"So, tell me. How did a nice Jewish girl—from Brooklyn no less—become a Christian and then a Catholic?" In over thirty years, no one really asked me! I developed lots of excuses for not offering to tell people my story. I was prepared from the start that Jewish people would be upset. I was prepared that my family would be upset. I was not prepared that Christians would be upset.
I thought I would be embraced and welcomed. Sometimes I was. But occasionally I was met with suspicion. There have been a few instances of outright anti-Semitism, especially surrounding my children. But on the whole, it seems to me that most Christians are afraid to ask me the main question: Why? I would have been eager to tell my story, but no one asked me.
At first, I was too busy taking care of my family. Before I knew it, thirty years had passed, and I had forgotten the reason I didn’t tell anyone. Then I was asked to be a sponsor for the catechumen program at church. For Catholics, joining the church is a yearlong process. I don’t think anyone even remembered or knew that I was a convert. I think they just knew me as a good Catholic, one who would faithfully attend all of the required meetings.
I did not realize how deeply that year would affect me. As I shepherded my catechumen through her faith journey, I relived my own. I realized that I should have spoken up thirty years ago. But it’s never too late. In God’s time all things are possible.
Having grown up in a Jewish house, I never read the Bible. Even if I did, it would not have included the New Testament, only the first five books of Moses known to us as the Torah. Jewish services were held in Hebrew, a language that I don’t understand.
As a young woman I met a group of non-denominational people who prayed together. I soon realized that these people talked about Jesus, often enough that I became uncomfortable. When I confided in a friend, he told me to pray about it and ask myself, "Is it true?" He quoted, "By their fruits you shall know them." Will belief in Christ make a difference for the better in your life? Is Christianity a philosophy you can live by?
So I went home and prayed like Jesus told us to—quietly, in my bedroom with the door closed. I was still living at home in Brooklyn. The apartment overlooked the point where the Hudson River and the East River came together. The Dutch called it Spyten Dyvil, because you spite the devil if you try to cross the river at that point where the currents are so fierce. I guess I was about to spite a lot of people—my parents, my race, all the expectations others had for my life that I had so obediently obeyed. I was about to become my own person, not the person my mother had pre-designed me to be.
Alone in my room, I meditated. I saw Jesus hovering over the Palisades of New Jersey. His arms were outstretched. He was beckoning me to come to him. He floated into my bedroom and remained there long enough for me, like Thomas, to examine him closely. The room was suffused with a bright white that was more than just a physical light. It was almost like a sort of synethesia, in that it involved all of my five senses at once. The light had weight and texture as well as sight. It carried his love to me and through me.
You will have to decide for yourself if he was really in the room with me. I believe he was, actually and physically. I have hear it said, "Faith is the essence of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen." You have to believe "because." There is no scientific proof in the worldly sense that can convince you of the ultimate answer. It must come from within your own being. I can only tell you what I experienced.
I lack the words to describe this event. I cannot truly convey its enormity. It was Saul-like. When Saul saw a great light in the wilderness, his name was changed to Paul. When Abram had his encounter with God, he became Abraham. I think that the Bible is trying to show us how these men changed after their encounters. They were different people after they saw the face of God. Because of my experience, I believe they saw God’s face literally, not figuratively.
A Lady and a Rosary
I had been meeting with the groups at the New York center of the A.R.E. for several years, and was comfortable with talk of Jesus. I felt that Jesus was the Messiah spoken about in the Hebrew scriptures, and the Jews of his day did not recognize his as such. The Jews of today were not even waiting anymore; they seemed to have lost the messianic vision of their forefathers. They were still waiting, while I knew he had arrived.
A group of us became interested in talk about a lady in Queens, New York, who was having visions. Since I was the only one who owned a car, we all piled into my VW Beetle, and off we went to see for ourselves. Only thing is, we arrived on the wrong day. At that point the visions were taking place outside of a Catholic Church, because the priest wouldn’t let the gathered crowd inside. The only other person at the site that day was an older woman who was on her knees on the hard concrete, praying the rosary.
She turned when we approached and invited us to join her. So all of us, a bunch of New York Jews, were on our knees reciting the rosary with a perfect stranger on street corner in Queens. I can imagine no stranger sight. And I don’t understand why we allowed ourselves to be in this position.
We said a kindly good-bye. I have no memory of giving this woman my name or address. Even in those days New Yorkers were too wary to divulge personal information. A few weeks later we all received and packet in the mail, which contained a one-decade rosary and instructions. Where else could it have come from but this woman?
I put the thing aside, hiding it so as not to upset anyone in my mother’s house. Being a closet Christian was one thing, but all this Catholic stuff was quite another.
In summer 1973, I toured Israel alone. While visiting the Catholic church on top of Mount Carmel, I purchased a scapular for a friend. I didn’t know what it was. I thought it was a nice souvenir trinket. I liked the pretty picture of Mary and the soft feeling of the brown backing. When the priest behind the counter offered to bless it I said no and quickly turned away, embarrassed. He tried to explain, but I tried harder not to listen.
After my back was turned, I could feel him saying the words of the prayer anyway. He was not going to be deterred. He was crossing me. I just knew it. I quickly turned and caught the last of this movement, and an embarrassed look on the young priest’s face. I was petrified.
Blessings are serious things in the Old Testament. There are many stories of sons fighting over a father’s blessings. Although Jacob was the younger son, he stole his father’s blessings from his older brother Esau. The blessing once given could not be taken back. The father of the prodigal son blesses the wayward son when he returns, even over the elder faithful son. When God blessed Abraham and promised him that his children would be a numerous as the stars, Abraham wondered how, because he was an old man and still his wife, Sarah, had given him no sons. Yet he believed.
So here was this priest blessing me. I could feel the power of the gestures burning the cross right into my back. I could feel the significance of the site. In the Old Testament this is the alleged spot where the prophet Isaiah was taken up in a fiery chariot to heaven. I took my scapular and ran.
Tucumcari, New Mexico
It was August 1975. I was newly married. My husband, Steve, and I were driving through New Mexico. Hot, hot, hot. Not New York City hot, where it’s humid, but a kind of bone-dry hot that I had never known. In fact, I had never been this far from home in the United States and so utterly alone. We had embarked on a cross-country adventure. Our ultimate destination was Phoenix, Arizona. We had taken to heart the admonition, "Go west young man (and woman). Go west."
I was in the passenger seat of my Savannah-beige VW Beetle. Cost me $2,448 new. Steven had never learned to drive. He didn’t need to, living in New York City. In one week he got his license, and we were on the road to Phoenix, Arizona. We got as far as Tucumcari, New Mexico, when the car stalled at a railroad intersection. Now, you will have to explain to me why a major interstate road like Route 66, has a railroad crossing right smack dab in the middle of it. Being a city girl, I don’t understand that.
Steven, being an inexperienced driver, got stuck. I was asleep in the passenger seat with my head leaning gently against the metal bar that divided the windows in that model. A Native American, driving a ’62 Chevy pickup truck, plowed into us from the rear. The Beetle’s engine was in the rear of the car, so the car was totaled.
What we didn’t realize was that Route 66 at that point passed through a reservation, and where it did, you were no longer under the jurisdiction of the U.S. government. You are on Indian land. At least, that was the case in 1975. So the driver who hit us had no insurance, no plates, no driver’s license—and no legal problem. We were two young non–Native Americans people with not much to our names. So we were stuck.
There was a nurse two cars behind us who knew how to treat my injuries. The only hospital within hundreds of miles was there in Tucumcari. I remember being in the emergency room. For a very brief moment, I was hovering above my body, looking down upon myself. It was just like on TV, when they describe out-of-body experiences. I was indignant that the nurse was looking through my purse. I felt that my privacy was being invaded. When she opened my wallet, the doctor turned to ask her my name.
I answered, "My name is Mrs. Steven Jay Rolnick." Then everything went black. Later, Steven told me how relieved he was that I remembered, because we were married only a few months.
The next thing I remember is waking up in a hospital bed with Steven at my side. He was quietly reading a book. Suddenly the nurse was running out of the room to get the doctor, and there was lots of activity around my bedside. What was the matter? Steven said gently, "Honey. It’s been three days." He was holding on to my hand so tight.
When I woke up that day in Tucumcari, I had no memory. I truly didn’t remember anything about my life before that moment. It was strangely liberating, although I wouldn’t admit it to myself. At the time I was devastated. I had to ask myself, "What is truly valuable in life?" I know that I could never again remember everything, or know for sure that I remembered anything accurately. So I remember only what’s important. I realize now that I had a wonderful opportunity to recreate my life as God wished it to be.
During the next several years, Steve and I lived in different states—Arizona, Utah, Virginia—and had two sons. Several times in several parishes we tried to go through the RCIA process to become Catholics. But each time another stumbling block arose, and we would drop out. But the nagging sense that the Church was where we belonged wouldn't go away. In 1980 I had been wondering about the possibility of trying another parish, but I didn’t say anything about it to Steven. It was the first time in our marriage up to then that I hadn’t shared something so important. I kept saying my rosary, and prayed as the Bible said Mary had—"she remembered these things in her heart."
One night I had a vivid dream. In it, Padre Pio came to me. We were seated in the pews of a beautiful church. Padre Pio was in the pew in front of me, sort of turned around to look at me. I was coming to him for confession. I don’t recall the actual words, but I poured out my heart. I confessed everything from all the thirty-some years of my life. It took a long time, and he was very patient.
When I was all done, Padre Pio sighed deeply. He was holding a rosary in his hands and fingering the beads. He looked at me intently and said, "So now what’s stopping you?" I understood him to mean, keeping me from becoming Catholic, as if I had uttered every excuse I could think of and none of them were acceptable. I thought for a while, then I sighed and answered, "It’s Steven. He’s not ready to convert yet." Padre Pio said to me, "Let me take care of Steven." The dream ended with Padre Pio reaching out his arm and placing his hand on my shoulder.
Remarkably, Steven told me the very next day that he wanted to try again, this time at a different parish. It was remarkable. Just like the dream predicted. Steven came to me. I didn’t feel like I had forced him. We both seemed ready. I hoped that this time, the time was right.
During the Easter Vigil 1981 In Holy Spirit parish in Virginia Beach, Virginia, all four of us—Steven, me, and our sons, Robert and John-Michael—were welcomed into the Catholic Church. We were all baptized. Steven and I received Holy Communion and confirmation—all at Easter Vigil, the most solemn night in the church calendar. The chorus sang, "And he shall raise you up on eagle’s wings." I remember the priest using a seashell to scoop up the water for the baptism. I remember eating red velvet cake at the reception afterwards. It was the best cake I had ever eaten.