A Convert From Judaism Describes His Faith Odyssey

Author: Paul Likoudis


Paul Likoudis

Marty Barrack is a recent convert to Catholicism from Judaism. At 51, he is soon to retire from a career with the U. S. government, and engage himself full-time in Catholic evangelization, with a special emphasis on communicating the Catholic faith to Jews.

Barrack graduated with a bachelor's degree in English from Hunter College in Manhattan, and has a master's in political science from the New School for Social Research. He is also a self-taught amateur radio operator.

He has worked for the U. S. government for 25 years, beginning as a customs inspector in western Arizona on the Mexican border. After a brief time in Los Angeles, he moved to Washington, where he served as a policy analyst for the GSA, specializing in computers and telecommunications. For the last two years, he has run the federal government's telecommuting program, where he wrote all the guidance which federal agencies use today for work-at-home programs.

He is also the author of How We Communicate: The Most Vital Skill (Glenbridge Publishing, Ltd., Lakewood, Colo.), in which he describes the dynamics of successful communicating and exchanging information.

For Wanderer readers interested in communicating further with Barrack, write to him at: 6682 Old Blacksmith Dr., Burke, Va., 22015.

Q. Briefly, describe your background.

A. I was raised by very conservative Jewish parents, in a very Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx. I went to a Bronx public school, where there were 2,000 Jews and six Catholics. That's no exaggeration. There were 2,006 students. I received a good Jewish education but I didn't particularly feel Jewish because everybody I knew was Jewish.

I remember meeting my first Protestant when I was 17 and I distinctly remember the thought I had at that time: "So that's what Protestants look like." It's comical to think like that, but Protestants simply weren't part of the picture in my neighborhood.

Q. What do Protestants look like?

A. Now I know they look like everybody else.

A Sudden Sense

Q. Can you describe your religious odyssey?

A. I married a Catholic girl from Queens in 1967, and remained Jewish for 20 years. Synagogue was three hours of Hebrew, and I soon realized that the best way for me to be Jewish was to be kind and considerate and helpful to my neighbor, and not cause him any harm, and I could do this without going to the synagogue.

Shortly after we moved to Burke, Va., in 1979, a Catholic church, the Church of the Nativity, was built midway between our home and a nearby shopping center, where I used to walk every day for recreation.

One day, during my walk, as I approached the church, I felt a sudden sense that Jesus was calling me from the church. I felt a great sense of peace, and the message crossed my mind: "I love you. I have waited for you for such a long, long time. Come home."

I was startled because, after all, it was not my church, and I assumed the experience was due to some human cause.

Q. Had you ever thought of Jesus before?

A. No. That's what was so startling. I had lived for 45 years as a Jew, and had been married for 20 years to a Catholic, and had never for a moment considered conversion. My wife was a practicing Catholic, but we each worshiped in our own way. I had only been in a Catholic church-maybe-two times in all those years.

On my way back from the shopping center, as I walked by the church, I had the same experience again. And again, I assumed it was due to human causes, and disregarded it.

Some weeks later, I encountered a series of magazine articles describing the research that had been done on the Shroud of Turin. Since my scientific and technical background is better than my wife's, I decided to read the articles and explain them to her in a way she could understand.

A Graymoor Friar

Q. Prior to this time, what was your view of Jesus and Christianity in general?

A. In general, my view of Christianity, of Catholicism, was that it was a beautiful and well-disciplined religion. And that was all.

Q. Was this the view of the community you grew up in?

A. No. That would not have been the primary statement that most Jews would have made.

Q. Why was it your view?

A. It was my observation. When I was 19, I was a ham radio operator, and among the people I contacted was another amateur radio operator who introduced himself as Brother George at Graymoor.

Being quite innocent of Catholic titles, my reaction was, "Gee, George, we're all friends on the band, but isn't 'brother' going a little fast?" Brother George laughed for several minutes; when he finally regained control of himself, he said, "But my title is Brother George. I'm a Catholic friar here at Graymoor. Haven't you heard of us?"

I told him I had not. To help remove the foot from my mouth, Brother George invited me to visit Graymoor. I took him up on the offer, and drove up there to meet him, and he introduced me to several other friars and priests. They proved engaging friends, and I was much impressed with their humble and gentle manner. I returned often, and liked to walk in their beautiful gardens.

Q. Was there talk of religion?

A. Yes, but it wasn't persuasive. I was simply interested in finding out what they believed, just out of curiosity. Here were people who lived the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and it seemed obvious that these were very different people, especially to one who was not interested in either poverty, chastity, or obedience.

Q. Did the experience spark any religious interest?

A. No; except in the sense of enjoying the debate. I'm sure that was part of the Lord's plan when He would call me, but at that time I felt no attraction, only admiration.

A Prayer In An Open Field

Q. Let's go back to the shroud; what did you think of it?

A. As I read the story of the shroud and learned more about it from several other sources, I became convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the shroud was the burial cloth of Jesus of Nazareth.

When I put all the evidence together, I was stunned to realize that it also proved to me that the Resurrection had actually occurred. I was stunned. If the Resurrection is true, I thought, then Jesus is the Christ and I was playing on the wrong team.

However, my Jewish identity was very secure and the result was that I spent the next three years walking in the wilderness.

During that time, my wife understood through prayer that she should remain in the background and respond only to my questions, since I needed to be sure that this was truly from God and not from a mere desire to please her.

For example, one day I asked her if there was a book of questions and answers about the Catholic faith and the very next day, the Baltimore Catechism appeared when I usually sit and read. On another occasion, I asked my wife whether there was a class that explained Catholic teaching, and she replied that her parish was starting an inquiry class that very week.

I signed up, and immediately began asking innumerable questions during the class. But when the deacon who taught it asked who would come forward for Baptism, I held back. I was still not sure whether my desire to be a Catholic was truly from God or just the result of listening to a very persuasive deacon.

I decided to follow Rabbi Gamaliel, who was one of St. Paul's teachers. It was he who said that if Christianity was of God it would stay, if it was of man, it would go. My interest in Catholicism remained, and early the following year, in February, 1989, I decided I had to get one last issue resolved:

I knew that Catholics prayed to Jesus. I had always prayed to the Father, and knew absolutely that He is God, and I could never abandon the Father. I realized that I could pray to Jesus only if the Father Himself gave me to Jesus. And so I prayed out in an open field, "Father God, I want to do your will, but I need help. You raised me up a Jew, and for 40 years I have worshiped you. Now, it appears that I am being called into the Catholic Church. I need to know whether you want me to pray to Jesus as my Lord. Father God, show me your will, and let it be so clear that I will not be racked by doubt."

I then had an extremely powerful experience. I realized instantly that my Father in Heaven had answered my prayer. I felt the same feeling that I had when I walked past the church, but much stronger. This time I felt Jesus saying, "Relax, it's all right. I love you; welcome home."

That night I went to my wife's pastor, and told him I wanted to be baptized a Catholic immediately. We discussed the matter, and agreed that I would enter the Church at Easter, which I did in 1989.

The God Of The Old Testament

Q. Now that you're a Catholic, what's your mission?

A. Shortly after I became a Catholic, I sat down in my living room and was looking at this book I had just published on communication, and I asked the Lord, What do you want me to do? I looked down at the book, and I heard Jesus tell me: Communicate my word as much and as far as you can.

Since then, I've been doing that with all my ability.

About 1990, I started writing a book which explains the Catholic Church, to Jews particularly. Essentially, when a Protestant converts, he has a pretty good base line to start with. He has the Trinity and Scripture, and he goes from there to the Blessed Sacrament and other doctrines.

But for a Jew the conversion process is very different. He begins with a concept of God as we find it in the Old Testament, and so the Jew has a much longer path to walk than do Christian converts. Now that I am familiar with the path, I want to help other Jews to walk it.

Q. What's the process?

A. Essentially, it is to explain the Jewish origins of the Catholic Church, and to make clear that the Catholic faith is the fulfillment and completion of all that Judaism teaches.

For example, the prophecies of the Old Testament were realized in Jesus. Second, when Jesus gave us the two great Commandments, He told us they summarized rather than replaced the Torah. When He says love one another as yourself, that was what the Torah was trying to do.

There's much else that needs to be explained. Catholic writing tends to exalt Jesus by denigrating the Jews. If you don't have Jewish eyes, you don't see it. For example, many Catholics emphasize the closeness of Jesus by comparing Him with the distant God of the Jews. However, no Jew would ever say that he considers God distant. Awesome; powerful; holy—but not distant.

Q. Is the New Testament an obstacle for Jews?

A. It can never be an obstacle, because it is the Word of God.

Q. What do you make of the efforts to "cleanse" the New Testament of alleged "anti-Semitism"?

A. I'm not for changing the Word of God at all. I'm for explaining it. We need the most accurate translations possible. In my opinion, the Ignatius Bible is probably the best we have today.

Catholics in particular have to be wary of translations that render the Word of God as He would have written it if only He were as smart as we are today. In other words, I want to know what God said, and I'm not particularly interested in knowing what you think He should have said if He had had the benefit of a public education.

Q. What else is in your book?

A. I am trying to lay out a nice, clear track for Jews so they can understand the Catholic faith, and at the same time it also presents many Church teachings in clear and simple language which anyone can understand.

Q. What are the biggest obstacles for Jews in understanding the Catholic Church?

A. First is prayer to Jesus. Jews are taught to worship God as our Father in Heaven, and find it very difficult to transfer their allegiance to Jesus.

The explanation that I use is this: Imagine that we are looking at God through a telescope. As we look through the telescope, we can see one God. When we focus the telescope more clearly, through the public Revelation of Jesus, we can now make out three distinct Persons, comprising the same one God.

Once you accept Jesus, and can say that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior, then it becomes much easier to accept what Jesus tells us.

Q. What is the biggest obstacle to understanding the Church?

A. The hierarchy. Jews are accustomed to a situation in which the local board of rabbis represents the authority for the synagogue, and even then, in a single metropolitan area, there are several boards of rabbis representing the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reformed viewpoints. In the last analysis, most Jews follow the teaching of the local rabbi, whose synagogue they attend. They do not see the need for a great bureaucracy, with bishops, priests, monsignors, dioceses, parishes, and so forth.

Beauty, Harmony, Symmetry

Q. What would Jews find most appealing about the Church?

A. The beauty and consistency of its teaching and the liturgy.

I tend to feel you can explain almost everything through the Church. For example, the perennial question: Why do good people suffer? I can answer, through the teachings of the Church, that we unite ourselves to the suffering of Christ. He gave His life for us we give ours for Him.

Catholic teaching possesses great beauty, harmony, and symmetry. This necessarily appeals to people of the Book—once explained.

Q. From your experience in the Jewish community, are Jews anxious to hear your message?

A. No. You have to remember that Jews are a very small minority both in the United States and the world, and they have survived for 6,000 years by emphasizing the purity of their own teaching.

Q. How do you break the ice?

A. I don't. The Holy Spirit does. When the Holy Spirit enters the heart of a Jew, he then begins to seek further understanding. I begin from there explaining how the Catholic Church completes Judaism.

Q. Is there a major problem in Catholic and Jewish relations, and if so, what is it, or what are those problems?

A. There are problems, but there certainly has been progress. Many Jews still look upon Catholics as somehow anti-Semitic, both because of old teachings about Jewish guilt for the death of Christ, and also because Christians actively proselytize while Jews do not.

Q. What do you think of Pope John Paul II's overtures to the Jews?

A. They can only be beneficial. Certainly the establishment of full diplomatic relations between Israel and the Vatican will provide a high-level channel through which some of these misunderstandings can be resolved. There are areas where the Church can accommodate Jewish concerns without sacrificing or compromising its own teachings or integrity.

The Catechism's Approach

Q. Two questions: What do you think of the new Catechism of the Catholic Church; and, in view of the recent criticisms of the Catechism by Catholic scholars, what do you think of the Catechism's presentation of Judaism?

A. First, The Catechism of the Catholic Church succeeds brilliantly in appealing to an audience ranging from bishops and theologians to poorly catechized Catholics; the "in brief" summaries can be understood even by people unfamiliar with the Catholic faith and teach all the soul needs in order to be saved.

The regular paragraphs present the teaching in more detail for active Catholic lay people and by themselves offer a comprehensive understanding of the Catholic faith. The footnotes offer to bishops and theologians, priests, deacons, and lay catechists an opportunity for extremely comprehensive insight into Sacred Scripture and Tradition.

Second, my own sense is that Jewish objections—or objections anticipated by Catholic scholars—to the Catechism are rooted in the inherent differences between Jewish and Catholic perspectives. For example, when Catholics say Catholicism is the fulfillment and completion of Judaism, Jews hear us saying that their faith is incomplete and therefore somehow lacking. With Almighty God, the whole Torah, the whole Covenant, and today an ancient homeland, Jews feel quite complete and hence don't recognize themselves in our descriptions.

In some cases, Jews are sensitive to unflattering descriptions, even where historically warranted. For example, paragraph 539 of the Catechism says, "Jesus fulfills Israel's vocation perfectly: in contrast to those who had once provoked God during 40 years in the desert...." Jews would likely object to the statement that Jesus fulfills Israel's vocation, and even more to the expression that they "had once provoked God." Yet anyone who reads the Exodus story will readily find evidence of constant grumbling.

Paragraphs 574 to 594 provide a standard restatement of Catholic teaching on Jesus' actions with respect to the Jews. Since Jesus of Nazareth transcended the Torah and affirmed that He was the Son of God, Jews naturally object. We Catholics, however, have a received faith; we believe the Son of God became incarnate and left us in Scripture an accurate account of what He said and did.

Paragraphs 595 and 596 reflect the disagreement among Jews of Jesus' trial before the Sanhedrin. Again, these are stated neutrally and respectfully. Paragraph 597 goes further. It says that the personal sin of Judas and the Sanhedrin is known to God alone. Hence, we cannot lay responsibility for the trial on the Jews of Jerusalem as a whole. In even stronger terms, it declares that we cannot hold as responsible Jews in other times and places.

Paragraph 598 imputes to Christians the gravest responsibility for Christ's Passion and to Jews a lesser responsibility. Jews reading these paragraphs objectively should find reassurance. Finally, paragraph 1096 compares the Jewish and Christian liturgies to show the Jewish influence on the Catholic liturgy, and that is done in a completely respectful manner.

There has been much Catholic writing over the years in which Jewish belief has been used to contrast Jewish imperfection with Jesus' perfection. My view, however, is that Jewish objections to the Catechism are primarily objections to Christ's public Revelation, which Catholics are responsible for maintaining intact. The Catechism is both accurate and graceful in its description of Judaism in light of Christian Revelation.

The Gates Of Hell Will Not Prevail

Q. As a new member of the Catholic Church, what do you see happening in the Church today?

A. Overall, the most dramatic thing happening in the Church today is the quickening of the spiritual warfare. Satan is increasing his activity to levels not seen before. The de-Christianizing of life in the United States would be Exhibit A. Children no longer pray in schools; we no longer have crèche scenes on public property; the media are hostile to traditional Christian values. This all comes under the general heading of the secularization of the United States.

Clearly, we're seeing record numbers of heretics in the Church, people who no longer accept the teachings of the Church but who remain within it to destroy her.

Q. Do you have any reluctance about using such strong language?

A. No. None at all. Most people who lose confidence in an institution simply walk away from it. The person who remains within the institution to undermine its teachings is clearly trying to erase or destroy that institution's historic nature. Protestants, for instance, who become disillusioned with their particular church's doctrine, simply leave and form a new denomination.

Q. On the positive side, what do you see?

A. I see Jesus quietly bringing up His own reinforcements, with unprecedented numbers of active and articulate converts, who are speaking up forthrightly on behalf of the Magisterium.

Q. What advice would you offer to discouraged Catholics who see the "whole boat" sinking?

A. There have been many, many times in the Church's history when things looked much more grim. After Jesus was crucified, even the Apostles went into hiding. For the next 300 years, the Romans tried to execute every Christian they could find, and many were, in fact, dispatched to the lions. During the 15th century, there was much confusion within the Papacy.

What we always have to remember is that Jesus is in charge of His Church. After all of the times when it appeared the Church would not survive, it has come back stronger than ever. In fact, of the 264 Popes we have had, every single one of them has been completely consistent with all the others when teaching doctrines concerning faith and morals. Even Alexander VI, who had a most unsavory background, taught true doctrine correctly—once he ascended to the Chair of Peter and came under the direct control of Jesus Christ.

We have to remember that the Catholic Church is Christ's Church. He is in charge—He is in control; and He has promised us that the gates of Hell would not prevail.

This article was taken from the July 21, 1994 issue of "The Wanderer," 201 Ohio Street, St. Paul, MN 55107.