A priest and a rabbi walk into a hospital . . .
It sounds like the opening of a joke, but that moment marks the beginning of my journey toward the Catholic faith. I recently had been ordained as an Episcopal priest, and the parish pastor had given me my first priestly assignment: to visit a woman who was about to undergo surgery at the local hospital. Little did I know that by the end of that day, I would meet a rabbi, and my entire life would begin to change.
Is There Some Mistake?
I drove to the hospital, and with a prayer book under my arm, obtained my “clergy parking” tags, washed my hands, and went upstairs to surgery. The waiting room was packed. I went to the desk, smiled at the receptionist, and said, “My name is Father Taylor Marshall, and I’m here to see Joanna Smith before she goes into surgery.”
The receptionist’s fingernails stopped clicking on the keyboard. “Great. You can just go on back there and see her.”
I turned around and saw the two swinging medical doors.
“Yes, father. Just go on in. Mrs. Smith is already with the anesthesiologist.”
It was clear that she believed I had done this before, but it was my first time. As I came to the doors, I pushed the button and they swung open. I walked forward and they closed behind me. Everyone beyond those doors seemed to be scrubbed and masked. I was amazed that no one stopped me. I expected someone to say, “What are you doing here?” or “How did you get back here?” The white collar around my neck opened door after door as I navigated my way toward the room where they kept patients awaiting surgery. Finally I came into a large room with eight beds. A nurse smiled at me.
“Pardon me. Can I help you?”
“Yes, I’m here to see Joanna Smith.”
“She’s over there in bed number one. The anesthesiologist has already been here. She’s probably already asleep.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “I’d still like to pray for her.”
The nurse left me alone in the room.
I walked over to the bed and saw a woman already fast asleep in her hospital gown. I opened my copy of the Book of Common Prayer, where a gold ribbon marked the section entitled “The Order for the Visitation of the Sick.” I then gently laid my right hand on the arm of the sleeping woman.
Her eyes flung open with an expression of fright. “Who are you!” The anesthesia had not yet begun its work.
I was just as startled. I pulled my hand away from her arm. “Excuse me. My name is Father Taylor. I’m here to pray with you before you go into surgery.”
She took one look at my clerical collar and cried out, “But I’m Jewish!”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I must have the wrong bed. I was looking for someone named Joanna Smith.”
“I am Joanna Smith.” She obviously had no idea why a Christian minister was bending over her bed with a prayer book in his hand.
I paused and thought to myself: Is this some sort of joke that older priests play on new priests? The pastor sends me off on my first hospital call with all sorts of sound advice, but neglects to tell me that the lady is Jewish! I collected myself.
“Wait, I recognize you,” the lady said. “I was at St. Andrew’s with my husband a few weeks ago. You preached a sermon on the creation of Adam from the dirt—how people are supposed to have humility because we come from the earthly humus of the ground. I liked that.”
I remembered the sermon. I had compared Adam’s creation from the earth to Christ’s Resurrection from his earthen tomb. I knew why she found the Adam portion particularly interesting and not necessarily the part about Christ. Nevertheless, my confidence returned with the compliment.
“Well, would you like me to pray for you before you go into surgery?” I asked.
“Oh, I would love that. Thank you so much.”
I placed my right hand once again on her arm and prayed that she might be kept safe during her procedure. I left her with some words of comfort as her eyes became heavy and she fell asleep.
The Rabbi’s Answer
When I returned to the waiting room, I saw a bearded rabbi. So the priest walked up to the rabbi and said, “Are you here to see Joanna Smith?”
The rabbi answered, “Yes. As a matter of fact I am.”
“Go through those doors and follow the hallway to the left. Bed number one. She’s about to go under for surgery.”
Looking into the perplexed eyes of the rabbi, I could see what he was thinking, “Why does this priest know all this about Joanna?” He thanked me and disappeared behind the automated doors with a push of a button.
Just after that, I recognized someone in the waiting room: Mr. Smith from St. Andrew’s. Now I understood why I had been sent to pray with a Jewish woman—she was married to an Episcopalian. Up until now, I had not known that his wife was Jewish. He was nervous about her surgery and we talked for a while until the rabbi returned to the waiting room. Mr. Smith introduced us to one another, and I had a brief conversation with the rabbi about liturgy and the importance of chant.
Then the rabbi asked Mr. Smith a very unusual question. “What is the Hebrew name of Joanna’s mother?”
The husband thought about it for a moment. “Gee, I don’t know. Why do you ask?”
“Well, I was going to ask Joanna the name of her mother, but she was already asleep by the time I found her.”
“Why would you need to know her mother’s name?” her husband asked.
The rabbi explained, “We Jews believe that if someone is suffering and we invoke his or her mother’s name in prayer, then God will be more merciful in granting your intercession for that person.”
My first reaction was to dismiss the statement as superstition. However, as I let the rabbi’s answer sink in, I realized the profundity of believing that God is especially merciful when a mother was invoked for the sake of her child.
A Unforeseen Link
As a “high-church” Episcopal priest, I had a growing devotion for the Blessed Virgin Mary, and I immediately realized the implications. I believed that Mary was important because she was truly the Mother of our Lord Jesus Christ and therefore the Mother of God. God had chosen this human woman to be the pure virginal vessel of his Incarnate Son. If Jews believed that invoking the mother of someone caused God to be more gracious in answering an intercession, then wouldn’t the name of Mary be worth invoking? Mary wasn’t just any ordinary mother. She was the only person ever created who could speak to God the Father about our Son. That’s when it hit me. Catholic devotion to Mary is not only based on sound christological arguments. Marian piety is not only Patristic. The Church reveres and invokes the Blessed Mother because it inherited the Jewish custom of showing profound reverence for the spiritual role of the mother of a family. Here was a surprising confirmation that Catholic customs are rooted in a Jewish understanding of the universe.
This experience opened up an entirely new way of appreciating Catholic Christianity. I soon learned that Orthodox Jews pray for the dead. So do Catholics. Jews have a special ark in their synagogues to house the Word of God. Catholics have a special tabernacle in their churches to house the Word of God made flesh in the Eucharist. All of the fascinating elements of the Old Testament—the liturgies, the holy days, the vestments, the lamps, the vows, the rituals—all of these were preserved or adapted in the sacramental economy of the Catholic Church. I later discovered that the Catechism of the Catholic Church had this to say about the connection between the Jewish people and the Catholic Church:
The relationship of the Church with the Jewish people: When she delves into her own mystery, the Church, the people of God in the New Covenant, discovers her link with the Jewish people, “the first to hear the Word of God.” The Jewish faith, unlike other non-Christian religions, is already a response to God’s revelation in the Old Covenant. To the Jews “belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ,” “for the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” (CCC 839)
The Rabbi of Nazareth
The following year, after a considerable amount of prayer, study, and counsel, I renounced the priestly ministry that I had received in the Episcopal church. The Episcopal church possessed many ancient elements and practices, but I came to see that the Anglican schism of the 16th century, and the Protestant Reformation in general, did not reflect the original trajectory of the New Testament. Primarily, I saw that the Church is the Body of Christ and the temple of the people of God. In the Old Testament, the people of Israel were not free to create a “new Israel” or to form a new denomination of “Reformed Israelites.” No matter how corrupt the priests, the high priests, and kings of Judah might become, the covenant of God remained in effect. I saw that the Reformation was generally a rejection of a united, visible Church—a notion taken for granted in the Book of Acts and especially in the writings of St. Paul.
In May 2006, Bishop Kevin Vann of Fort Worth received our family into full communion with the Catholic Church. I became a Catholic because I realized that only the Catholic Church could trace its doctrine, liturgy, customs, and morality back to its origins when a rabbi named Jesus roamed the Holy Land with a band of Jewish disciples. As a Catholic Christian, I can now say with the apostle Paul (who was once Rabbi Saul): “[I] share the faith of Abraham, for he is the father of us all” (Rom 4:16).