[Ed. This article appeared in The Hebrew Catholic #90, Winter 2012-2013. All Rights Reserved.]
Translated from the original French by
Andrew Sholl, Townsville, Australia
Written on 26th December, 1986, four weeks after my Ordination.
My name is Jean-Rodolphe Kars. My parents are Austrian: both Jews. I was born in 1947 in Calcutta, India. My parents had to flee there in 1938 because of the Nazi persecution (of Jews). My sister was also born there a few years earlier. Six months after my birth, my parents settled in France: They did not wish to return to Austria. Thus, I lived in France from the age of one. *1From 1948 to 1953, we lived at Chambon-sur-Lignon, a place which became very famous, as the locals saved about 5,000 Jews during the War. We settled afterwards in Paris.
I must add that I did not receive any religious education as a Jew. My parents were not practicing Jews, even to the smallest degree. We did not keep the Sabbath.
Thus, I grew up in an indifferent religious atmosphere. I learned to play the piano from the age of seven and specialized very quickly. After having gone through the Conservatorium of Paris, I began in 1967 my career as an international concert pianist. I traveled a lot, made tours, gave concerts, took part in broadcasts, and made records. I was very committed to my career. God searched me out. That was in June, 1976.
Before continuing with this testimony, I must add an important point: my sister Helen was baptized well before me, in 1961. She had followed a path which was far more advanced than mine. In fact, she was a believer in her childhood. *2Now she is a consecrated Sister in the Community of the Beatitudes. When she entered the Catholic Church, I must say that I was not attracted to it at all: I could not share with her at a deeper level – at least not on that topic. I even fled a little.
One must appreciate that the milieu of a musician is at the same time wonderful because of what one lives through at the artistic level, but at the same time, it is very wounded and wounding. A milieu which is very narcissistic. Everyone plays his role in an imaginary world; the mentality is not at all Christian. One isn’t interested in the Church. There exists a certain tone of contempt, a kind of superficial prejudice against the Church, its institutions, its doctrine: everything that seems to go against “freedom”. Now, an artist is a being who craves freedom. Everything that the Church says, and everything that she teaches by way of requirements, is often taken to be a threatening attack.
I wallowed in this milieu, and without being exceptionally aggressive, I well remember my negative attitude with respect to the clergy. I readily joined in the chorus of criticism which arose every time, for example, when a pontifical document regarding morality was issued. With regard to the Church, I lived a marginal existence, and the conversion of my sister did not change anything. I was rather embarrassed by it.
And here we are in June, 1976. In the fullness of my musical career, I lived in a personal situation which was very difficult, and in which other people were involved. There was no way out. To get out of such a situation with simply human means at one’s disposal would have been compensated for by considerable psychological damage. I was thus, together with other people, truly ‘in a pickle’. It was at this point that I was prepared to meet up with an Irishman, despite my antagonistic attitude towards the Church and of what I believed and understood to be the Christian religion. He was a layman, the father of a family, and had an important position of leadership within the Catholic Charismatic Renewal in England. It was through my sister that I came to know him, since at that time she was living in England and was associated with the Renewal, in particular, with a Prayer Group of which this man was in charge. He was introduced to me as someone with a gift of discernment, of compassion, of wisdom, and an important gift of healing—of inner healing: a gift of being able to understand and read souls, to appreciate deep suffering, and to clearly understand different kinds of situations.
At that time I was psychologically totally exhausted. That’s why I was ready to meet him, as I would have been ready to listen to anybody. I wanted to get out of this situation and came to realize that my situation was hopeless. I agreed to meet him, obviously not knowing what I was letting myself into.
Having returned from a Charismatic Renewal pilgrimage to Lourdes, he came to my place where I was living in the suburbs of Paris. We spoke together for a whole afternoon. I must say that previously no one had spoken to me of Jesus in that way. I did not believe, but I had opposite me a man radiating love, humility, and faith. He spoke to me of the Faith, of what he had seen, of miracles, of the love of God, of His presence in our lives. He gave me his own testimony with an extraordinary freedom. He did not try at all to convince me. All that he wished for was to advance Jesus’ cause. He seemed to me to live his Faith like the first Christians did in the primitive Church, of which I had vaguely heard people speak. He gave me the impression of being at the same time an ardent apostle and a very humble servant, not seeking to convert, but simply being a witness. I therefore bombarded him with questions about everything that I had against the Church: ‘But then the Church, during that period of history, what did it do? And why this? And why that?’ To each question he had an extremely clear and incisive answer. He did not deny anything but put it into context. Like John the Baptist, he made straight the path, removed the obstacles, took away the stones to let Jesus pass by. I was struck by the exactness, coherence, and intelligence of his replies, which were at the same time simple and supernatural, just as I was struck by his charity and understanding. He quickly grasped my situation, spoke to me of it, and in the evening suggested that I should pray with him. I said ‘Yes’. There was no feeling of revolt in me. I was already very much challenged. Through his words, something started growing in me, began to take shape and to develop in me. This was radically new and at the same time already mysteriously ‘familiar’. I let him pray for me, as one has the habit of praying in the Renewal, that is, by the imposition of hands. At that moment I felt nothing in particular. I felt rather indifferent, but peaceful. It was not until that very evening, or rather during the night, that I had a very strong spiritual experience. I was suddenly engulfed by a sudden anxiety which was completely inexplicable. Not an anxiety coming from within, but an anxiety which felt like an outward attack. This man had also spoken to me of the existence of occult forces, evil forces, of the devil, telling me that a spiritual struggle took place in history, and in the story of each one of us. At this instant, I could in some manner feel this reality. I felt as if I was being attacked, but from the outside: as if a weight was weighing down the house where I was living. At that moment, I was seized by an anxiety which was quite awful. I started calling out to God (in the ‘conditional’ tense, as I did not yet believe, to tell the truth). I said: ‘God, if you truly exist, and if it is true, all that I heard about you this afternoon, then this is the moment; intervene now, snatch me from this fear.’ Instantly, I experienced an indescribable sensation—in fact a kind of snatching—a little bit like finding myself in a lift, traveling at a great speed in a skyscraper; the lift stops suddenly, and one finds oneself raised up, made light. I felt a great gentleness. The anxiety had instantly disappeared. The evil presence had left. Only the gentle presence of the Almighty Lord remained. That was my very first spiritual experience, and I fell asleep.
The next day, I woke up with faith. I had experienced God. In the days that followed, I continued to pray with that Irish friend, and at the same time, the situation which I raised started to resolve itself in a manner that was quite astonishing. The obstacles fell away one after another, whereas previously they seemed, humanly speaking, utterly insurmountable. One of the people who was deeply and closely related to this situation behaved a few days later as though seized by the Holy Spirit.
That person had also experienced a veritable outpouring of the Spirit and was changed and converted. This conversion was the beginning of a story of grace for that person and for myself as well; it is an extraordinary testimony which I will not elaborate here.
A few months have passed, and life continued. By reason of the concerts which I was still giving, this being the height of my career, I often went to England. That allowed me during the months which followed to keep in touch with this Irish friend whom, I say right away, I chose as my sponsor at my Baptism, which was to take place later. He continued to pray for me. He exercised his gift of healing. We had long conversations, and thanks to these, I lived more and more in a close relationship with Jesus. However, I was missing something: I had seen God at work in my life, I had experienced the power of Jesus, I knew that he was working in my life, but I wanted to have a much more personal and intimate relationship with him. In fact, I wanted him to reign in my heart and in my life. I wanted Jesus absolutely.
It was due to this desire that I went to an abbey in France to spend there a few days by way of a retreat, with the sole intention to pray every day, to be in silence, and to beg Jesus to come into my life. *3Abbaye Notre-Dame de Tamie’, Haute-Savoie [O.L. of Tamie’ Abbey] During the course of this retreat, in which I did not participate in the services, I kept this desire, while a spiritual struggle took place at an intellectual level. A voice—a bit obsessed—was telling me unceasingly: ‘Yes, but can you believe, with all the scientific discoveries about the universe, the evolution of beings and things, all the discoveries in psychology…?’ Many of the realities of the Faith still seemed to me to be difficult to understand and to accept at the intellectual level. I asked myself all sorts of questions. Whilst I was at the monastery, God in his humour always gave me the necessary answers via some periodicals. It just happened that I got hold of the periodical which answered my question ‘of the day’ which I asked myself. It was often old copies of Fetes et Saisons (Feasts and Seasons), dating back several years, which people forgot to put away. One question that cropped up was about the Real Presence, and I came across a periodical which explained it to me in a way that was very simple and very clear. Another time, it was the meaning of gestures and rites. Why all these gestures in the Church, why all these processions, these ornaments? Did God really need them? And once again I came across a magazine which spoke to me wonderfully, and explained to me the meaning that was incarnate in the union between God and men, the need that we have to reply by our gestures, with all of our feelings, through everything that is part of the created world.
On the next to last day of this retreat—I came to realize that this was the day of the Annunciation—I went into the chapel at the end of Mass and sat down at the back. It was the final song. The monks left in procession, and there was a strong smell of incense. It was magnificent. It was at this moment that my encounter with Jesus took place, in an extremely low-key manner which was almost lacking in content; there was no great revelation, no vision: simply a heart-to-heart encounter. At this precise moment, Jesus came into my life. I don’t know how to express it. I felt His presence, I knew it was He and that He took His place in my heart. He put down new foundations. He Himself was the foundation, and it was His Heart which came into me. It was very beautiful. It was so beautiful that at the same time I felt like fleeing, to go away from this chapel, whilst another very great gentleness kept me back.
I was seized by a very deep love for Jesus, and I truly received the Faith in its fullness. It has never left me since. Of course, I knew some difficult periods on my way, but never the least doubt about the presence of Jesus, about his Lordship, and about the fact that he came into my life. It was also at this precise moment that whatever still remained at the unconscious level about criticism or sarcasm with respect to the Church had completely evaporated. Everything had disappeared, and I was there and then seized by a deep and total love for the Church; all my prejudices had disappeared and were replaced by a kind of inner understanding: a deep intuition as to what the Church is. I would have been incapable of explaining what she taught. I did not know her doctrine, but something in me said: ‘The fullness of truth is there, the whole and complete presence of the mercy of Christ is to be found in that place’. I believed. That can appear to be strange, since without even knowing what she really taught, I clung with all my heart to her teaching.
That day I said ‘yes’ unreservedly to the Church, a ‘yes’ full of love, but also in complete lucidity and freedom. I understood inwardly, even though I could not as yet put it into words, the place of priests, and the devotion to the Virgin Mary. A deep affection for the Pope took hold of me; I came to understand very profoundly his place. I came to understand the meaning of all the hierarchy within the Church, as a hierarchy of service and of love given by Christ. I knew very well that there were dark times in the history of the Church herself, but I also realized that the Church was ceaselessly loved and renewed by Peter…Peter, who in his fired-up spirit wanted to follow Jesus with all the impetus of his heart, and who stumbled and denied him. Nevertheless, Jesus did not deprive him of his mission which He had entrusted to him: to be the visible head of the Church, its rock. Thus, I understood that Jesus through all of History raised up and healed his Church, and still continued to ask the same question: ‘Do you love me?’ while ceaselessly entrusting him anew with his mission of redemption, of evangelisation, confirming her in her vocation to be the repository of the grace of God.
I left this monastery brimming over with joy, having met Jesus personally, now having a deep relationship with Him, having received in a very inward manner my first outpouring of the Spirit, and having received a great love for the Church.
I then went back to Paris. I went to the Church of the Sacred Heart at Montmartre in order to meet a priest who was recommended to me. We spoke, and very quickly it became clear that I was ready to receive Baptism. When I asked him, ‘Isn’t it too early?’, he replied by the very beautiful sentence which can be found in the Acts of the Apostles: ‘Can one refuse Baptism to someone who has just received the Holy Spirit?’ (Acts 10:47). It was truly what I have been living through: pure grace during my stay at the monastery. This priest then prepared me for Baptism.
I joined the catechumenate at the end of June, 1977, one year after the beginning of my conversion. This catechumenate was a very intense period, full of the love of Jesus, but also of trials and testing, especially external ones. I came to realize very much that the enemy was let loose against me, while at the same time, I was able to keep very much at peace. I knew that I had to go in the direction of the Sacrament of Baptism.
I received it, surrounded by brothers and sisters from Prayer Groups of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Montmartre, at the end of 1977.
On this subject, let me disclose to you a little anecdote. In 1971, while I was still very far from God, I had a record made in London: the twenty-four preludes of Debussy. In these preludes, one can find a piece which is particularly well known which is called ‘The Engulfed Cathedral’. I had the record made, and for commercial reasons which one can well understand, the publishers wanted it to be issued for Christmas, 1971. I agreed, but not having the time to occupy myself with the sleeve, I let the publishers take care of that: they were free to do whatever they wanted. When the record came out, I found the sleeve, and right there and then I was really not happy with it. What was it like? The publishers were determined to illustrate this piece of music, ‘The Engulfed Cathedral’, and thought up some photographic trick in bad taste which I continued to find unsatisfactory: the Sacred Heart Basilica of Montmartre, with an overprint of a photo of the sea. One could see there the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, being transparent in the sea, while at the same time it appeared to emerge out of the water. Why wasn’t I very happy? First of all because the Sacred Heart Basilica of Montmartre, esthetically speaking, is not really what is the most beautiful: There are hundreds of cathedrals in France which are far more beautiful. Nor was I satisfied with this trick photography, which was a bit facile. And then I forgot this record sleeve, and the years went by.
Just before I entered the catechumenate, I again found myself with this record in my hand. I was going to give it up. I looked at the sleeve, and at that instant, I was staggered: I saw the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, where I was going to be baptized in a few months. There was, of course, my name on the sleeve: The sea and the Basilica were emerging out of the water. Water is the symbol of Baptism, and the Basilica of the Sacred Heart is a symbol of the Church and of a new life, as if the Lord wanted to say via this sleeve: ‘There’s what I have been preparing you for for many years, even when you did not know me. I already had my eyes on you. I knew that one day there’ll be a new life for you, and that you will be submerged into my death and into my resurrection’.
I relate this little episode to show at which point the Lord ‘looks out for us’, full of love. He awaits the right moment, and even if we are very distant from him, he keeps his eyes on us. He looks out for us in order to get hold of us as soon as our heart has a tiny or intense wish to turn towards him.
After my Baptism, I continued along the path in Prayer Groups. If I had sometimes some extraordinary joys as a musician—it’s true that it is a most beautiful profession, a creative profession in which one communicates something beautiful to others—I understood that it was since my Baptism that I truly began to live, whereas beforehand, I was just surviving.
While contemplating all those years which preceded my conversion and my Baptism, I have the impression of having been like an insect which was picking up, to the left and to the right, little bits of joy, or even big bits of joy, but which didn’t know exactly where he came from or where he was going. Now I know it, of course, perfectly well. This certitude remains. Even through periods of struggle or darkness, there always remained this conductor wire which was nothing other than the love of God, the view that Jesus takes over my whole life, and takes over the totality of the history of his Church, and also takes over his people Israel, a dimension which I discovered a little later.
After my Baptism, I continued to give concerts. Little by little, a transformation took place in the way I made music. I could no longer endure to play pieces of music just for their beauty. I no longer accepted a choice of music for purely aesthetic reasons. I had met uncreated beauty. Created beauty, left to its own devices, appeared vain to me. That did not happen without personal anguish. There was even a period of rejection and disgust, but I was obliged to continue, since I had contracts to fulfill and concerts to secure. Progressively, in each piece of music, I began to look for the face of Jesus. Even in the profane pieces of music, I looked for Scriptural references, some spiritual elements which inspired me to play such-and-such a piece, so that the presence of Jesus would dwell in it more and more, by the richness of its mystery. Thus, progressively, a transformation took place in my playing of music, and the different people who heard me, even though they were not aware of what happened to me, ought to have noticed this difference: a kind of purification in the way I played.
In 1979, after a Mass in which I lived through a ‘heart-to-heart’ experience with Jesus, in a deep peace and an enormous love, I had stayed alone in the church. I heard what seemed a kind of inner locution: a voice which asked me two questions very distinctly and precisely. The first question was: ‘Do you want to love me?’ Of course I replied, ‘Yes’. Then, after some silence, a second question: ‘Do you want to help me show others how much I love them?’ I then immediately understood that I was being called to the Priesthood. And I had the grace to reply as well, ‘Yes’. After this decisive day, I still continued with the concerts. I had said ‘Yes’ to the Lord, but I didn’t know at all either when or how to go about it.
It was at the end of 1979 that this call became more and more clear through very exact details, coincidences, events, and encounters. At that time, I met some young men who lived in a community. I was able to share with them what seemed to me to be the call of God. These young men spoke to me about everything. Even whilst belonging to the Emmanuel Community, they prepared themselves for the Priesthood, while having the grace to live out this preparation in the midst of a community life which was strong spiritually. They lived out this formation not only among themselves, but also profoundly linked to lay people and families in a spiritual life which was very balanced and stabilizing. It was for that reason that I entered the Emmanuel Community – to have myself trained. In order to live during the time that I was moving towards the Priesthood, all the graces of the new Pentecost in which our Church lives in our time were given to me: the charisms, these gifts which show forth the mercy of God. I had this really huge amount of grace given to me so as not to live my road to the Priesthood in a dry context, which is very isolating, or cut off from the world, but to live it at the heart of that community. It was also there that I discovered the graces of the Heart of Jesus, the Heart of the High Priest.
From the moment that I began my studies in theology in 1981, I radically stopped my musical career. I gave my last concert quite discreetly. Nobody in the hall knew, except two or three people. Besides, this did not take place in a prestigious context. No heart-rending experience in me, but on the contrary, a very great joy and the certainty of responding to the call to a new life. Also, the certainty that all these talents which God had given me were not lost, but transformed. At the same time, to make music in my way, to play for Jesus, but also in all my spiritual and theological formation. The discovery of theology, well taught and well understood, gave me the same joys as did music: joys multiplied a hundred times. Also, the study of Scripture, the Word of God, with its perpetual and constant springing up anew, its internal coherence, the presence of the Living God who dwells there.
That’s how I made my way towards the Priesthood and was ordained a priest in November, 1986, at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at Paray-le-Monial during a magnificent ceremony, in a supernatural and extraordinary joy.
Meanwhile, I would like to underline something very important which will certainly hold a large part of my ministry as a priest: the rediscovery for myself of my own identity as a Jew, a son of Israel. Before my conversion, I was very indifferent about it. Step by step, two or three years after my Baptism and in the light of my Faith, I activated my consciousness of my belonging to the People of Israel. Being a priest provides me with something of great importance because on my father’s side, I’m part of the branch of Cohens: the priestly branch of the sons of Aaron. My paternal ancestors had quite a line of rabbis, and afterwards, a break in this line: no more religious practice for three generations. And now, Priesthood anew in the New Covenant. I feel very strongly the fact of being a priest, a Jew, being part of the Cohanim, in this very special time in the life of the Church with all its postconciliar soul-searching of the importance and permanence of the vocation of Israel, and what makes us rooted in Israel. It seems to me that God has thus given me through grace a place in his Heart, in the heart of the Church but also in the heart of Israel. Even though I’m still finding it hard to understand it all, I sense there a dimension of love and a free gift, like waiting for the coming of the Lord in glory.
Well, there it is. I have tried, albeit imperfectly, to tell you the story of my conversion. If this account could help some people to also encounter Jesus, to pray and to give thanks, such is my personal testimony.
I give thanks for it to Jesus. I also give very much thanks to Our Lady of Lourdes, who was very much present at the beginning of this process of conversion. I give thanks to all the Saints, male and female, of the Old and of the New Covenants. I give thanks very particularly to all my brethren in the Church, all my brethren in the Renewal, to all without exception, to all communities which I have encountered, and to all who, one day or another, were icons of sanctity and of the mercy of Jesus. I truly wish all those who will read this testimony a very great joy: the joy of the Bride when she meets the Bridegroom. Amen.
|↑1||From 1948 to 1953, we lived at Chambon-sur-Lignon, a place which became very famous, as the locals saved about 5,000 Jews during the War. We settled afterwards in Paris.|
|↑2||Now she is a consecrated Sister in the Community of the Beatitudes.|
|↑3||Abbaye Notre-Dame de Tamie’, Haute-Savoie [O.L. of Tamie’ Abbey]|