Messianic and Catholic: Mark Neugebauer
Having been raised in a Conservative Jewish home in suburban Toronto, I was a regular attendee at synagogue on Sabbaths and High Holidays. I sang in the choir, assisted at a Hebrew school and lived a committed Jewish life. My father is a Polish Holocaust survivor from Auschwitz and my mother’s family escaped the pogroms in Russia. Both settled in Canada and raised my sister and myself in a Jewish and Yiddish speaking environment where all of our friends were Jewish and Israel was our raison d’être. Christianity was the religion of the outsiders, the faith of anti-Semites and Jew-haters, the creed of the Crusaders, Inquisitors, Persecutors, and Nazis. Yet, my mother would remind me continually, that “Jesus was a Jew”.
One day I picked up a volume by the Yiddish writer Sholem Asche called The Nazarene. I was awestruck by the Jewish Yeshua, who in no way resembled those who apparently hated us for two thousand years. Watching the film, Jesus of Nazareth confirmed this and listening yearly to Handel’s Messiah began to convince me as I examined the scriptural libretto to that magnificent oratorio. The words, “He was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities. The chastisement for our peace was on him, and by his stripes we are healed” caused me to wonder what these New Testament words (so, I thought) were doing in a piece of music! To my surprise, I discovered that they were from Isaiah 53 from the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) and originally in Hebrew.
My regular synagogue attendance led me to helping out in Hebrew school, participating in youth groups, and singing in the choir led by a wonderful cantor, Louis Danto. In the choir were two Jewish believers who were praying to lead someone to the Lord. I was fascinated by their testimony of peace and joy and asking them what it was that was making them behave that way, they responded, “Jesus”. I was shocked and I was determined to talk them out of that aberration! They began to expound on the prophecies concerning the Messiah, but I did not hear a word they said. What I did hear was what the Lord spoke to my heart when He revealed Himself to me supernaturally, saying, “Jesus is the Messiah; He is Lord.” They brought me to the fledgling Messianic fellowship that met in our neighbourhood and I confessed to being a believer in Yeshua as Messiah. I brought home a Hebrew New Testament, which my parents discovered, and then began both the beginning of intensity at home, but also, the deepest friendship with Yeshua. Through their tears, cries, and anger, I began to pray for them to come to faith as well, while the Lord comforted me with the sweetest of intimacy and love.
I studied Hebrew and Greek in my undergraduate years and began to look at the early Church Fathers as well. My first Greek professor at the University of Toronto was a devout Roman Catholic, with whom I struck up a wonderful faith-filled friendship. My degree turned out to be one in Hellenistic-Near Eastern Studies; that is, the Jewish writings of the Hellenistic period, which included the New Testament and this, became my “Bible College” for four years. Translating the Gospel of Luke, the epistle of 1 John, and book of Psalms taught me the depths of the scriptures.
During this time, I became quite involved in our growing Messianic Congregation as I began to teach and preach and do other ministries around the congregation. Conferences in the US bolstered my joy in Yeshua and connections with international and local Messianic believers were an ongoing experience. I met my wife, Sue at the Congregation and we raised our two sons in the Messianic Jewish faith and lifestyle there. This was a time of growing vision for our people both here in North America, but also in Israel. We prayed and worked for their salvation and ministered in many ways to those who were coming to faith in Messiah.
When I was in teacher training over 25 years ago I decided to take the Catholic Education course in order to allow me to teach in a Catholic School. I did not end up teaching there, but I am still certified to do so. However, I did a two week practicum in a Catholic School and taught catechism to children and led them in prayers, not having been Catholic. No-one suspected anything as I learned the “Hail Mary” and went to mass for the first time. This is actually surprising considering the fact that I was strongly anti-Catholic and preached against the Church whenever I could. I was not sure why I took the course and friends who were former Catholics thought I was foolish. Yet, I was strangely attracted to the liturgy and the beauty of the Catholic Church at the same time.
There were several Jewish Catholics attending our Messianic Congregation in Toronto, with whom I had become friends. Needless to say, although I was dismayed at their choice of connection, I had also learnt that the Hebrew Catholics had been barred from membership in the Hebrew Christian (now Messianic Jewish) Alliance. I tried to dissuade them from continuing in their Catholicity and encouraged them to remain solely in the Messianic Congregation.
After many years of serving at the Congregation, we felt we needed a rest and began attending a large charismatic church. I led a men’s group for many years and became quite involved in the church’s intercession department, where I leant much about prayer and hearing from God. We kept our ties with the Messianic movement by leading a monthly intercession meeting for Israel and the Jewish people there, where we prayed for the believers, both Jewish and Arab in the Land and entertained leaders who spoke at our group.
When very close friends of ours reverted to the Catholic Church they suggested that we take a look at EWTN and it was there that I discovered Mother Angelica and “the Journey Home”. I was so surprised to discover a beautiful, faith-filled, non-performance oriented, loving, and passionate Christianity. This was Catholic, and I was very much surprised. I had never seen anything like this - the doctrinal concerns notwithstanding: Mary, the Communion of Saints, and Purgatory, to name a few. The Journey Home has been my constant friend since beginning to watch EWTN several years ago. My heart was being drawn in very unexpected ways. When I saw Jewish Catholics share their stories of faith, I knew I needed to investigate this further, and so began an email conversation with many since then.
As many know, the old attitudes and the way my people had been treated by the Church during many centuries had left a deep wound in the hearts of so many Jews and a very negative attitude toward Christianity and toward those who become believers in Jesus. At the time I still felt hurt by the Catholic Church because of the damage done to the Jewish people in Poland and elsewhere. Despite all of this, so many times over the years, I had a desire to read Vatican II and was relieved when I learnt about Nostra Aetate and the new attitudes toward the Jews and Judaism. The late great Blessed John Paul had done much to heal. This was a step in the right direction. I decided to pick up a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church to ascertain what the Church actually taught and I discovered that the Catechism is extremely honouring of the Jewish people. I felt the deep need to forgive the Catholic Church and also repented of my judgments. It was safe to be Jewish and explore the Catholic Church.
Through recommendations of friends at church, and through a series of dreams about men in brown robes, I began to become involved with contemplative prayer and I began to read about St.Theresa of Avila and St John of the Cross. I started looking at Henri Nouwen's writing and the lives of the saints. I was overwhelmed by a Presence of Jesus I had never experienced before and I was determined to seek more. I continued to watch EWTN and Salt and Light TV (here in Canada) and they have been practically my only TV watching ever since. The power of the love of God was so evident and the truth and honesty was so prevalent.
When my sister passed away tragically in the fall of 2007 it was to the quiet, restful sanctuary of a Catholic Church – St. Timothy’s in Toronto, that I turned. Why a Catholic Church? I had witnessed and experienced the quiet and loving gentleness of God’s love through EWTN and being desperate for some quiet contemplation in the midst of the grief, I felt that I would find it there. The Lord met me powerfully as I gazed at His Cross and the Stations of the Cross. He began to fill me with His Presence and I began to wonder what it was that the Church had that I had not seen elsewhere. Did it have something to do with what (or Who) was in the box to the side of the Sanctuary, where a candle continually burned?
During Lent 2008 my wife and I decided to attend a Tuesday evening course on “The Spiritual Life” taught by the parish priests at St Timothy’s, which focused on Ralph Martin's book, The Fulfilment of All Desire and it was there that I encountered the Mass in person. I had watched it on EWTN, but now I began to experience the REAL PRESENCE OF JESUS IN THE EUCHARIST. I was overwhelmed to say the least. I wanted to partake of Communion, but after talking with a priest, learnt that I could not. There was a choice to make now: either leave St. Timothy’s or humble myself and honour the rules and stay. I decided to press on, not knowing where it would all lead. (Since that time I have loved the Mass, both in Latin and English and was delighted to learn that it is said in Hebrew in several Hebrew Catholic Congregations in Israel.)
My wife and I attended the “Lift Jesus Higher Rally” in April 2008 and it was at the Adoration and Divine Mercy segments that we were so touched. I felt I needed to explore this "Catholic Thing" further. Still watching Mother Angelica and Marcus Grodi, plus Fr. Groeschel and others led me on. I met other Hebrew Catholics on TV: Debbie Herbeck, Bob Freedman, Roy Schoeman, and David and Rosalind Moss. I began reading different Catholic Websites including: Salvation is from the Jews; The Association for Hebrew Catholics and one especially, Catholics for Israel. I began an intermittent correspondence with several Messianic Jewish Catholics and was reading everything I could find on Jewish people who had become Catholic. This was happening all the time we were attending our Evangelical Church and leading “Intercession for Israel” there.
It was then that my friends suggested I look into RCIA just for interest, with no pressure. I met with the parish priest and then began RCIA studies with a very learned man at St. Timothy's. Because I had been a believer for over 30 years, with experience in ministry and Bible teaching, they suggested I have private RCIA classes. We have understood that the Archdiocese of Toronto instructs us in paragraph 391 of the RCIA document:
“The baptised Christian is to receive both doctrinal and spiritual preparation, adapted to individual pastoral requirements, for reception into the full communion of the Catholic Church. The candidate should learn to deepen an inner adherence to the Church, where he or she will find the fulness of his or her baptism. During the period of preparation the candidate may share in worship in conformity with the provisions of the Ecumenical Directory. Anything that would equate candidates for reception [already baptized in other Christian/Messianic denominations] with those who are catechumens [unbaptized] is to be absolutely avoided."
Providentially, in the summer of 2008, we came in contact with Christ the King Catholic Church in Ann Arbor, MI when our son went to Bowling Green State University in Ohio for a semester and it was there that we got to know Father Ed Fride of that parish. Neither my wife not I were Catholic, but we needed to know the truth. On the Christ the King website, we found the RCIA study sheets they used. These are question and answer lessons that have one use the Catechism and the Bible as the only textbooks. Using the study sheets from Christ the King, the RCIA classes with my teacher at St Timothy’s had been a delight to both of us as I have been sharing the Protestant and Jewish connections to Catholic issues, etc. We discussed those doctrinal "chestnuts" that I mentioned above. Each time we did a study, I was convinced by the Lord of the truth of those doctrines and they become part of me. It was, as St. Augustine stated, “I believed, and then I understood” and it was as St Thomas Aquinas asserted, “Faith and Reason”.
I began to ask God in earnest, if I was to become Catholic; I wanted to do the right thing considering my Jewish background, my Messianic connections and the work I had been doing with ‘Intercession for Israel”. During the prayer, “I am not worthy to receive You…” I would pray, “only say the word and I shall become Catholic.”
I had felt no pressure to come into the Church from anyone. I had been encouraged by friends at St Timothy’s who said that they were praying for me that God would show me His will - whatever it was. I began to wonder if I could now walk away and leave the Catholic world having had a wonderful, faith-enriching experience, and having learned a lot. I read Edith Stein's biography and asked the Lord at Epiphany to please send me some Hebrew Catholics to speak with me to confirm that it was OK for a Messianic Jew to become a Messianic Jewish Catholic. The Lord said to me, "I have sent you one already [i.e. Edith Stein] what more do you want??” I knew then that that was it, as I had sensed intercession from St. Theresa of Avila and St. Edith Stein--both Jewish believers in Jesus. I felt them urging me on with our Lady, whom I now call, MIRIAM IMEINU (Hebrew for "Miriam our Mother") to go forward into the Catholic Church. I could not walk away, but proceed into what the Lord was leading me.
There were other interesting stories along the way. Perhaps because Lent was almost upon us, the Sacrament of Reconciliation was on people's minds. I had just finished preparing for my class on this Rite, when I turned on EWTN and there was Fr. Trigilio speaking about the very same thing. My wife took me to mass at our Cathedral on Valentine's Day as a gift and what did the Father speak on? Reconciliation! We did our class on Reconciliation in RCIA on Sunday and the Archbishop of Toronto Diocese was the homilist Sunday evening and about what did he speak? About a fifty-year old man coming into the Catholic Church and experiencing the freedom and joy of Reconciliation for the first time. Well, I was 51 and was about to experience that very same thing. To top it off the scripture was from the Gospel of Mark and my name is Mark. Coincidence?? I think not. Thank you, St. Teresa.
So...one Saturday evening mass in February 2009 I experienced the Rite of Welcoming. The following Saturday was my first Confession (I had to confess 32 years of sin and guilt since my baptism and for the first time feel truly forgiven and free of guilt and shame) and at the Easter Vigil I was Confirmed and had my first Communion. Having listened to priests say, “The Body of Christ” to others became music to my ears, and when I was able for the first time to have the Body and Blood of the Lord, I felt like dancing.
And, I see the Jewishness of it all. For example, the synagogue has an Eternal Light hanging over the Ark where the Torahs are kept; the Catholic Church has a Light lit near the Tabernacle where the “Torah made flesh’ is kept. There is a long table in the synagogue for the Torah; there is an altar for the Eucharist in the Church. There are scripture readings and prayers chanted in the synagogue; the Church has scriptures and prayers read and sung.
When I became a believer in Yeshua at the Messianic Congregation, I did not cease to be Jewish or love Israel. When I joined the Evangelical Church I did not cease to be Messianic Jewish. Now, when I joined the Catholic Church, I did not cease to be any of the above; it is addition and multiplication, and not subtraction or division. The fulness of Messianic Jewish faith! I am not a convert from Messianic Judaism via Evangelical Protestantism to the Catholic Church. My conversion is daily to the Lord and He has led me into a deepening of relationship with Him that grows daily too. Yet, we continue to pray for our Jewish people and for the nation of Israel.
If anyone had ever said to me years ago that this would be happening I would have told them they were dreaming. Yet, it is a dream come true. The Lord had given me many more mercies, favours, great friends, and opportunities to share the Jewish roots of the faith. Jesus is a real Person to me at Mass and not just a theory or an experience. The richness in history, writings, tradition, and the manifold “colours” of the Catholic tradition are so beautiful and so wise. Our Holy Father is a real friend to us and our People. Bringing with me the rich heritage of my Jewish roots and all I have learnt over the years in various places, I feel as if a whole new, yet ancient, world has opened up for me to explore and enjoy as well as to serve in – all for the Glory of God the Father, the love of Messiah Yeshua and in the fulness of the Holy Spirit.
“Thanks be to God for His Unspeakable Gift”