The Catholic Thing
Coming into the Church – A Year Later Print E-mail
By Hadley Arkes   
Tuesday, 26 April 2011

He came into the Church on the 24th of April, a Saturday: Augustine, in 387, and I, last year. My entrance was not exactly a world-historical happening; it’s just that my friends treated it in that way. To my astonishment, they flew into Washington from Cleveland, Charlotte, Boston, and yes even from the People’s Republic of Amherst, Mass. Michael Novak acted as my sponsor, Michael Uhlmann and Daniel Robinson did the readings. And Fr. Arne Panula, who had drawn me in, after years of my holding back, offered the most memorable homily. (Bob Royal thought the event worth a report in the Catholic Thing, and with his lead I added my own – “Finalmente: Coming into the Church”).

There must have been about eighty-five friends who filled that lovely chapel at the Catholic Information Center, and the real completion came as we saw our friends coming up, one by one, to take communion. And wherever I’ve been at Mass, this has ever been the most affecting moment for me: in truth, I just love to see the faces of the people, of all ages and backgrounds, as they come up to receive the body of Christ. That sight has been, for me, sweet and confirming.   And a year later, I still leave the Church, at the close of Mass, in a curiously buoyant state, with the sense that I must look like Charles Ryder at the end of Brideshead Revisited, after he has absorbed deep, serial disappointments (“You’re looking unusually cheerful today [Ryder]”).

Almost twenty years earlier, at a pro-life dinner in Boston, Cardinal Law remarked that when Richard Neuhaus came over to the Church, he thought I was coming, too. I told him that the entourage gathered in First Things thought that Richard was arranging “a group rate” for his friends. The Cardinal stayed kindly in touch, waiting. Jude Dougherty, an old friend at Catholic University, would ask me what I’m waiting for – what was holding me back? I told him that I wasn’t sure I’d be a good enough Catholic, and the Church did not need another wobbly Catholic. Jude said, “I don’t know any ‘good Catholic’; I know only Catholics trying to be better Catholics.” I’ve taken that as one of my enduring instructions – I have to keep trying to be the Catholic I should be.

My wife and I just had a lunch on Saturday with Fr. Panula to celebrate the anniversary, and to look ahead to the things I must do. In the past year I’ve spoken at the John XXIII Seminary outside of Boston, a seminary for older men, often professionals, often widowers, who have decided late in life to enter the priesthood. I’ve spoken at gatherings of young Catholics in Washington, and quite recently, to a large gathering at the Basilica at Belmont Abbey in North Carolina. Why so many people have been interested in hearing what they call “my story” has been a source of mild astonishment to me. Yet, they come. But for Fr. Panula, I may be the source of a persisting embarrassment. When my doc, Charlie Cavagnaro, surprises me with the news of a feast day, he asks, “Who instructed you?” But I figure that even Father, bearing responsibility for my deficits, needs material for confession.

   The Hebrew Scriptures foretell the Messiah (Saint Luke by El Greco, c. 1605)

One of the most confirming themes for me, recurring through the year, may be seen in these readings brought together one day in Mass: 

  • From Kings 1: “Elisha the son of Shaphat, …was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen before him, and he was with the twelfth.” He wished to follow Elijah, but he begged for time to kiss his father and mother and say good-by. But Elijah put him off. And so, Elisha “took a yoke of oxen and slaughtered them and boiled their flesh, using the oxen’s equipment, and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he arose and followed Elijah, and became his servant.” 
  • In Luke 9: A man said he wished to follow Jesus, but he needed first to bury his father, and another wished to bid his parents farewell. To the first Jesus said, “Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God.” And to the second: “No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”  

It seems quite apparent that Jesus was drawing on the account of Elisha and Elijah. It became unmistakable at every turn, and even at his death, that Jesus was drawing on the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament. I said a year ago that I was not leaving the Jewish people, and that sense of things has been strengthened in the course of the year. Michael Novak used to say that, “when you’re Catholic, you’re at least Jewish,” and if anything I’ve felt even more Jewish as the Masses have drawn me back again and again to the parts of Jewish teaching I had long forgotten.  

It is one of those oddities, as I’ve remarked, that the Jewish atheist is not thought to have left the Jewish people, but the Jewish Catholic has somehow defected. Yet here I am, a year later, settled ever more surely in the Church, and still with the God of Israel, and with the Son who brought the teaching, enhanced, to a wider world.  

Hadley Arkes
is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at AmherstCollege. His most recent book is 
Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law

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Comments (9)Add Comment
written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., April 26, 2011
Yes, it is quite telling that many Jews who proclaim themselves atheists are not shunned while many denounce Jews who conlcude that Jesus is the Messiah. Rabbi Boteach lauded the family of Edith Stein for holding a funeral for her. Rabbi Foxman praised the Chief Rabbi of Rome for absenting himself from an event at which Cardinal Lustiger was to be present. Better an atheist than a Christian? There is something besides Theology at work here.
written by Mark Nedelman, April 26, 2011
As a Jew who was received into the Church twelve years ago, the reactions to my conversion were quite interesting, if not downright humorous at times.

My mother informed me that she would have been happier had I been a homosexual, rather than a Catholic. My family thought the whole issue to be extremely interesting, voiced no real objections, and to this day think me curiously weird.

The most interesting reaction was one of my closest colleagues, a "cradle Catholic" who had left the Church fifty years before. When I told him about my conversion he looked at me with a shocked expression and said: "You're nuts." A year later, as his wife lay dying of cancer and unable to speak, I whispered the Rosary into her ear (she wasn't Catholic). It was the last time she smiled. Seeing this, my friend returned to the Church not long after her death.
written by Dan Deeny, April 26, 2011
Excellent article. And I appreciate the painting by El Greco. Now we need somebody to paint Jesus stopping the stoning of the woman taken in adultery.
written by Ars Artium, April 26, 2011
This is a beautiful essay which filled me with hope that the Holy Spirit is doing "something new" in these times that often seem so dark. Pope Benedict provides a new frame of reference for thinking about Jesus as the obedient Jew that he was (in "Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week ...")
written by Hadley Arkes, April 26, 2011
I'm grateful for the notes that have been coming in privately, but they also make me aware of the friends I just didn't have the space to name in full. Robby George and David Forte spoke at our dinner following the baptism, but I feel even more now the omission of two dear friends who concelebrated the Mass: Fr. James Schall and Fr. William Brailsford. Both of them were afflicted with serious medical problems in months that followed. Both have borne through their difficulties with a remarkable Christian fortitude and even cheerfulness. They show us again how rightly to live. And we pray for them both.
written by Mary M, April 26, 2011
I always love reading stories of Jewish converts. My husband is a convert from Judaism (1999). This June he will be ordained a Permanent Deacon. Thanks for sharing your story, Hadley. God's blessings.
written by Graham Combs, April 26, 2011
I entered the Church at Easter Vigil, 2009. Whenever I go to mass I try to remind myself that everyone there is a better Catholic than I. I still feel unworthy to approach the communion rail.

For most of my adult life, whether as a hospital orderly in college, or working in New York publishing, I have had many Jewish colleagues, acquaintances, and friends. Perhaps it was mere propinquity, but I don't think so. Of course southerners have had a special relationship with the Jewish people, beginning in the antebellum South. It is that draw of the Old Testament and the desire for a connection to our Judaic roots. Paradoxically, when with a Jewish friend, I was bothered by Jews for Jesus so prominent in New York streets in the 80s and 90s. I somehow put myself in the place of the friend and was concerned for his or her offense. But I was amused when Orthodox proseltyzers parked their "mitzvah tank" RV and would approach to ask if I was Jewish (I had red hair at the time). I do find the memory of Philip Roth's short story, THE CONVERSION OF THE JEWS less and less amusing. I may feel unworthy of the Church, but somehow don't believe anyone else is... Prof. Arkes' "incubation period" makes perfect sense to me. It took this former Episcopalian even longer.
written by Fr. Robert Sirico, April 26, 2011
An inspiring story of a soul's journey to his Maker! Bravo.
written by Lee Gilbert, April 26, 2011
Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu, Melech ha olam...

Blessed are you O Lord, our God, king of the universe,who has bought Hadley Arkes into the Church. May he persevere to the end.

Laely I've been studying Hebrew in connection with pursuing a masters in biblical theology. In this pursuit I have brushed up against Jews and Judaism, and I will admit to being thoroughly edified.

Talk about parallel universes. I had no idea that Torah scholars even existed, much less what learned and saintly men they are. They may be mistaken about many things, and ignorant about many things, too, but nevertheless reading about Reb Moshe Feinstein, about the Chazzan Ish, the Chafetz Chaim and similar men, makes me think we have a very great deal to learn from them about the virtue of study at the very least. No wonder the Jews have produced so many learned men, Hadley Arkes among them.

"If you study Torah hour after hour in succession, then every additional hour has the power of a double one. The second is not like the first anymore, but each successive hour multiplies the intensity of the former ones. If one has learned nine hours continuously, then the tenth has infinite power... it is easier to learn sixteen hours a day than six hours for this reason" - The Chazzan Ish.

In terms of seriousness and intensity their Torah study is to our "Bible study" as our Bible Study is to tiddely winks.

It seems to me that few things could benefit both Judaism and Catholicism more than our awakening to just how much we really do have to learn from our older brothers in the faith of Abraham. It is considerable.

Nevertheless, welcome home, Professor Arkes! Surely you have the joy of knowing that that you can study the faith with such intensity from here to eternity and never come close to exhausting its riches.

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