy.”
The girl had previously told me of her feeling of family gender discrimination whereby the males in the family were highly educated while the females had preparation suited more for clerking in a large office or bearing many children. Her frustration was more than minimal. If, in those days, I had had the analytic training I now own, alarm bells and red lights would have gone off alerting me to the unconscious motivations possibly operating in my “convert.” What an effective maneuver it would be for her to confront the centuries old traditional Jewish system, the fortress of the ages, and emerge victorious even if it meant the psychic castration of patriarchs in the most vulnerable area possible--- ancient and basic religious beliefs. And in spite of this, did I not see a parental love, even if familiarly undemonstrated, come forth from father to daughter? Did he disown her? Did he throw her to the wolves like Teviev in “Fiddler on the Roof”? Not at all. She was his child regardless of what she did even if it brought him profound pain.
This is not to deny the real possibility of a multiplicity of motivations operating in this young woman. Some noble, some narcissistic. But is this not the way of the human being? Could it not be that the Holy Spirit was truly calling her while at the same time her human frustration fashioned the mode of her decision? I am painfully aware that the Mother Teresas of this world are not plentiful.
And my own father, Morris, eldest son of Shumle and Hannah Rosenbloom, originally from Bialystok of a Polish/Russian environment. What of him? Reared with tales of pogroms and weird folklore, how could he take my side against all his genetic makeup, his history and family tradition? The answer seems to me to be a question of the profound love and feeling a parent has for his child. We had fought heatedly many times about belief and doctrine and religion and life after death and Jesus and Holy Water. He apparently disagreed with almost everything I stood for. My life decisions were criticized. My choice of priesthood was an occasion of near fury. But no matter what, everything is irrelevant when it comes to how a parent feels about his child. Rabbis or not. Pogroms or not. I was his son. This trumps everything. Would he have felt the same about me should I have become a Wall Street Robber Baron or a Crooked Cop? Does the Sun rise in the morning and set at night? The mother of the notorious cop-killer, Larry Davis, after his conviction of shooting seven police officers, poignantly said: “My son is a good boy.” Parental love and loyalty is usually unconditional and unswerving. Even the factual can become irrelevant and a far second when such a conflict occurs.
And of God? God the Father of us all? Does the same dynamic apply? Unless one is utterly unschooled in things spiritual, the conclusion is obvious. Rembrandt, in his famous painting of the Prodigal Son, visualized and pictured the mind of the Loving and Forgiving Father. No matter what you have done, the painting says, you are My Son. Let us celebrate your return. Let us not focus on you failings, your faults, your sins. You are My Son, My Beloved. And we shall celebrate and rejoice that you have given up your wrongdoings and returned to where you belong. With Me.
And perhaps our vision and understanding of God stems quite substantially from how we perceived and experienced our parents. I know I am a maverick. I think my own thoughts and make my own internal decisions. I like and dislike as I feel. My father, Morris Rosenbloom, allowed me to be an Odd Man Out, differing from him (and indeed from anyone without guilt) and at the same time gave me the Message: “No matter what you do or don’t do. No matter what value you espouse, you are my own son. And I am always near should you need me.”
Did I not confidently incorporate such a spiritual and psychological world view into my own life and into my Catholic stance all these years? Into my work as a psychotherapist and confessor? After this “Rabbi” incident, my relationship with my father became warmer and closer and more relaxed until he died. The Rabbis, my brothers in the Spirit, helped to surface such a realization in me. While I grieve with them, I also delight in the clarification they helped me achieve. I am forever grateful, even with my divided heart because I know in many instances, especially in mine, omnia vincit amor!