Messianic Jews

The prayers of Hebrew Catholics

NEW YORK -- It's hard for Roy Schoeman to share his faith without mentioning Abraham, his son Isaac and a sacrificial altar on Mount Moriah.

This story from Genesis is a cornerstone of the Jewish faith in which he was raised and educated, the son of Jews who escaped the Holocaust and came to America. But this familiar passage -- with its covenant between God and Abraham's children -- also is crucial to his testimony as a convert to Roman Catholicism.

For Schoeman, these faiths cannot be pried apart.

"If Christianity was meant for anyone it was meant for the Jews," he said at a gathering of the Association of Hebrew Catholics. Thus, the Catholic faith "is Judaism as it was defined by God Incarnate, Jesus Christ. ... He did not come to bring Christianity to the gentiles and leave the Jews alone."

The Palm Sunday-weekend conference was held at Sts. Cyril and Methodius Church, not far from Times Square. It drew more than 100 Catholics from across the nation and overseas, including a core group of converted Jews.

Some in the audience shed tears as Schoeman emotionally offered a prayer for the conversion of his own mother. They murmured "amen," as he read the biblical account of Abraham preparing to sacrifice "his only son," until being stopped by an angel who said God would provide a lamb. Because Abraham was willing to surrender his son, God said: "I will indeed bless you and I will multiply your descendents as the stars of heaven. ... And by your descendents shall all the nations bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice."

Surely this prophecy foreshadows the life and sacrifice of Jesus, said Schoeman, a former Harvard Business School professor who now focuses his studies on theology. This is why Hebrew Christians insist that conversion does not destroy Jewish identity, but "fulfills it," "completes it" and even "crowns it."

It would be hard to craft a statement that would be more offensive to millions of religious and secular Jews.

However, leaders of the Association of Hebrew Catholics spend as much, or more, time addressing the beliefs of Catholics who say the Second Vatican Council teaches that Jews can "be saved" without embracing Jesus. This division in Catholic ranks has affected many public debates, from clashes about the goals of Jewish-Christian dialogues to the content of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ."

The conflict intensified in 2002 when a study committee linked to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, working with National Council of Synagogues, released a set of theological reflections that inspired blunt headlines. The Washington Post went with "Catholics Reject Evangelization of Jews," while Christianity Today offered " Jews Are Already Saved, Say U.S. Catholic Bishops."

The document argued that while the "Catholic Church regards the saving act of Christ as central to the process of human salvation for all, it also acknowledges that Jews already dwell in a saving covenant with God." Thus, the unique Jewish witness to God's kingdom "must not be curtailed by seeking the conversion of the Jewish people to Christianity."

Cardinal Avery Dulles of Fordham University was one of many rejecting this text as a statement of Catholic teaching.

"Peter on Pentecost Sunday declared that the whole house of Israel should know for certain that Jesus is Lord and Messiah and that every one of his hearers should be baptized in Jesus' name," wrote Dulles, in America magazine. "Paul spent much of his ministry proclaiming the Gospel to Jews throughout the Diaspora. Distressed by their incredulity, he was prepared to wish himself accursed for the sake of their conversion."

The problem is that progressive elements inside Judaism and Catholicism are striving to "redefine both of these faiths," said David Moss, president of the Hebrew Catholic association. Thus, most mainstream Jewish leaders are convinced that the Vatican has officially changed its doctrine.

"The truth is that Catholicism teaches that there is only one path to salvation and that is through Jesus Christ," said Moss. "Now how does that salvation happen for individual people? That's up to God. He's in charge, not us. ...

"But there is nothing in Vatican II that says Catholics are not supposed to take the Gospel of Jesus Christ to his own people."