Interview with Athol Bloomer
Ed. This article first appeared in The Hebrew Catholic, #85. All Rights Reserved.
Ed. Simply stated, the mission of the AHC is to help re-enkindle the calling of the People Israel within the Catholic Church. Toward this end, we seek: ways to gather the Jews who have entered the Church, ways to preserve and live out our heritage, and ways to give collective witness to Jesus and His Church.
However, the Jews who have entered the Church reflect a variety of backgrounds and understandings. Some come from a secular background, some from an orthodox background; some with very little, if any, knowledge and experience of their heritage, others with much knowledge and experience. Most have assimilated to the prevailing cultures and have little sense of responsibility for their people. Most observe the faith as it has been understood over the last millennia and a half with little room for efforts or explorations that arise from a current reading of the signs of the times. These realities reflect some of the core issues of our work.
In keeping with our mission and the issues mentioned above, we look forward to discussing the work of the AHC with as many Hebrew Catholics as we can. However, as someone once wisely observed: “two Jews, three opinions,” no one should infer that the AHC necessarily agrees with the views expressed by the people we interview.
In this issue, we are happy to explore the thoughts of Athol Bloomer, a Hebrew Catholic from Australia.
~ Athol describes himself as coming from a Jewish family that was assimilated into both the prevailing culture and the Anglican Church in Australia. He regained his sense of Jewishness by immersing himself in orthodox Judaism for several years, while still believing in Christ. After a few years, he not only brought back to his whole family a sense of reconnectedness with their Jewish heritage, but he also became a Catholic as a result of his Jewish studies. For eight years in his twenties and thirties, he ministered to street people in Melbourne and Perth, also involving himself in the charismatic renewal in Australia. With university training as a teacher, Athol began to teach yearly in Thailand in various schools and locations, always returning to his family in Australia between teaching terms. For seven years he taught in Thailand. During these years he was also involved in setting up centers of Perpetual Adoration both in Australia, and for a period of time, also in Israel. Described by good friends as a “trouble-shooter and a troubadour”, Athol has given numerous talks in Australia on the Jewish roots of Catholicism. He is also involved in the Divine Will center in Perth.
The following interview took place in the new AHC Center in St. Louis, with questions posed by Fr. Donald Arsenault of New Brunswick and David Moss.
Q. How would you describe yourself?
A. Young, good looking, fantastic, fabulous. A fool for Mashiach.
Q. From a religious point of view?
A. I think of myself as a Hebrew Catholic.
Q. What does that mean?
A. It means I’m a person of Jewish ancestry who has come to believe in the Messiah as proclaimed by the Catholic Church. It means I choose to live out my vocation as a Jew and a Catholic in the Catholic Church, but I believe it means I live it out in a Jewish way in the Church.
Q. People notice that you wear a kippah and some tzitzis hanging down. What does the kippah mean?
A. It is a sign of respect for God. Some traditional Jews never go a few feet past their bed without having their head covered.
Q. Is there a similarity between men wearing the kippah and women having to have their heads covered?
A. It might come from the same impulse. But essentially, the woman might be too beautiful for men, so that’s why she keeps her head covered, to keep from tempting men.
Q. Tell us about the tzitzis.
A. The kippah and the four-cornered garment all have to do with the Ark of the Covenant. Every Jew is a mini Ark of the Covenant. So the kippah, the head covering, symbolizes the Mercy Seat on the Ark, or the Kippor. The two sides of the four-cornered garment represent the sides of the Ark, and the four lots of the strings, the tzitzis, represent the four wings of the cherubim on the Ark. Then, when we put on the tallis, the big prayer shawl, that’s like being wrapped in God’s light, the Divine Presence. In Jewish tradition, when God appeared to Moses, He is seen enveloped in the prayer shawl Himself, in His own Divine Presence.
The word tzitzis has a number. Each letter is a number. The first letter of the Hebrew alphabet is aleph and is the number one. The letters in the word tzitzis add up to 600. Also, there are 8 strings on each lot of tzitzis, and each of the 8 strings are tied into 5 knots. Eight plus 5 equals 13, and when you add that to the number 600 of tzitzis, it makes 613. In the Bible, there are 613 positive and negative commandments for the Jews to keep. There are 4 lots of 8 strings which equal 32. The number 32 in Hebrew is associated with the word “leb” which is made of the 2 letters “lamed” and “beit”. The word “leb” is the word for “heart.” Thirty-two is the number of the heart. Another word equals 32, and that is “kabod” which is God’s glory. The heart, divine heart, is seen also as the divine glory. So all this is represented in the wearing of the tzitzis. They’re meant to be used as a form of meditation.
Traditionally in Biblical times, the strings also contained one blue string which looks like 2 strings. The blue represents the female, the Mother, whereas the white represents the male. However, many modern Jews have all white tzitzis because the snail which produces the blue dye was lost. But now in Israel, they’ve rediscovered this snail, so many Jews are starting to wear the color blue again.
Q. Did Jesus wear the tzitzis?
A. Yes, the woman having the flow of blood reached out and touched the tzitzis. Jesus turned and said, “Who touched me?” Even though there were thousands of people there, He felt power go out of Him, since, [as some believe,] the tzitzis is connected to a person’s inner power, and He felt it.
Q. Are there other examples in the New Testament where we see the kippah, the tzitzis, or the tallis playing a part in the early years of Christianity?
A. Some people believe that in the story of the girl who died, “Talitha cumi”, that actually Jesus was placing his tallis over the dead girl …, so she actually rose with the tallis on her. That’s very fitting because usually the dead religious Jew is wrapped in his tallis, so it’s connected with burial customs.
Q. Do you think there’s any connection between the head covering the bishop wears and the kippah?
A. I would say it would be connected because the Bishop receives the fullness of the priesthood, so in a special way he’s a celebrant of the Divine Presence. Even the Franciscans used to wear head coverings in the old days. For those who were closely involved with ceremonies of the Divine Presence, the head covering was a symbol of the Divine Presence. The reason the Bishop and the Pope remove their kippah during the consecration is because Paul said they should say it with their head uncovered. Possibly this may have to do with the ceremonies in the temple, the sacrificial nature of it. The Bishop’s mitre is very similar to the High Priests’s mitre. Priests now usually wear white robes, like the priests in the Temple.
Q. What would be your answer to people who would be upset with Athol Bloomer wearing a kippah and tzitzis?
A. I don’t often meet people who express being upset with me, especially I don’t find it in Australia. Maybe some people do, but they haven’t expressed it to me. I have had a couple of people who found it strange in America. Usually people are excited to see someone who is wearing tzitzis, kippah, and a prayer shawl. They usually want to come ask me questions, and it becomes a witness. People become happy when I explain why, since they see the importance of the Jewish background of the Catholic faith. They might not have come across it before, but when they meet me, they’re happy that someone is maintaining Jewish customs in the Catholic Church. In fact, I think when you say you’re a Hebew Catholic, and you don’t maintain Jewish traditions, people are very disappointed. When they meet you, they’re excited because they want to see the reasons behind the Jewish customs and the fulfilled reason in Christ. But if they don’t see that, they’re disappointed. They want you to keep the customs in the Catholic Church. In Australia and other countries, I’ve mixed with priests and Bishops, I’ve never had them discourage me. The opposite is, they’ve actually encouraged me. My parish priest in Australia really believes in the Hebrew Catholic maintaining their traditions and customs in the Catholic Church. When people have said things in our AHC email discussion group, I’d ask my priest, and he would encourage me in my answer to the people in the group.
Q. In the case of the person who might be upset, what would you say?
A. It depends on the person. There are generally two types. Anti-Semitic, and it wouldn’t matter what you said. They don’t like that you’re in the Church. You have to ignore them. There’s another type who is sincere but just doesn’t understand why you’ve entered the Church, and they don’t understand why you keep Jewish traditions. They just don’t have the understanding why you would consider it necessary. They need to be enlightened. Often I find they don’t really understand the Jewish background of the Church. Most people become more comfortable once they understand the Jewish background of the Church. But there are those who just can’t accept anything about it. The ones who have the greatest difficulty are a few of the Traditionalists, or those who believe in the Latin Mass. They believe that (the Council of) Trent established the customs forever. I find that they lack knowledge of the Church. Some you can educate, and others are more difficult.
Q. So how would you make priests, bishops, and the Pope aware of this necessity for the Church to help Jews keep their heritage?
A. Actually, dialogue is the best way. Most that I’ve spoken with seem open to that. Not all of course, but the ones I’ve mixed with. One student in the seminary asked me, “Why do you need to keep the Passover now that you have the Mass?” I answered, “Can I answer your question with a question? Why do we have the readings of the Old Testament in the Mass when we have the New Testament?” The priest in charge of that seminary expressed annoyance that the student asked the question, but I actually thought it was a good question. But the priest must have been more of my opinion. One tradition doesn’t exclude the other. Maybe it’s a form of Marcionism to have this attitude that we don’t need the things of the Old Testament but only the New Testament. The Marcionites wanted to exclude the Old Testament on those grounds, but the Church found them in heresy because of that position. There’s a pseudo-Marcionite in many Catholics because they discount the role of the Jews in the Old Testament but want to focus only on the New Testament. But if you don’t understand the Old Testament, it is impossible to fully understand the richness of the New Testament. Every verse of it usually has an allusion to the Old Testament.
Q. If the New Testament is the fulfillment of the scriptures, then we need the whole scripture to be read. Otherwise, isn’t it like cutting off the roots of the tree?
A. Right. If we do cut off the roots, we end up not with the tree, but leaves floating in the wind, and those leaves will float every which way, no root, no trunk, like a Gnosticism which has no real foundation.
Q. Wouldn’t the root be Jesus?
A. Yes but the root is also Judaism.
Q. When we read Hebrews and some of the epistles, there seem to be statements that indicate that the Old Testament is coming to an end, has become obsolete, the old being replaced by the New Testament with better promises. The question put to me is: “Why would you be going back to that which prefigures the reality that has now come, Jesus and His Church? Why practice things of the old way when they’ve been superceded by the New Covenant.?” Heb 8:7…. And Heb. 8:8
A. What is the exact word “obsolete” in translation? I need to know that. I’m not sure that obsolete is the best word to use.
Q. How do you respond to the idea that there’s a New Covenant?
A. It’s easy to understand. The Old Covenant is prefiguring. Because something is prefiguring, it doesn’t mean we do away with it. Our celebration of Advent and Christmas is pointing toward things to come at the end of the world. But does that make his First Coming obsolete? The prefigurements are just as important. If we do away with the pre-figurement, then we don’t know what we’ve arrived at. Judaism itself and the Old Testament are always pointing to the New Testament. Hebrews quotes the book of Jeremiah. In one sense, some of the rituals of the Old Covenant are obsolete, but it’s better to say that they have reached their completion. They have reached their end in the New Testament, their purpose. But that doesn’t mean that the Old Testament does not still have its value in the New Covenant. All covenants are part of the promise. All covenants are an outplaying of that original promise. They come to fulfillment through the New Covenant in outworking in stages. First Noah, then Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Land of Israel, David… all these covenants come together in Jesus Christ and His revelation, even though the fullness of that revelation has not happened yet, until the Second Coming. On a mystical level, it’s all been fulfilled, but in time, it’s still ongoing. In a sense, the Old Covenant which was made with Moses, “If you do this, you’ll be blessed, but if you do that, you’ll be cursed.” The fulfillment in the New Covenant is the complete blessing. Commandments [other than the Ten Commandments] are a means of sanctifying your soul, but they’re not necessary for salvation. The Law never becomes redundant, but it is rather a renewed covenant at the deepest level, the level of the heart. The Jewish tradition believes that the commands given to Moses the first time were different than the second time, when people sinned. The whole system of sacrifices was instituted because of their sin. The additions of the sacrificial nature were put there because of their fall into sin. When the Israelites first said they’d obey God’s law, they were cleansed of the slime of Adam, in a regenerated state of purity. But then came their golden calf sins, and God instituted the sacrificial system, but that wasn’t God’s original intention. In baptism, we get to the place where all mankind can get rid of the original slime or sin of Adam. Christ does that through being the ultimate sacrifice, fulfilling all the other sacrifices. All the sacrifices have been transformed in the new sacrifice in the New Covenant. The bulls and goats didn’t actually take away sin but were pointing to the one who was taking away their sins, Jesus.
Q. “Bless those who bless, and curse those who curse…” Is it still valid?
A. Of course. God doesn’t curse you, you curse yourself. The Jews were chosen by God to be a blessing to earth. When you curse that blessing, you are rejecting the blessing.
Q. About the chosen people: Paul speaks to all the new Christians and extends the notion of chosenness to them. You are a chosen race. What was unique to the Jews is now being universalized to all the nations, correct?
A Yes, because when the gentiles enter into baptism, they enter into the mystical body which is spiritual Israel. So the blessing extends to the Gentile Christians in a different way. Also, when one curses Christians, one curses oneself. The Gentile Christians enter the status of spiritual Israelites, and thus their chosenness depends on that. If they depart from their faith and are indifferent to the Jews, they can lose their chosenness. Jews cannot lose their chosenness, even if they apostasize. Jews remain chosen. But by not believing, of course there are consequences. When they obey the covenants and rules, God blesses them. When they apostasize, they will be cursed, but they are still chosen. If you stop practicing your faith as a baptized Christian, you can lose your salvation and return to being a pagan. They lose that part of being the chosen people. There’s a residual grace in their soul, but their children will be raised as pagans.]
Q. What do you see as the purpose for observing Jewish customs in the Catholic Church?
A. It encourages other Hebrew Catholics who may not want to be a trailblazer to practice their Jewish customs. So I’m a witness to other Hebrew Catholics that you can practice these ways of sanctification, and ultimately the purpose of witnessing the riches of God’s revelation to man through his covenants, through His Church, and to the whole world. If we were just doing them for ourselves, that’s o.k, but the major point is that it’s for the whole Church and for the world. Through the Jewish customs and ways of thinking, I believe we’re taken to a much deeper level of understanding the faith which will lead us more deeply into the spiritual life, sanctifying not only ourselves but all of creation.
Q. Would it not be geared mainly toward the Jewish people? If a Jew becomes a Catholic, can he be even more a Catholic if he retains his sense of Jewishness?
A. At present, when we enter the Church, we are condemning our children into extinction after a few generations. If you keep nothing Jewish, live nothing Jewish, how can we survive? Now some people think that’s a good thing. I don’t. I think it’s one of the greatest stumbling blocks to Jews entering the Church. It would destroy the Jews if they all entered into the model we’ve been in for the last 1700 years. In the early days, there was the Jewish Catholic community. Cardinal Lustiger [believes] that it’s been [a spiritual tragedy] for the Church to have lost its mother form, the Church of the circumcision. In a way, it [may have] led to the horrors of the 20th Century … communism, Nazism, and atrocities committed against Jews and people in general. It allowed the triumph of a very anti-semitic mentality to develop without any check on it.
Q. Do you believe that God still has a role for the Jews on into the future, and does that include the Jews inside the Church as well as those outside the Church?
A. Yes! Absolutely! Yes! Yes! Yes! Very much the aim is for the Jews outside the Church to be able to enter the Church which means the Jews inside the Church have a very important role: to prepare for the Jews to enter the Church as a People, without ceasing being Jewish. If today under the old model, all the Jews converted to the Catholic Church, it would be a disaster for the Jewish people. Their whole history would be lost. But if we maintain a space where Jews can maintain their rich history inside the Church, ultimately that will benefit the whole Church. Fr. Louis Bouyer says that whenever the Church needs to be renewed, it has to go back to its Jewish roots. It needs the mother form of Judaeo-Christianity to bring those riches out. Fortunately, Judaism has survived. In studying mysticism, I find that wherever there’s an explosion of Christian mysticism, there’s always an explosion of Jewish mysticism.
Q. In that same line, St. Bernard says that the Church is the daughter of the synagogue, and that the Church wishes with all her soul to bring her mother into the chamber where she was conceived and wants to give to her mother the bridegroom.
A. I like that because the way many people think, they want to make the mother wear a mini-skirt and hot boots and dress like the daughter. They don’t actually want her to come as a mother with all her dignity and richness. They want her to come stripped and enter the Church. I want to see her come into the Church, Judaism coming into the Church, as a mother. We don’t need her to come in as a daughter, like two sisters. If she comes in as mother, she has her role, her dignity, in the body of Christ.
Q. I believe that St. Bernard keeps saying that the mother and the Church form the bride for the bridegroom … Who is seen as the bridegroom in Israel?
Q. In the Church there is no divorce. So there can’t be any divorce between God and Israel when the Church comes into being …
A. Israel is the bride of God but then enters into the Church which is the universal bride. They live together.
Q. Do you see the AHC connected to the role of the Jews?
A. I believe that the AHC is part of the preparatory role to create that space in the Church for the Jews. How are the Jews going to create that space in the Church? I think the AHC has really achieved a lot in the short time it’s existed because it’s opened up the discussion, getting the news out via the newsletter, and now the discussion group on the internet. It’s getting the word out (1) that there are Jews in the Church, and also (2) helping Jews gather in the Church with the three conferences and other individuals working together. We’re getting the sense that a community is growing. So we’re in the preparation stage with troops, equipping and educating them with the knowledge of what will be involved in creating this space, and how we can live out this Israelite vocation in the Church. It’s not the full structure when this space is constructed, but it’s a tool or a vessel to start.
Q. How long should the work of the AHC keep going before coming to the next step?
A. Well, that’s up to God. It depends [upon] how … the Church [responds] … , and how … the Jews in the Church [respond] … whether the Church is open to what we want to do, or whether the Jews in the Church grasp that opportunity or not. … The apostasy of the gentiles will open rabbinic Judaism to a fresh look at Christianity and Jesus. Maybe they will look at the persecution, and it will give them a fresh look. Maybe God will remove … [unnecessary obstacles] within the … the Church. Already John Paul II and Benedict XVI have begun to make this space in the Church for Jews.
Q. Barriers: Many of the traditions of the Jews were meant to create a holy people, and in doing that, to separate them from the people surrounding them. If we as Hebrew Catholics go back and practice our traditions, isn’t that going back to a division?
A. I don’t like your question, because we’re not going back, we’re going forward. In each generation, we’re coming at the law and sanctity in new ways. The rabbis have to interpret the law and how it applies to our generation. In a sense, it is all new for every generation because the relationship with God is always new.
Q. Do you see our practicing Jewish customs as a separation from the rest of the world?
A. Yes and No. If we have different customs from someone else, we are separating ourselves. We have Ukrainians and Melkites, and they all have their different customs. I have customs for Lent, and Eastern Christians have different customs. But I think having differences isn’t an obstacle with getting along with people. We can adjust and adapt to each other’s differences. Separation is not necessarily a real barrier. In another sense, living out our faith, whether we keep the Jewish or Catholic or gentile ways of sanctity, we will still create a separation from those who live in the world. Religious Catholics don’t want their children to mix with non-religious Catholics. In Catholicism in general, we are separate from those who have no faith. We don’t encourage our children to run off down the road with prostitutes, so we are separating ourselves from others.
Q. I like your statement that it’s a Jewish way of sanctification, like within the different religious orders.
A. The Trappists live a different style of life from me. If I wanted to see them, I’d go into their space and observe their traditions, adjust to them. The Trappist will always be a Trappist and will always keep their identity. For Hebrew Catholics who would go out into another environment, they still wouldn’t lose who they are as Hebrew Catholics. What we have at the moment is that we don’t have a way to live out sanctity in the Church. For those who do maintain the Jewish way of sanctity, it will be a different thing. Part of the adapting a space is for the broader Church to take that into account.