Many times, over the course of my nearly eleven years of priesthood, I have been asked to “give my vocation story.” But this is both the first time I have ever “given my story” to a crowd of fellow converts to the Catholic faith, and also the first time I’ve put my story “finger to keyboard.”
My father’s side of the family is Jewish, emi-grating from eastern Europe a few generations before him. They lived in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, a town that had a significant Jewish population up until the late 20th century. My mother’s side of the family is Roman Catholic, having Slovak and Irish roots (with even a bit of Native American as well). They lived in the New Jersey towns of Port Reading and Carteret, two towns alongside each other, both just a few miles from Perth Amboy. Both sides of the family were, shall we say, non-practicing in their respective faiths. My father’s family was the Jewish equivalent of the “Christmas and Easter Catholics”; Synagogue attendance happened on the high holy days and on the anniversaries of relatives’ deaths. My mother’s side of the family had another familiar story: When my grandfather was dying in the early 1960s, the parish priest would not visit him because of his refusal to do some repair work on the church. My grandmother’s faith was sufficient to forgive the priest and continue going to Mass; her children were not as forgiving, and stopped going to church.
My parents were married in 1965, with the marriage being performed by a Rabbi. I was born in 1967 and named Jonathan Samuel Toborowsky. A truly biblical name, as a cloistered Poor Clare pen pal often reminds me, but in all honesty there were less lofty reasons behind it. “Jonathan” was for John, my mother’s father who had died in 1965, and “Samuel” for my father’s uncle, who had also recently passed away (Jewish cultural tradition said that you do not name children after living relatives). When I was eight days old, a Rabbi brought me into the covenant of Abraham through circumcision. My mother was an operating room nurse at a local hospital, while my father was a police officer who would soon resign from the Department to buy a local bar. As a priest I can honestly say that nothing, no class in the seminary or summer parish assignment, prepared me better for hearing confessions than my years listening to people bare their souls to me as a bartender at the Flat Iron Tavern.
When I was four years old, I began nursery school at Hillel Academy, a Jewish school in Perth Amboy. Hillel was very much like the Catholic schools I’ve known through my years, with two obvious exceptions: First, our religion classes dealt with the Old Testament; Second, we learned how to speak, write, and read Hebrew. I have a vivid memory of being in the fifth grade, going student by student, each one of us reading a verse in Hebrew and then spontaneously translating it into English (with the help of our teacher if need be). Though the years have dulled my translation ability, I can still read and write the letters, something which came in handy in Scripture classes in the seminary.
The first event I can point to which, I would now say, led to becoming a Catholic (and eventually a priest) happened when I was five years old and my parents divorced. I don’t remember much about it. Following the divorce, my mother and I went to live with my grandmother. I think myself fortunate, when compared to other divorce stories I’ve heard thought the years, that I always had regular contact with my father throughout my life. Yes, my parents lived apart, but I never doubted that they both loved me very much.
Here’s where I came under the influence of my Catholic grandmother. With my mother working an early shift at the hospital, it was my Catholic grandmother who woke me up each morning, made me breakfast, and drove her Jewish grandson to a Jewish school, all before going to work herself at the information desk of the same hospital where my mother worked. When my grandmother went to Mass during the week or on Sundays (and my mother needed a rest), she’d bring me along. This was my first experience of Mass, and as a Jewish boy of seven or eight years old, I tried my best to make sense of it all by substituting the Jesus and Mary I heard of at Mass with the Abraham and Sarah I heard of in school. At home, my grandmother’s Catholic faith also was apparent. My most familiar image of her, the one I first think of when I think of her, is the image of her sitting in a chair in her bedroom (the bedroom adorned with statues, holy pictures, and palms from years past) with a rosary in her hands and worn out prayer books handily nearby on the top of her radiator. Though I can’t vouch for what she asked God for in her prayers, I can honestly say that never once in my life did she ever try in any way to get me to become a Catholic, even as a small child when she would have had an easy go of it. I wonder if, in those years when she carted her Jewish grandson to Mass, she could have ever imagined that one day she would attend his first Mass as a priest?
I grew up a pretty normal child, a little geeky and introverted, but normal nonetheless. When Hillel Academy closed after fifth grade, my education shifted to my local public elementary school, junior high, and then high school (I love telling people that my first time as a Catholic school student was as a seminarian!). When I was nine, I joined the Cub Scouts. This began, through my years of involvement in Scouting, the routine of spending one night each week in the basement of a Catholic Church (who sponsored the Cub Scout Pack and Boy Scout Troop) until I was about twenty-five. My years in scouting also meant that I met local kids, Catholic kids who lived much closer to me than the kids I went to school with in Hillel Academy. As kids, our friendship spread beyond scouts into everyday life, and many was the times I attended Mass with them (by now I was used to it) or even waited in the sacristy while they served a wedding or funeral Mass, so that we could play immediately afterwards. At about the same time my Catholic friends were receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation, I began lessons with a Rabbi to make my Bar Mitzvah. Again, my father and his side of the family were not especially observant Jews; this was simply something I was expected to do.
By 1988, following a few years of post-high school wandering, I began work in local government, working in the Mayor’s Office of the Township of Woodbridge. I was the Confidential Aide to the Mayor, meaning I kept him on schedule, escorted guests in and out of the office and around Town Hall, wrote speeches, handled complaints, got him where he needed to be, told him what he needed to know, etc. The job was basically an extension of the work I had begun doing on a volunteer basis during his campaign for office the previous fall. This was my first full time, “grown up” job, and it meant that I had all the trappings of fulltime work: an office, and medical, dental, and prescription plans (all of this whilst many of my high school contemporaries were still in college). What it meant was that, for the first time in my life, I began thinking of the “big picture”: What do I want to do with my life? Who am I? What do I believe?
It was about the time I began asking myself these questions that I started attending daily Mass at the local parish, St. Anthony’s Church. Why did I start going to Mass? Today, as a priest I would say that it was God’s prompting, an action of the Holy Spirit. But back then I thought the reason was familiarity. I had been going to Mass there since I was seven, and thanks to scouting, I’d spent plenty of time in this building (more than I ever did in a synagogue). By June of 1989 I made an appointment with the pastor of St. Anthony, to ask how I could become a Roman Catholic. He explained to me that the parish was about to have the annual carnival, and that we’d meet after the carnival ended. At the end of the carnival, however, he had a heart attack (something I hoped was more about the carnival and not so much about my desire for conversion). A friend offered to take me to the pastor at a neighboring parish, so I went to meet this priest. Surprisingly, this was the same priest who, years earlier, saw me as a young boy hanging around his sacristy, waiting for my friends to finish serving at weddings or funerals. This first meeting began a weekly tradition for me and him; each Monday night from January until my Baptism in September of 1990, I would go to his rectory office and we’d talk about the Catholic faith for an hour. At the time, the priesthood was not on my mind. In my own discernment, I believed that God wanted me to become a Catholic layman, presumably someday with a wife, a family, and a career in government.
Back at St. Anthony’s, another pastor had taken over for the priest who had the heart attack, and here’s where the road took another significant turn in my life. The new priest was closer to my age, energetic, and obviously enthusiastic in his vocation. After regularly seeing me at daily Mass, he asked if I’d be a Lector one day each week. A few months later, I was asked to help distribute Holy Communion. A while after that, I was helping with the youth group (which he had recently begun), and other assorted things around the parish. This is when I began to ask a totally different question: “Where is this all leading, Lord?” I began to think the preposterous question of whether God could be calling me to be a Catholic priest. Not knowing many priests, I went to speak with the priest who brought me into the Church. I wondered whether this was a legitimate calling, or whether I was feeling some zeal that all new converts experience. He told me he thought it was for real; that I was mature enough to know it, if this vocational call was just fueled on emotions. With that in mind, I knew that if I was going to have this question answered in my mind, it would have to be dealt with in more concrete terms. This led to a conversation with the pastor of St. Anthony’s, as well as a conversation with the Bishop of my diocese, which led to the diocese’s vocations office. The rest, shall we say, is history.