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Conversion StoriesJewishMessianic Jewish

Messianic and Catholic

Mark Neugebauer
December 5, 2011 8 Comments

Growing up in a Conservative Jewish home in suburban Toronto, I was a regular attendee at synagogue on Sabbaths and High Holy Days, and I lived a committed Jewish life. My father is a Polish Holocaust survivor from Auschwitz, and my mother’s family escaped the organized massacres of Jews in Russia.

My sister and I were raised in Canada in a Jewish, Yiddish-speaking environment where all 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 (that is His Hebrew name), who in no way resembled those who apparently hated us for two thousand years. Watching the film Jesus of Nazareth confirmed this discovery, and listening yearly to Handel’s Messiah began to deepen my awareness of who He was.

As I examined the scriptural libretto of that magnificent oratorio, these words caused me to ponder: “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.”

What were these New Testament words (or so I thought) doing in a piece of music? To my surprise, I discovered that they were not from the New Testament at all, but from Isaiah 53:5 in the Tanakh — the Hebrew Bible — and were originally written in Hebrew.

Faith in Messiah 

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. In the choir were two Messianic Jews — that is, Jews who believe that Jesus is the Messiah whom God promised to send the Jewish people. They were praying to be able to lead someone to faith in Him.

I was fascinated by their testimony of peace and joy. When I asked them what it was that made them behave that way,   they responded, “Jesus.” I was shocked and determined to talk them out of that aberration!

They began to expound on the ancient prophecies in the Hebrew Scripture concerning the Messiah, but I didn’t hear a word they said. What I did hear was what the Lord spoke to my heart when He revealed Himself to me personally, saying, “Jesus is the Messiah; He is Lord.”

They brought me to the fledgling Messianic fellowship that met in our neighborhood, and I confessed to being a believer in Yeshua as Messiah. I brought home a Hebrew New Testament. My parents’ discovery of it was the beginning both of an intense time at home and a deepening friendship with Yeshua. Through my parents’ 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 Catholic, with whom I struck up a wonderful faith-filled friendship. My major turned out to be one in Hellenistic Near Eastern Studies, specializing in the Jewish writings of the Hellenistic period, which included the New Testament. So this degree program became my “Bible College” for four years. Translating Luke, 1 John, and Psalms in particular 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. Conferences in the U.S. 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.

Sue and I 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 and in Israel. We prayed and worked for their salvation and ministered in many ways to those who were coming to faith in Messiah.

Catholic Encounters

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 didn’t end up teaching in a Catholic setting, but I completed a two-week practicum in a Catholic school and taught catechism to children and led them in prayers — even though I wasn’t Catholic. No one suspected anything as I learned the “Hail Mary” and went to Mass for the first time.

Ironically, at that time I was strongly anti-Catholic, preaching 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.

Several Jewish Catholics were attending our Messianic Congregation in Toronto, and I had become friends with them. Although I was dismayed at their choice of connection, I was also dismayed to learn that Hebrew Catholics had been barred from membership in the Hebrew Christian (now Messianic Jewish) Alliance. I tried to dissuade them from continuing in their Catholic connections 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 learned 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. We prayed for the believers, both Jewish and Arab, in that land, and we 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. It was there that I discovered both Mother Angelica and The Journey Home. I was so surprised to discover a beautiful, faith-filled, non-performance-oriented, loving and passionate kind of Christian faith. This faith was Catholic, and I was very
much surprised.

I had never seen anything like this before, and I found it attractive, the doctrinal concerns notwithstanding: Mary, the communion of saints and purgatory, to name a few. The Journey Home became my constant friend as soon as I began watching EWTN. My heart was being drawn in
unexpected ways.

When I saw Jewish Catholics share their stories of faith, I knew I needed to investigate this matter further. So I began an email conversation with many of them.

Changing Attitudes 

As many know, the old attitudes and the way my people had been treated by Christians during many centuries had left a deep wound in the hearts of so many Jews, along with a negative attitude toward Christianity and toward those who became believers in Jesus. I still felt hurt by Catholics because of what the Jewish people had suffered in Poland and elsewhere

Yet despite all this, so many times over the years, I had a desire to read the documents of Vatican II. So I was relieved when I learned about Nostra Aetate (the council’s “Declaration on the Relations of the Church to Non-Christian Religions”) and its positive statements about the Jews
and Judaism.

The late great Blessed John Paul II did 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.

I discovered that the Catechism is extremely honoring of the Jewish people. I felt the deep need to forgive Catholics and also repent of my judgments of them. 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 explore contemplative prayer and to read about St.Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. I looked into Henri Nouwen’s writings 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). Ever since, they have been practically the only TV I watch. In these Catholic network broadcasts I witnessed the power of God’s love and the prevalence of honesty and truth.

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; 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 experienced elsewhere. Did it have something to do with what (or Who) was in the box off to the side of the Sanctuary, where a candle continually burned?

Moving Closer to the Church

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. It was there that I encountered the Mass in person.

I had watched the Mass 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, I learned that I could not.

Now I knew I had a choice to make: either leave St. Timothy’s or humble myself, honor the rules and stay. I decided to press on, not knowing where it would all lead. (Ever since that time I have loved the Mass, both in Latin and English, and I 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,” sponsored by Catholic Renewal Ministries, in Toronto in April 2008. The Adoration and Divine Mercy segments touched us deeply. I felt that I needed to explore this “Catholic thing” further.

Continuing to watch Mother Angelica, Marcus Grodi, and now Fr. Benedict Groeschel and others as well, led me on. I met other Hebrew Catholics on TV: Debbie Herbeck, Bob Freedman, Roy Schoeman, and David and Rosalind Moss. I began reading Catholic websites such as Salvation Is from the Jews, The Association for Hebrew Catholics, and especially Catholics for Israel. I began an intermittent correspondence with several Messianic Jewish Catholics and read everything I could find on Jewish people who had become Catholic.

Meanwhile, we were still attending our Evangelical congregation and leading our “Intercession for Israel” meeting there.

It was then that my friends suggested I look into RCIA just for interest, with no pressure. Because I had been a Christian believer for over 30 years at this point, with experience in ministry and Bible teaching, they suggested I receive private RCIA classes. I met with the parish priest and then began RCIA studies with a very learned man at St. Timothy’s.

Providentially, in the summer of 2008 we came in contact with Christ the King Catholic Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan, when our son went to Bowling Green State University in Ohio for a semester. It was there that we got to know Father Ed Fride of that parish. Neither my wife nor I were Catholic, but we needed to know the truth.

On the Christ the King website, we found the RCIA study sheets they use. These are question-and-answer lessons with the Catechism and the Bible as the only textbooks. I used these study sheets with my teacher in my RCIA classes at St. Timothy’s, and the experience was a delight for both of us.

Each time we studied together, I was convinced by the Lord of the truth of these Catholic doctrines, and they become part of me. I came to appreciate St. Augustine’s statement: “I believed, and then I understood.” I came to see why St. Thomas Aquinas insisted that we need both faith and reason.

Coming Home

I began to ask God in earnest whether I was to become Catholic. I wanted to do the right thing in light of my Jewish background, my Messianic connections and the work I had been doing with “Intercession for Israel.” During the prayer at Mass that begins, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive You,” I would finish by saying, “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 they were praying 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 after such a wonderful, faith-enriching experience, and after having learned so much.

I read the biography of St. Teresa Benedicta (Edith Stein). Then I asked the Lord at the feast of Epiphany to please send me some Hebrew Catholics to speak with me to confirm that it was okay for a Messianic Jew to become a Messianic Jewish Catholic. The Lord said to me, “I have sent you one already [Edith Stein]. What more do you want?”

I knew then that this was it. I had sensed that St. Teresa Benedicta, a Jewish believer in Jesus, had been interceding for me, as had St. Teresa of Avila, who had a Jewish heritage through her grandfather. Now I felt them urging me to go forward into the Catholic Church, along with Our Lady, whom I now call Miriam Eemainu (Hebrew for “Mary our Mother”). I could not walk away; I had to proceed where the Lord was leading me.

There were other interesting events 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. John 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 homilist speak about? Reconciliation!

We had our RCIA class on Reconciliation on the following Sunday, and the Archbishop of Toronto was the homilist Sunday evening. What did he talk about? He talked 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 freedom and joy. To top it off, the scripture reading was from the Gospel of Mark, and my name is Mark. Coincidence? I think not. Thank you, St. Teresa!

One Saturday evening in February 2009 I experienced the Rite of Welcoming at a vigil Mass. 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 I felt truly forgiven and free of guilt and shame.

At the Easter vigil I was confirmed and received my first Communion. Having listened to priests say to others so many times, “the Body of Christ,” those words had become music to my ears. So when I was able for the first time to receive the Body and Blood of the Lord, I felt like dancing!

The Jewishness of it all

Meanwhile, I see the Jewishness of it all. For example, the synagogue has an eternal light hanging over the Ark where the Torahs (Scripture scrolls) are kept; the Catholic Church has a similar light near the Tabernacle where the “Word made flesh” is kept. The synagogue has a long table for the Torah; the Church has an altar for the Eucharist. Scripture and prayers are chanted in the synagogue; Scripture and prayers are read, chanted and sung in the Church.

When I became a believer in Yeshua in the Messianic congregation, I didn’t cease to be Jewish or to love Israel. When I joined the Evangelical congregation, I didn’t cease to be Messianic Jewish. Now, when I joined the Catholic Church, I didn’t cease to be any of the above; it was a matter of addition and multiplication, not subtraction or division: the fullness 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 all this would happen, I would have told them they were dreaming. Yet it is a dream come true. The Lord has given me many more mercies, favors, 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 “colors” 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 learned over the years in various places, I feel as if a whole new, yet ancient, world has opened up for me to explore, enjoy, and serve. And it’s all for the glory of God the Father, through the love of Messiah Yeshua, and in the fullness of the Holy Spirit. I can truly say with St. Paul, who was also a Jewish believer: “Thanks be to God for His unspeakable gift!” (2 Cor 9:15).

Mark Neugebauer

Mark Neugebauer was raised in a Conservative Jewish home and is a child of a survivor of Auschwitz. He came to faith in the Messiah Yeshua (Jesus) over thirty years ago, and served extensively in the Messianic Jewish Congregational movement in Canada and abroad. Mark was President of the Messianic Jewish Alliance of Canada and an elder and interim pastor of a large Messianic Jewish Congregation. Later, while attending a large charismatic Evangelical church, Mark and his wife, Sue, directed a monthly ministry called “Intercession for Israel,” which focused on prayer for Israel, the Middle East, and the Jewish people. Mark was drawn into full communion with the Catholic Church in 2009. An elementary school teacher, he has degrees in Education and in Hellenistic Near Eastern Studies Education. Currently, he teaches seminars on the Jewish background of the Mass and of Catholic faith.

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