My World of Religion, Politics, Entertainment and Social Issues

If you are visiting my blog, expecting to see 'Toward a Progressive Catholic Church,' I have changed my title to reflect my wide assortment of interests. Having retired from my secular job, I hope to devote the rest of my life to my hobbies, ministries and perhaps a part-time job that makes good use of my communications skills. This blog will be designed to address my multi-faceted interests.

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Location: Rochester, New York, United States

I have an M.A. in Theology and an M.Div (Master of Divinity) from St. Bernard's School of Theology and Ministry. I am currently a media consultant and promoter of classical music. I am also certified as an officiant by the Federation of Christian Ministries for baptisms, weddings and funerals and minister independently of the Rochester Diocese. My life has encompassed many interesting paths: broadcasting, free-lance writing, video-production, music, ministry and a secular job in government. In addition to this blog, I have a YouTube site at www.youtube.com/priestray and I have a Facebook page.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

An Exploration of Religious Conversion

As you browse through my web-blog, it may appear on the surface that some of my writings are anti-Catholic. However, it is important to state that I love the Roman Catholic Church, despite its faults. My disagreements with the church hierarchy have nothing to do with doctrines or sacraments, but rather with outdated policies that threaten to fracture communities of faith.

I believe every writer operates out of a certain context, which is driven in part by one's religious background. The purpose of this writing is to give readers a sense of both my religious upbringing and how I came to be a Roman Catholic. It was not until I had been a Catholic for several years that I began to question some of the policies of the church. It was due in part to persisting questions that I pursued two graduate degrees at St. Bernard's School of Theology and Ministry (formerly St. Bernard's Institute). As many in academia can safely attest, the more one learns, the more questions surface. This has certainly been the case with me.

As you read through my multiple postings, I raise some questions and then challenge the Roman Catholic Church's hierarchy to consider the early communities built by Christ's disciples - all of which were inclusive in scope. Tragically, our current hierarchy is building a church that is based upon rigid rules, whereby we are becoming more 'exclusive' than inclusive.

With the above stated, I now wish to move to my religious conversion experiences. As stated, this will give readers a context for many of my writings. In order to best address this topic, I feel it is best to begin with an overview of religious conversion in general, after which I will relate my personal story.

I occasionally assist with a process in the Catholic Church known as RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults). This is a process by which persons of other faiths can receive the Sacraments of the Catholic Church after several months of preparation and study. When people enter into this process, I often tell them that as they embark upon their journeys toward full initiation into Roman Catholicism, they certainly are going through a conversion process, but this does not mean that they are abandoning their pasts. (What they bring with them is extremely important, and will always be part of who they are.) In this context, conversion becomes simply a new way of relating to God and becoming a member of a new faith community.

As described in writings at various web sites, I guess you can refer to me as a "mixed breed" in terms of my religious upbringing. Having Jewish relatives on my father's side of the family and Christian relatives on my mother's side (Catholic and Protestant), I consider the influence of both sides to be extremely important to my faith development. Although I eventually embraced Catholicism, my Jewish roots have consistently played an important part in my relationship with God and people in general.

As I look back at my childhood, I realize more and more how blessed I was to have early religious training within a Jewish community. I continue to be extremely grateful for the many friendships that were cultivated at Beth Joseph Center of Rochester, New York. Many of these friendships continue to this day. In retrospect, I am probably one of the few people on this earth who have gone through both a Bar Mitzvah and Confirmation.

Having received two theological degrees through St. Bernard's School of Theology and Ministry, it is my hope that I can further the efforts of reconciliation between Jews and Catholics. Having been part of both communities, I feel that I am perhaps better equipped than most to embark on such an effort. A painful part of the past that is obviously part of any conceivable reconciliation effort is that of the Holocaust. I have devoted many, many hours of study to this terrible period, and am often drawn back to my days in Hebrew School. While I was too young to understand the full impact of the Holocaust, I recall my teachers discussing it in the 1950s. Their eyewitness accounts came back to me when I engaged in extensive research on the Holocaust several years ago, and perhaps most graphically, when I spent some time at Yad Vashem during a recent visit to Israel.

The period of the Holocaust was brought back to me as I discovered, much to my amazement, that one of my former teachers, Cantor Max Ruben-Tilles, is one of the co-filmmakers of a documentary, entitled "The Lost Wooden Synagogues of Eastern Europe." It was Cantor Ruben (as we used to call him) who prepared me for my Bar Mitzvah. It is admittedly with a little bit of sorrow that I recall misbehaving in some of his classes. However, I hope he can appreciate that I have grown to have a deep appreciation for the hardships he endured in a number of concentration camps, and I hope to use my theological education to help the efforts toward preventing anything like the Holocaust from ever happening again. Thanks, Cantor Ruben, for being such an inspiration to me.

There is much Catholics and Jews can learn from each other. I believe the theme of reconciliation is key to such collaboration. In my case, I will never forget the friendship I developed with Rabbi Judea Miller before he died. He and I were members of a local Jewish/Christian dialogue group. After one of our meetings, Rabbi Miller expressed how he was initially dismayed at my decision to convert from Judaism to Catholicism, but then recognized that there was much I could offer as a result of having connections to both traditions. In addition, he understood that my Irish-Catholic background on my mother's side of the family had much to do with my leanings. Shortly before he died, he expressed his appreciation to me for my work on the Holocaust and my determination to work toward an end to religious persecution.

In recent months, I have been focusing on the idea of 'conversion of heart' as being the most integral part of finding new paths to God. Regardless of what faith tradition one embraces, that which takes place in the heart is what is most important. In this context, I have been researching ways in which the Catholic Church can bring more meaning to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. This sacrament was initiated in the Church's recent history as a more meaningful alternative to the centuries-old tradition of Confession. I have urged Church leaders to look at the ancient Jewish customs associated with Yom Kippur. In short, Jews understand perhaps more than anyone else what is meant by reconciliation. In the days leading up to Yom Kippur, Jewish people seek reconciliation with those they have wronged. On the day of Yom Kippur, Jews seek reconciliation with God. In the Catholic tradition, the practice of individual Confession fell into disuse for a variety of reasons. When this was replaced with the Sacrament of Reconciliation, it was hoped that Catholics would be brought to a new level of consciousness concerning their relationships with God and human beings. Yet, more needs to be done with this sacrament. Therefore, I continue to urge a careful look at the Jewish practices around the celebration of Yom Kippur.

I now consider myself to be a loyal Catholic, although some of my web pages are aimed at bringing about some much-needed reforms within the Church. My conversion to Catholicism was due in large part to the influence of my Irish-Catholic grandmother and Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. Particulars of their influence can be viewed at http://www.angelfire.com/ga2/religious/sheen.html

Part of the work I have undertaken in recent years is in the area of Scripture. For many centuries, Jews have been persecuted unjustly as a result of misinterpretations of the Gospels. Recent scholarship has shed new light on Judaism during the period of Jesus. Jesus was, in fact, part of the Jewish community. Therefore, it was not his desire to start another faith. Yet, divisions within the Jewish community gave way to the beginnings of Christianity. Therefore, Jews became the foil for much of early Gospel interpretation. My position, however, which echoes much of recent scholarship, is that it was the Romans who put Jesus to death. We need to be careful when speaking about the Jews as having conspired with the Romans. Theologians such as Raymond Brown have identified as many as thirteen different sects of Judaism during 1st century Palestine. Some were followers of Jesus, while others were part of a very strict Temple sect. In general, Jesus was accepted in many Jewish circles. It is the general consensus of today's scholars that it was probably a very slim population of legalistic Jews who may have collaborated with Pontius Pilate. Yet, it is important to remember that Romans in general were equally hostile to both Jews and early Christians, especially considering the fact that the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D.

My embracing Catholicism is in no way a negation of Judaism. It is rather a way of expressing my belief in Jesus as the Son of God, which is not part of Jewish doctrine. Yet, the connections between Judaism and Christianity remain. Without Judaism, there would be no Christianity. Therefore, there is an ancestral obligation for Jews and Christians to live as brothers and sisters. Sensitivity to this issue has been expressed repeatedly by the U.S. Catholic Bishops since Vatican II, perhaps most notably in the area of Scripture interpretation, i.e., the events depicted during Holy Week. A wonderful document that all should read is "God's Mercy Endures Forever: Guidelines on the Presentation of Jews and Judaism in Catholic Preaching." It was produced in 1988 with full participation of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai Brith and the NCCB Secretariat for Catholic-Jewish Relations. In addition, Pope John Paul II has been instrumental toward improving relations between Catholics and Jews and has referred on several occasions to conditions he experienced in Nazi-occupied Poland, which drove him to work in underground movements to save Jews who would have otherwise faced annihilation.

In summation, it is my hope that this article will dispel any misinformation that relates to what is meant by religious conversion. In the final analysis, I don't believe that when we arrive at the gates of Heaven, God will judge us by the religious denominations we have chosen. Many families have been hurt when one of its members decided to 'convert' to another faith. Yet, as I have emphasized in this article, and elsewhere, conversion is simply taking another route to God. To use a simple analogy, when one travels to a new destination, the point of origin never disappears. It is part of who we are, and always will be. Shalom.

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