Ed. The following article was included in The Hebrew Catholic #76. It first appeared in Faith (Feb. 2002, pgs. 12-16), the magazine of the Diocese of Lansing, Michigan. It was reprinted with permission. The magazine, including this article, may be viewed on the internet at www.faithmag.com.
By Deacon Warren Hecht
When I was 15 or 16 years old, I would have bet anyone my entire life’s wages that if there was one thing I would never be, it was a Roman Catholic Christian. The idea of me becoming a member of the Roman Catholic clergy was, at that time, so remote it wasn’t even accessible to me. I grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., as the eldest of two sons in a practicing Orthodox Jewish family. I attended five years of Hebrew School five days a week – Monday through Thursday from 3:30 PM. to 6 PM. and Sunday morning from 9 AM. to noon if my memory serves me correctly. I was bar mitzvahed at the age of 13 and it was a given that I would marry a nice Jewish girl and settle into a comfortable Jewish/middle class existence after college. Luckily, the plans of God are much more complex than the plans of people.
I was a good Jewish boy and expected to grow into a good Jewish man. And this probably would have happened except that Jesus – and Him crucified, as St. Paul might say – had His eye on me since I was a little child.
My mother’s father’s mother – my Great-Grandma Birnbaum – lived in a distant part of Brooklyn from where I grew up, but we would visit her once a month. There was not a lot for me to do at her house. Times must have been safer because even as a very young child – 4 or 5 years old – I was permitted to go for walks by myself around her neighborhood. I always had the same destination: the fence of what I now know was a large Catholic cemetery where there was this wooden cross with a little roof over it that faced the street. On that cross was a man to whom a very strange thing was happening. Although I did not know what exactly that man and cross represented, I sensed two things. The first was that I was drawn to it as I was – and have been – drawn to no other object I have ever encountered. The second was that I should not, under any circumstances, mention this to my parents. I had no idea who that man was or why he was on the cross until I met Arnold Ferarri, the first person I knew who wasn’t Jewish.
I grew up in an apartment house with 120 families, all of whom were Jewish. All the people I knew in my public school were – at least I thought – Jewish. I never even saw a ham sandwich until a kid named Alan Wine brought one to school in junior high.
I met Arnold Ferarri when, for some reason I can’t imagine, his family moved into our apartment house. It was about the time we started first grade and I honestly thought, without really thinking about it, that everyone in the world was Jewish. Arnold and I became friends, although our relationship was different than any friendship I’d ever had. First of all, Arnold was not Jewish, but something called Catholic. My mother tried to explain to me what Catholic meant by pointing out that the woman dressed in black from head to toe that I had once seen on a bus and thought was a witch was also Catholic. I was given strict instructions never to eat anything in Arnold’s house. That was OK because we only played together outside. The only time we visited each other’s apartment was when he came down to see our Hanukkah candles and I went up to see his Christmas tree (which had the coolest ornaments that actually lit up and bubbled when you plugged them in). His mother’s name was Therese – which I knew, probably from my parents, was not a Jewish name. This made her seem quite exotic, although the person she reminded me of most was Grandma Hecht because they both always had their heads covered with a kerchief. I don’t remember his dad, whose name was Joseph – which was a Jewish name because I had a cousin named Joseph, and Joseph in the Five Books of Moses had a coat of many colors and knew what dreams meant. The first time I was in Arnold Ferarri’s apartment was quite an experience for me because not only did he have a Christmas tree and an interesting mother, but on his wall was a smaller version of the man on the cross.
Through clever – I thought – questioning of Arnold, I found out that the man on the cross was there in case you died and a priest had to come over to give you the Last Rites. And the man’s name was Jesusthesavior, whatever that meant. I was, if nothing else, a curious child and so I went to the public library – my mother was a school teacher and so I could read almost before I could walk, at least the way the story came down to me – and grappled with whatever encyclopedia they had there until I figured out that His name was Jesus and he was the Savior, whatever that meant. And not only that, but the thing that was happening on that cross was that Jesus was being crucified.
After that I read – secretly and guiltily – everything I could find about Jesus. As I got older I encountered lots of Catholic kids, especially on the city bus going to junior high. It seemed all Catholic girls wore plaid jumpers and went to parochial school, while the boys all were the toughest kids I ever met and to be avoided at all cost. I also learned that Jesus was definitely Catholic (I didn’t meet my first Protestant, an Episcopalian hippie named Irene, until I was in my junior year at college). I found two Catholic churches, one named St. Thomas Aquinas that was actually within walking distance of my house, and one on Flatlands Avenue (I have no idea which saint it was named after) that we passed going and coming from Grandma Hecht’s. I also discovered, by hanging around St. Thomas Aquinas and looking in the door when someone opened it, that at the end of the aisle was a large crucifix. I spent a fair amount of time for a 10- to 13-year-old boy outside St. Thomas Aquinas waiting for someone to open the door. I would never think of opening it myself – let alone going inside – because in my rather non-ecumenical mind I would be committing a grave, though unnameable, sin. The first Catholic church I ever entered, St. Patrick Cathedral in Manhattan, was after I was in college – and that didn’t count anyway because all of my friends in college considered St. Patrick’s a part of the city, like the Empire State Building.)
Time, as they say, passes quickly when you’re having fun and I had so much fun in college that it took six years to graduate – and by the time I did, I considered myself a non-religious person, though culturally Jewish. Religious people, I thought, were intellectually weak and had no faith in themselves or their mental abilities. I was a hippie (the Episcopalian Irene was my girlfriend’s best friend) and, in 1969, in my search for a better life I moved to Ann Arbor, where a friend assured me writers were welcome and the fine for marijuana possession only $5. Life has a way of progressing and in 1982 – at the profound urging of my wife and a rather nasty, I thought, psychiatrist – I found myself in a self-help program trying to stay away from alcohol and various drugs.
Part of recovery in this self-help program entailed making a decision to turn one’s will and one’s life over to the care of God as one understands God. I found this a tall, not to mention slightly offensive order. After several months of intense struggle, in June of 1983 my sponsor suggested I attend a retreat of the Matt Talbot Society, which he described as a non-religious, though spiritual, group of men who gathered to deepen their understanding of the spirituality encouraged by the self-help program. The retreat was given at St. Paul of the Cross Retreat Center in Detroit, not because it was a Catholic institution, but because of the facilities. And the retreat master was a priest who was not there as a Catholic, but because he, too, was recovering. I was slightly skeptical, but agreed to go.
God is both patient and has a sense of humor. It turned out the recovering priest had taken ill and so the regular retreat master had to give the retreat. Since Fr. Pat was a priest who was not recovering, he gave a Catholic retreat, which was quite acceptable because 72 of the 75 men attending the retreat were Catholic. One of my favorite sayings in the self-help program was that with God there are no coincidences. St. Paul of the Cross, as you may know, founded a religious congregation called the Passionists, whose focus is on the Passion, or suffering of Christ. The majority of the retreat took place in the chapel at St. Paul of the Cross, where, as in other Catholic churches, a crucifix stands behind the altar. The crucified Christ there is life-sized and represented as still alive and suffering, so His eyes were open. And He was looking at me.
I cannot begin to tell you how that two and a half day retreat changed my life. I was drawn into that crucifix and realized that Christ had been calling to me from the cross since I was a little boy. Although Fr. Pat apologized profusely to me and the other two non-Catholic men, I felt like he was giving that retreat just for me.
When I returned to Ann Arbor, I began attending Mass at St. Thomas the Apostle Church with my sponsor who just happened to be a practicing Catholic. In August, my sponsor informed me that there was some new program called RCIA, which was a way for adults to join the Catholic Church. Much to the amazement of my wife, who is a cradle Catholic, and all of my recovering friends – who were all fallen-away Catholics – I signed up.
There are four instances on my journey through the RCIA that I will never forget. That September on the night of the first class, I remember sitting in my car outside the parish office building where the meetings took place, feeling like a traitor to my upbringing but promising God that if this is what He wanted me to do to stay sober, I would follow through. In December of that year my father died. I had yet to tell my parents that I was investigating the Church, and at my father’s very Jewish funeral I felt what I shall call, for want of a better term, intense cultural conflict. That inner turmoil, however, was completely calmed by an overwhelming knowledge that Our Lady and someone named St. Therese (of whom I had never, that I know of, heard) assured me that I was doing exactly the right thing and that knowing what he now knew, my father would fully concur. On the Saturday morning of Easter Vigil, 1984, the evening I was supposed to receive the sacraments of initiation – baptism, confirmation and first Eucharist – I was wracked by doubt. Was I being honest with myself? I had no desire to offend Jesus, the Church or the Jewish religion. I spent hours in St. Thomas praying to Our Lady and again felt more than reassured. “Hail Mary, full of grace.” And I will never forget as I was baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit by then Father, now Monsignor, Robert Lunsford – the certainty of knowing that the burden of the sin I had willingly accumulated over the first 37 years of my life was lifted from my soul by the very Jesus who had called, then patiently waited for me since I was a child. My confirmation name is St. Paul of the Cross.
Once a neophyte, I threw myself into the Church. I attended Mass daily. Sr. Dolora, one of the sisters at St. Thomas, taught me how to pray the Divine Office. My wife’s aunt, Celeste, sent me a pledge to pray five decades of the Rosary every day as a way of thanking Our Lady for watching over me. I continue to do so today. Msgr. Lunsford paid my way to a conference of people who were trying to understand how to implement the RCIA in their parishes. There I met devoted Catholics from all over the country who reaffirmed my faith and journey through the RCIA. I became a perpetual member of the St. Thomas RCIA team.
Shortly after my baptism, Bill, a person I met in recovery, offered to take me to a meeting of Third Order Discalced Carmelites. I went and very quickly learned a lot about St. Therese who had done so much for me without me even knowing who she was.
An older woman, whose name was also Therese and whom I would sometimes give a ride to church, asked if I had ever thought about becoming a deacon. I never had, but I asked Deacon Gwynn McPeek exactly what a deacon is and that began a journey that resulted in my ordination in 1992 and is still unfolding today.
All but one of my fallen-away friends are now active Catholics.
I told my mother I had joined the Church in May of 1984. She did not become angry as I expected, but said although she did not understand it, she could tell I was doing well and was pleased for me. I had the grace of baptizing her on her deathbed this June.
If you would have asked me when I was 15 or 16 did I ever think I would join the Roman Catholic Church, I would have thought you were crazy. Today I can’t imagine not devoting my life to Jesus and His Church. I am so grateful that the Lord called me from His cross, waited for me and when I finally understood what He was offering brought me into His Body.