The Jewish Past and the Young Priests

Today’s column – and photo – speak for themselves. A lot of our work at The Catholic Thing is energized by writers who are converts. This week we have two anniversaries: Hadley Arkes at two years in the Church and Francis Beckwith at five (on April 26) as a convert, revert, or however you want to see it. I don’t know if the journey from Judaism or from Evangelicalism is longer. I’m just glad both of these men and several of our other writers have made the journey. Aren’t you? If you appreciate what you read here, please make your own contribution to our work by donating by credit card or check today. – Robert Royal

“Loosed from Pharaoh’s bitter yoke Jacob’s sons and daughters, Led them with unmoistened foot through the Red Sea waters.” The lines come from that ancient hymn, “Come, Ye Faithful, Raise the Strain,” written by John of Damascus (675-749).  And sung at Mass this past Sunday, on the eve of my second anniversary of coming into the Church.  

Through the arrangement of the Mass, the connections to the Jewish tradition are made evident for all who are open to seeing them. Jesus will persistently allude to the Hebrew scriptures as the forerunner for what he is doing, as when he is clearly drawing on the story of Elijah and Elisha (in Kings 1, 19-20) as he tells the young man, ready to follow him, not to linger with the burial of his father (“let the dead bury their dead,” Matthew 8:22). 

Or Jesus will make the connections explicitly when he declares that “everything written about me in the law of Moses and in the prophets and psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44).  And so, as I’ve remarked to friends, I’ve come to feel even more Jewish in the time I’ve been in the Church.

That sense of things was given a further illumination when my friend Martin Feldman, a notable federal judge and himself a convert, sent on to me Professor Brant Pitre’s fascinating book, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist. It is widely understood by Christians, not as readily recognized by Jews, that the Last Supper was a Passover meal.  

In the Jewish tradition the sacrificial lamb had to be spotless, and after the blessing and cooking it had to be eaten. Jesus was of course the new sacrificial lamb, and that is the point that makes sense of his otherwise jarring insistence that his body had to be eaten as part of the Eucharist.  

In Jewish practice, the lamb was skewered, with the wood passing “from its mouth to its buttocks.” As one Jewish scholar observed, “the paschal lamb was offered in a manner which resembled a crucifixion.” In Jewish ritual, also, the blessing of the bread and wine was taken to mark the real Presence of God.  

Jesus had drawn upon the precedent of sending manna from heaven; he too would now give bread to eat. But as Brant Pitre notes, it was “the ‘supernatural bread’ of the new exodus”; “the manna of Moses would be transcended by the manna of the Messiah.” That is the “bread” we eat in the Eucharist, the bread that carries the real Presence.

Flashback now to April 9-10 of this year. It’s just after Easter Sunday, and I’m giving three talks to young priests at a retreat at the Longlea estate, deep in Virginia. The retreat was arranged by Fr. Arne Panula, who had brought me into the Church. The priests were in the their late twenties, to the edge of forty, but with one or two older men such as the beloved, sainted – and funny – Ron Gillis, now ministering to a flock in Reston, Virginia. 

They had all come through an exhausting weekend, dense with Masses. Why would they not put their feet up and have long naps? Why would they want to spend time following the weave of argument on matters of philosophy, law, and some vexing issues of the day? And yet these young men said that they found it so buoying for their morale to be in the presence of fellow priests, sharing their concerns – and their sense of mission.

They also found a certain pleasure in listening to talks that someone else had to do the work to prepare. They were also an audience to be treasured – they laughed readily because they listened closely. At times, I’ll unfold a long, winding sentence from Henry James, which cannot be understood until the last word falls into place. And that word has to be repeated: people don’t hear the word because it is a word they are not expecting. 

For the first time in my experience this was an audience that actually heard that last word. What accounted for that? As Fr Arne suggested, these young priests were used to listening closely in confession as people tried to slur, at the end, the words that told the real story.

For me the fascination came in trying to learn more of the “stories” of these young men and what had brought them to their vocations. Two were the sons of men I’ve known, one a gifted teacher, the other a legendary figure in the pro-life movement. But some of the priests came from families that had undergone painful disruptions.  

From what I could gather about the way they dealt with those upheavals, these young managed to summon a wisdom beyond their years, as they sought to make their own moral judgments clear, but to offer to their parents the love that consoles. I had to depart for meetings in Amherst and Princeton, and it was a bit sad to leave the company of these young priests.  

But before I left, Fr. Arne assembled everyone to have pictures taken. As I looked at one picture the other day, it struck me that hope just sprang from that photo. The faces of those men radiated in themselves the surety that all will yet be well – that  the Church, in this coming generation, will be vibrant and manly and joyous.

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. His most recent book is Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is now available for download.