A Glorious Journey
Featuring Fr. Paul Chaim Benedicta Schenck/
August 25, 2014
When it became apparent to me that I no longer could confess the Creed — in which I made the claim to believe in the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church — and not be in communion with the bishop of Rome, the successor of St. Peter, and pastor of the universal Church, I chose to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church.
Unity is the foremost characteristic of the Body of Christ. The two most splendid descriptions of the Church, the Body and the Bride of Christ, can only be conceived of as one, and never, as many. Our Lord has only one Body and only one Bride. St. Paul emphatically declares this in Ephesians 4:4–5: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.”
There was no such unity outside the Catholic Church. My brother and I researched hundreds of denominations in a book we called The Constitutions of American Denominations. They conflicted with each other in the most important and the most trivial matters. Those divisions have wounded and weakened the Body of Christ, and have sapped her strength and vitality. The visible Church in true unity with Christ and His members is the true Church.
Pope John Paul II lamented our current situation in Ut Unum Sint, where he quotes the Decree on Ecumenism of the Second Vatican Council. “Division,” he says, “openly contradicts the will of Christ, provides a stumbling block to the world, and inflicts damage on the most holy cause of proclaiming the Good News to every creature” (no. 6).
When I refer to the Catholic Church as the true Church, I do not mean that all others are false. I use it in the way a carpenter might use a level: as the standard against which all others are measured. Mysterium Ecclesiae, the statement of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, quoting Lumen Gentium, unambiguously states, “‘Outside her visible structure,’ namely, in Churches and ecclesial communities which are joined to the Catholic Church by an imperfect communion, there are to be found ‘many elements of sanctification and truth [which], as gifts properly belonging to the Church of Christ, possess an inner dynamism towards Catholic unity’” (no. 1).
Indeed, in numbers 818 and 819, the Catechism, quoting the Vatican II documents Unitatis Redintegratio and Lumen Gentium, is quite clear:
“All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church” (UR 3, sec. 1).
“Furthermore, “many elements of sanctification and truth” (LG 8, sec. 2) are found outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church: “the written Word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope and charity, with other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as visible elements” (UR 3, sec. 2). Christ’s Spirit uses these Churches … as means of salvation, whose power derives from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church. All these blessings come from Christ and lead to him (cf. UR 3), and are in themselves calls to “Catholic unity” (cf. LG 8).
For these and many other good reasons, I have not repudiated my conversion to Christ, my baptism, discipleship, or my training in God’s Word outside the Catholic Church. I have in fact brought them with me into the Catholic Church, where they belong.
I was raised Jewish. My father and his siblings were the first American generation, born to descendants of Polish and Austrian Jewish immigrants. My mother was not born Jewish. Her mother was Catholic and her father Episcopalian. My mother’s mother, only sixteen years of age when she gave birth to my mother, saw to it that she was baptized in the Roman Catholic rite. On the way to St. Mark’s parish, where my mother was baptized, is a small mission called “St. Margaret’s,” while my mother’s given name is Marjorie, her Christian name is Margaret.
My maternal grandmother died while my mother was still young, and her father raised her in the Episcopal Church. After a tragic first marriage that ended in her husband’s suicide, my mother was left a young widow struggling to raise two daughters. My father met her and came to her aid. She converted to Judaism and married him in the Jewish ceremony. Their agreement was to raise their children Jewish. That is why when my twin brother and I were born, we received ritual circumcision, were inducted into the Covenant of Abraham, given Hebrew names (Hillel and Chaim), and enrolled in Hebrew school for six years.
When I entered high school, I was introduced to a group of Christian young people who took their faith seriously. They met for prayer in the mornings, gathered for late-night Bible studies in homes, and were conscientious about church attendance. They were Protestants and Catholics. I began attending a small Methodist chapel in our neighborhood. The minister was a Salvation Army officer, as the congregation could not afford a pastor. I attended the Sunday school, the youth group, and Sunday church services. It was there my brother and I requested Baptism, after responding to the call to accept Christ in a parish mission. I was baptized “in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” on October 11, 1974, by immersion in the river.
My brother and I both became involved in Christian fellowship in school. We attended the prayer meetings, the Bible studies, joined the youth group on evangelistic efforts such as sharing witness in church services, in public places like malls, and door-to-door visitation. I became a volunteer youth counselor with the Billy Graham Association and the Christian Broadcasting Network. I discerned a call to Christian service and thought at first that I would attend a Methodist college and seminary. Then I learned about a missionary Bible college nearby. I arranged to graduate from my high school a year early, and I applied. It was necessary to obtain two referrals from ordained ministers. The pastor of a large Evangelical church and my own minister provided the requisite letters, and I was accepted.
I had begun a special friendship with Rebecca Wald, whom I had met at the prayer meetings. It became an exclusive relationship, which did not include “dating,” but a friendship based on our mutual church activities. Before leaving for college, I asked her parents for permission and their blessing in asking her to marry me. We intended to marry when I completed my program. However, after the first year, we were married, and I returned to school. I had to suspend my program, and then resumed my studies part time. Our first born child came two years later, after our first child miscarried. My wife and I became house parents for Baker Hall, a publicly funded, Catholic program for delinquent boys. During the day, I was also the director of an Evangelical Christian drug and alcohol intervention program called Teen Challenge. I attended school at night.
After five years, I received a Pastoral Ministries certificate, and after two more years, a bachelor of arts degree in biblical studies. I was examined and called as pastor of a nondenominational community church in western New York.
In the course of my studies, I read the Church Fathers in addition to the Scriptures. As I followed Church history, I became aware of the distinct differences between the beliefs and practices of the Evangelical churches and the apostolic Church. These differences were explained in reference to the Reformation. For a time, that was sufficient for me, but after a while, it was no longer an effective explanation. I was becoming aware that the Fathers were Catholic.
While I was still a minister in the community church, it quietly troubled me that we were not in communion with the Catholic Church. As I matured in the ministry of Christ, I recognized that the Church was the guardian of the great truths of revelation: the Scriptures, the Trinity, the councils and creeds, the episcopacy. The more I learned from Church history, and especially the Fathers, the more I yearned for rootedness and continuity with the early Church. In 1983, I was invited to conduct a preaching mission in the U.K. I was stationed at St. John’s (Anglican) Church in Poole, Dorset. In long discussions late into the night, the vicar and I explored the liturgy, the Church Fathers, and the first ecumenical councils. I returned from the U.K. with the Book of Common Prayer and an appreciation for the history of the Church of England. In a very basic way, I saw the Anglican Church as a connection between the Evangelical churches and the apostolic Church. I introduced the Creed, certain parts of the liturgy, vestments, and a higher view of the Lord’s Supper into our community church, and it was generally received. I had begun my journey to the Catholic Church.
I began to look for attachment to a church that embraced the ancient liturgical forms of worship and had a high view of the sacraments and a visible hierarchy. My grandparents (my mother’s father and her first father-in-law) were Church of England men, and my interest in the Anglican Church developed. At that same time, I had begun a collaboration with a professor of systematic theology at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto. He was a third-generation Jewish Christian and an Anglican priest. He had been rector of St. John’s Church, East End London, and was in residence at the Church of the Messiah in Toronto. Through him, I was introduced to Anglican men in Canada and at the same time met an Episcopal priest from the Diocese of Birmingham who urged me to consider the Episcopal priesthood.
I contacted the Reformed Episcopal Seminary in Philadelphia and eventually petitioned the bishop for entry. I resigned from the pastorate, and my family and I moved from Buffalo to Chesapeake, Virginia, where I joined the American Center for Law and Justice, a public interest law firm advocating for pro-life, family, and religious liberty issues. I read theology, Church history, and liturgical studies for the Reformed Episcopal bishop.
After completing the program of guided independent studies, I stood my examinations for ordination at the Reformed Episcopal Seminary in 1995. I was received as a deacon in St. John’s Episcopal Church (ECUSA), Portsmouth, Virginia. The following year I was ordained a presbyter by the Most Rev. Leonard W. Riches (Yale Divinity School), by then the presiding bishop of the Reformed Episcopal Church in the United States.
The year previous, my brother and I had challenged a federal district court injunction that restricted pro-life “sidewalk counselors” from approaching abortion clinic clients and others, with Bibles, tracts, and a peaceful, pro-life message. I was sentenced to two years in federal prison for violating the federal judge’s order for counseling a couple leaving the clinic, passing a Bible to a woman who thanked me, and speaking with a man who refused a Bible. The case, called Rev. Schenck v. Pro-Choice Network, reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled 8–1 in my favor, striking down the judge’s order as a fundamental violation of the First Amendment right of freedom of speech.
When I began my prison sentence, I was told that the Protestant chaplain was “pro-choice” and wanted nothing to do with me. My conscience would not allow me to worship in her chapel or receive communion from her. When the Catholic sacristan heard about it, he came to me and said, “Father says that you’re welcome at Mass!” Because I was a good prisoner, my family was allowed to worship with me. So every Sunday my wife packed up our seven children and drove nearly two hours to attend Mass with me in the prison chapel. That was when the Church opened wide her arms to us. Each week I eagerly awaited Mass, where I could commune spiritually with our Lord and pray with my family.
After my release on appeal, I was appointed vicar in the Reformed Episcopal mission in Virginia Beach and chaplain to the law faculty at Regent University. There a Catholic deacon began tutoring me in Catholic doctrine, especially ecclesiology. I attended the campus Mass and discussed theology with priests and deacons who visited the campus. The deacon also had faculties in the Melkite (Greek Catholic) Church, and he invited me to join him at the eparch’s residence in Methuen, Massachusetts. When I explained my earnest interest in entering the Catholic Church, the eparch invited me to a diaconal formation week at St. Basil’s Seminary, and I attended (he later explained that Anglican men go to the Roman archbishop). About the same time, I was elected a trustee of Thomas More College in Merrimack, New Hampshire, a Catholic school, which also granted me the honorary doctor of humanities. I found myself being drawn ever closer to the Catholic Church.
I started praying for the reunion of the whole Church Catholic, but began to realize it would have to start with my heart. When I became the rector of an old Evangelical Anglican parish in Baltimore, I was welcomed by the Catholic priest in the next parish, (now the bishop emeritus of St. Augustine), who began joining me for the stations of the cross at the abortion mill. We became friends and then co-counseled a couple that was about to divorce. The husband was a member of my parish; the wife was a member of his. So the priest and I co-counseled them, and they were wonderfully reconciled. At the same time, another couple in my parish was separating. The husband said, “I know its God’s will that Julie be my wife, but I don’t want to live with her. We’ll have separate houses, and we can share the children.”
“No,” I insisted, “there must be an organic unity to marriage. It is not enough to be ‘legally’ married; you must share the same bed and board, live together under one roof, in mutual submission, with Christ as your head. These are the visible signs of your union.”
When they left, I said to myself, “You hypocrite! You told them there has to be an organic unity to marriage, but you’re content to be separated from Christ’s true Body.” I began praying more fervently for reunion with the Church.
Then, in 2000, our oldest child, at twenty-one, told me that she intended to become Catholic. She would be confirmed at the Easter Vigil the following year. I told her she had my support, and I would be present with her.
In Baltimore, I shared our church campus with an Ethiopian Orthodox parish. When the Ethiopian bishop learned that I was traveling to Egypt to teach at a Protestant minister’s conference in Alexandria, he asked if I would visit the Ethiopian bishops in Jerusalem. They were in a crisis of faith as some of the faithful had begun converting to Judaism. He thought I might have some helpful advice, which I did not, but in charity I offered to go. There was also a priest who had immigrated to Washington, but his wife and children were still in Jerusalem, and the Intifada had broken out — and he needed someone to intercede for them at the Embassy in Israel. I promised to help and was successful, and the family was reunited.
After my visit to Jerusalem, I went on to Egypt. When a former student of mine, who was an Egyptian national, from a Coptic family, and living in Cairo, picked me up at the airport, he announced, “You have an appointment to go to the Basilica tomorrow where Pope John Paul II is conducting an ecumenical encounter!” We went early the next morning and waited for nearly two hours as our host, the president of the Evangelical college, argued with police. We were denied entrance, and I returned to my hotel dejected. I felt so strongly that an encounter with the Holy Father would somehow seal my reunion with the Catholic Church. It did not happen, and I went on to teach in Alexandria and returned to the U.S. crestfallen.
I was teaching at the Reformed seminary in Philadelphia when I was informed that the Melkite Eparch of Methuen, Massachusetts had arranged for an invitation from the Greek Catholic archbishop of Jerusalem, Lufti Laham (now Patriarch Gregorious III), to accompany him on the Papal Pilgrimage from Bethlehem to Jerusalem.
When I returned to the Old City, the archbishop received me and said, “Now, Father Chayam (He called me by my Aramaic name), you did bring your Eastern vestments, and you will concelebrate with the Holy Father in Bethlehem?” I realized he did not know I was not yet Catholic. I said, “Your Grace, I’m not Catholic; I’m an Evangelical Anglican.”
“Oh!” he exclaimed. “Nevertheless, you will have an honored seat among the priests in Bethlehem. You will see, the Holy Father will be there, I will be there, and you will be there. You will see; you will be absorbed!”
The next day indeed, I was seated to the right of the Holy Altar in Manger Square. John Paul the Great was offering the Sacrifice of the Holy Mass, the Body and the Blood all around me — “a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity.” A sea of humanity flowed forward to receive the Communion of the precious Body and Blood of Christ. There, where Christ was born, was every “tribe and tongue and people and nation.” There was every hue of skin and nap of hair, every kind of dress. Everything that wasn’t stone was a human head. It was an oasis of love and peace in the midst of the storm of hatred and conflict. It was the grandest display of unity I had ever seen in my life. It was truly “a Paschal banquet.”
We went to the grotto of the Nativity with the Holy Father and prayed there. As we walked abreast with the Holy Father and the Latin Patriarch Michael Sabah, the archbishop turned and said, “Here is the Holy Father, here am I, and here you are — and you see, you’re absorbed; you’ve been absorbed!” We went on throughout Palestine and Israel, and finally, at the end of the week to Jerusalem. There, in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Holy Father declared with a jubilant countenance, “He is not here; He is risen!” Before the sanctuary was a truly ecumenical assemblage: the Anglican bishop, the Lutheran bishop, the Coptic, Armenians, and Ethiopians. When it was time for the Peace, the bishops embraced one another, as did all the faithful — born Jews and Palestinians, black, white, and Asian. And they were all praying and participating in the Holy Mass in one tongue: Latin.
After the Mass, the Pope lingered for some time like a Great Father amidst his affectionate children. Then, as he left, the congregation swelled and rose behind him like a torrent sweeping through the cavernous manmade mountain that is the Sepulcher Church. As he passed through the ancient doors, the Israeli officials pushed the doors closed — something they were not expected or permitted to do, as there is an ancient protocol conducted by the Muslim sergeants-at-arms. A hue and a cry went up, followed by a muted sigh and then a hush as the daylight was shut out and the Church became gloomy. It was as if the Holy Father had been stolen away. Then, panicked security personnel reopened the doors, and the Holy Father was there again, above the crowd on top of his vehicle, and he imparted his blessing to all of us below. There — in the midst of the Anglican and Lutheran bishops, the Ethiopians and Copts, Jewish Holocaust survivors and Palestinians, every language and nationality, I believe I became Catholic in my heart.
I had already become Catholic in my head, but in Jerusalem, I became Catholic in my heart. It was a biblical journey — from the footsteps of Christ in Jerusalem, down into Egypt, out of the Holy Land, only to be swept back again to the sacred sites. I had walked from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, speaking French badly with a Franciscan Friar from Cote d’Ivoire. I followed the papal train to the place of Christ’s saving death and glorious resurrection. I had prayed in Hebrew, Greek, Ethiopic, Arabic, and Latin. When the Holy Father entered the convent in Bethlehem to meet barely more than a handful of us, I fell to my knees and clutched a rosary so tight that it left its imprint on my palm. I knew there was no place else for me to go, but to the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church, and to its one true Pastor.
When I returned to Baltimore, I began praying for a doorway through which I could bring my family and myself into the Catholic Church. Full-time Christian service was all I had ever known, my entire adult life and throughout our whole marriage. We lived in the church rectory, drove a church car, and my children attended the church school.
I had been reading the biography of the Holocaust martyr Edith Stein, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. There was so much I could identify with, being the descendant of European Jewish ancestors. I asked St. Teresa Benedicta to join her prayers to those of the Blessed Mother, to intercede with the Lord to find a way into the Catholic Church for my family and me.
I left it in the Lord’s hands, and I was at peace. I began making arrangements to leave our home, our community, our children’s school, and step out into the deep.
The next year, I was told that Father Frank Pavone wanted to talk to me. He invited me to his office in Staten Island, and I told him about my desire to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church. He invited me to join Priests for Life, and six months later, I was received into the Church with the proper permissions in the archdiocese of New York. I received the Sacraments of Penance and Reconciliation, Confirmation, Marriage, first Holy Communion, and I was inducted into the Confraternity of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and invested with the brown scapular. I was in the ark!
My wife and children were some steps behind me, and they remained members in my former church for another year. We began looking for a good Catholic school for the children and found it at York Catholic High School in the Diocese of Harrisburg. We sold the rectory, which we had purchased from the former church, and relocated to York, Pennsylvania, so that the children could begin their Catholic formation and education. We joined Holy Infant Church in York Haven, and began our formation as a Catholic family. My wife and our children at home were confirmed on January 8, 2005, and our youngest is now in formation for first Holy Communion.
Our journey has been an adventure that has presented its trials and triumphs. In many ways, the journey reflected the experiences of the first believers and those who have persevered within the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church. I am a latecomer, but have inherited the great legacy of this glorious Catholic Church!