By Karna Swanson
JERUSALEM, 6 NOV. 2009 (ZENIT)
How does a Jewish adolescent's
friendship with a 90-year old Russian Orthodox nun, who also
happens to be a princess, lead the youth to become a Catholic?
And then later, a Jesuit priest?
It may not seem the likely outcome, but it's the true story
behind the vocation of Father David Mark Neuhaus, Latin
Patriarchal Vicar for Hebrew-Speaking Catholics in Israel
In this interview with ZENIT, Father Neuhaus shares how he was
born into a Jewish family who escaped the scourge of the Nazis
in their native Germany.
The family lived in South Africa, but as an adolescent, David
moved to Jerusalem. There he met an Orthodox nun, who in talking
about her faith, radiated the joy of Christ.
It was through his conversations with this religious that he
found his calling not only to become a Christian, but to serve
Christ as his vicar on earth.
Father Neuhaus teaches Scripture at the Latin Patriarchate
Seminary and at Bethlehem University.
He completed his doctorate in political science at Hebrew
University, Jerusalem. He also has degrees in theology from
Centre Sevres in Paris, and Scripture from the Pontifical
Biblical Institute in Rome.
ZENIT: How did you view religion as a child? Were you spiritual?
Father Neuhaus: I was born into a not very practicing German
Jewish family that had found refuge from the Nazi scourge in
South Africa. My father went to the synagogue regularly, but at
home religious practice was not very regular. I did attend one
of the excellent local Jewish schools where we prayed every
morning, studied the Bible, religion and Hebrew.
I was not particularly interested in any of this and thought
that religion was for old people who were scared of death. In
addition, for me, at that time, Christianity was perceived as
being at the root of the suffering of my own family and the rest
of the Jewish people, particularly in Europe, rather than being
ZENIT: You converted from Judaism while living in Israel. What
led you to convert to Catholicism?
Father Neuhaus: I arrived in Israel at the age of 15 with a
passion for history, and went off in search of a Russian
princess who I knew had moved to Jerusalem. I was a Jewish
adolescent and the scion of the Russian Empire I met, Mother
Barbara, was almost 90, a Russian Orthodox nun for more than 50
We spent hours together, talking about the last days of the
Russian Empire, the revolution and its aftermath. In the course
of our conversations, I noticed that this very old and frail
lady shone with joy. I found that very strange as she was almost
completely bedridden, confined to a small room in a convent and
the only prospect she was facing was death.
One day, I plucked up the courage and asked her: Why are you so
joyful? She knew I was a Jew and she was hesitant at first, but
then as she began to speak of the great love in her life, the
words came tumbling out and she became ever more radiant. She
told me about Jesus Christ, about God's love expressed in him,
about her life of joy with him in the convent.
I was struck and know today that in her radiant joy I saw the
face of Jesus for the first time. Our conversations continued
over time. As soon as I saw my parents a few months later, I
told them that I wanted to be a Christian, and they were
shocked. I promised them that I would wait 10 years, but if this
remained true they must accept. They agreed, hoping that by the
time 10 years had passed I would have come to my senses.
ZENIT: Did you ever think that you would end up a Catholic
Father Neuhaus: I sensed a vocation to the religious life almost
immediately on meeting Christ in Mother Barbara. The vocation to
the priesthood came as soon as I came to understand the
significance of Christ's presence in the sacrament of the
Eucharist. I wanted to be in the presence of Jesus, sought out
every opportunity to get to know him and wanted to bring him to
others. I sensed that the world was in dire need of joy and that
Christ was the key to true joy.
The most powerful moments during the first years of coming to
know him were when, as an adolescent, I frequented the Russian
Orthodox Church for the divine liturgy. Reading the Bible came a
little later and has remained my passion until today. It took
some time before I came into contact with the Catholic Church.
What drew me was the Catholic Church's universality and her love
and solicitude for the world. What consoled me was the Catholic
Church's seeking the way of reconciliation with the Jewish
people, correcting what was profoundly sinful in the way
Catholics were taught about Jews and Judaism.
What inspired me was the Catholic Church's prophetic teaching
about justice and peace and her engagement alongside the
oppressed and downtrodden. The resounding interrogation of my
Jewish family and friends was: How can you join the community
that has persecuted us for centuries?
I found comfort in the figures of Blessed Pope John XXIII,
Cardinal Augustin Bea and the other giants of the Second Vatican
Council and the reformulation of the Church's teaching with
regard to the Jews. I understood early on that if I, a Jew,
entered the Church, I must serve; I could not simply be a
regular Christian. Long before my baptism I understood that that
service was intimately connected to making Christ present in the
world through sacrament and through the Word.
ZENIT: What attracted you to the Jesuits?
Father Neuhaus: It was not Ignatius Loyola at the start, he came
later, during the 30-day retreat in the first year of novitiate.
At first, I was attracted by the first two Jesuits I met in
Jerusalem: Father Peter, an American who had come to work with
the Palestinians as a professor of philosophy and theology at
the Catholic university in Bethlehem (where I teach now), and
Father Jose, a Nicaraguan who had come to work within Israeli
Hebrew-speaking society and served the small Hebrew-speaking
Catholic Church (of which I am now Patriarchal Vicar).
The dedication of these two men, who had left all to serve
Christ, moved me deeply. I was impressed by the solid
spirituality and the intellectual stature of these two men. I
was impressed by their ability to face complexity and not reduce
reality to slogans. Most of all, I was impressed by their
friendship with one another in the Lord. One was working in deep
solidarity with Palestinians, the other in deep solidarity with
Israeli Jews, and yet across the abyss of violence and hatred,
they were able to be friends, to pray together, talk together
and laugh together.
This opened up possibilities that our reality seemed to seal
off, and offered hope and a breath of life where there seemed to
be none. Father Jose prepared me for baptism and baptized me,
Father Peter coordinated my entry into the Society of Jesus and
vested me at my ordination.
ZENIT: You are an Israeli, Catholic priest who lives in
Jerusalem, the land where Christ himself walked. What special
dimension does this add to living out your priesthood?
Father Neuhaus: Living where Jesus lived, walking where he
walked, living among his people in the flesh is an incredible
privilege. As Catholics we do believe that the moment of
Christ's Resurrection transformed the face of the earth into a
"holy land," and all people who believe in Christ into a "holy
people," but this particular piece of land carries with it the
very traces of Jesus' earthly life and the traces of Israel's
patriarchs, priests, kings, sages and prophets who preceded him,
preparing his way.
To live out discipleship here is to be reminded at every step of
the concrete acts of love that Jesus lived here. The land in
which we live is a "gospel" in that it proclaims the good news
of the victory over death in Christ and all that led up to that
victory. For me, the very center is the Church of the
Resurrection (called by many the Church of the Holy Sepulcher).
I try to go regularly to pray there, and thus to revivify
constantly my vocation and intercede for the Church that we
might be faithful to Christ's love for the world.
In addition to celebrating the sacraments and preaching on the
Word, I have a very particular privilege in this land as I am
professor of sacred Scripture at the diocesan seminary here. A
particular mission in teaching Scripture here is to coax our
young seminarians, Jordanians and Palestinians, to meditate on
the gift of being able to read the Scriptures in the land in
which they were written, celebrate the sacraments in the land in
which they were instituted.
In addition, here in this land, I minister to the small
Hebrew-speaking Church. Praying in Hebrew, studying the Old
Testament in its own language, being part of Jewish Israeli
society, is a constant reminder of God's fidelity through the
ages, particularly from the moment He told Abraham: "Be a
blessing" (Genesis 12:2).
ZENIT: What has been the most important aspect of being a priest
for you to date?
Father Neuhaus: I certainly waited with bated breath to
celebrate my first Eucharist, to be the minister of Christ's
real presence in a world that needs him so badly. However, I was
taken by surprise by the grace-filled character of hearing
Serving as a confessor remains one of the most important aspects
of priesthood for me because it is in the sacrament of
forgiveness that we touch in a very real and direct way the
concrete figure of a Jesus who preached forgiveness, lived it
and died for it. I expected the human transformation that takes
place around the Eucharistic table and I was not disappointed
but the power of absolution from sin left me breathless. I am
constantly reminded of how unworthy I am to be a priest because
of my human weakness and yet constantly astonished by the work
of love that God works through those chosen by Him to be
ZENIT: You were involved in welcoming the Pope to the Holy Land
in May. What was that like?
Father Neuhaus: I was appointed Latin Patriarchal Vicar for
Hebrew-speaking Catholics a short time before the Holy Father's
visit in May 2009. As a member of the local Assembly of
Ordinaries, I was among those who could accompany each step of
the Holy Father's visit. A visit to the Holy Land is like
walking a minefield because of the conflict between the two
peoples who live here, Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs, but
what was so impressive was the love, solicitude and deep concern
the Holy Father radiated for both peoples and the courage with
which he proclaimed the message of hope for reconciliation,
justice and peace. Undoubtedly, the peak moments were the four
celebrations of the Eucharist (Amman, Jerusalem, Bethlehem,
Nazareth). On these occasions, the Holy Father radiated the joy
that had first attracted me to the Church. We are in dire need
of joy as our political situation is a cause of constant
ZENIT: What would you tell a young man who is discerning a
vocation to the priesthood today?
Father Neuhaus: I have been professor of Scripture in our
diocesan seminary for the past 10 years. I thus have the
occasion to speak often, at length and in depth with those
called to the priesthood. I tell them: We need holy priests who
reflect God's life among us serving as ministers of God's
presence in the sacraments and who preach on God's Word with
We need priests who are full of faith, who radiate hope, who
love the men and women of this age and who live in joy … yes,
joy is our palpable witness to the victory over fear, sin and
death that Christ has already won for us in the resurrection
within a world that gives little evidence of that victory.