From Tel Aviv Teen to Holy Land Priest
Franciscan Father David Jaeger has a Jewish perspective on the central event in Christianity.
BY Edward Pentin
April 8-14, 2007 Issue | Posted 4/3/07 at 9:00 AM
Father David Maria Jaeger was born into a Jewish family. Now he’s a Franciscan priest.
Born in Tel Aviv, Israel, Father Jaeger became a Catholic in the 1980s and was ordained in 1986. He has served on the delegation of the Holy See on the Bilateral Permanent Working Commission between the Holy See and the State of Israel. He is widely credited with being the principal drafter and lead negotiator of both the 1993 Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and Israel and the 1997 “Legal Personality Agreement” between the two.
Father Jaeger recently spoke to Register correspondent Edward Pentin in Rome.
When did you first sense the call to be received into the Catholic Church?
Probably when I was about 16. Christianity and the Catholic Church was, for me, the same thing. It wasn’t as if I was drawn to the Catholic Church as distinct from any other Christian body. It was the Christian faith that I always understood to be that of the Catholic Church.
I had been very strongly attached to the Jewish religion and to Orthodox Jewish religious practice since about the age of 12 until about 14 — far more so than my family, which was traditionally observant rather than practically speaking Orthodox in every respect. It was I who felt tremendously drawn towards a far stricter observance, and did so with great zeal until about age 14 when I more or less suddenly went off it.
At that stage in life it’s very difficult to say precisely how and why — it just happened. Then I think I became a non-believer in anything particular and began to search, as young persons will do, for the meaning of life. What does it all mean, if anything at all?
So I went through the usual series of studying as best I could, looking at different explanations of human existence, whether Freudian, Marxist or traditional liberal philosophy. And in the course of my reading and personal research, inevitably I happened upon Christianity and a realization that it is the major factor of the civilization that we all share.
If I remember now, I was fascinated by the contradiction that I perceived. On the one hand, from my own background up to that date I saw Christianity as a negative influence, as the root of all the misfortunes and persecutions that had befallen my people through many centuries. While on the other hand, as a European, culturally and historically, I did see, of course, that Christianity was the immediate source of all the goodness and beauty of the civilization we all share in literature, civil values, human values, human rights, music and painting.
So I wished to investigate, and so got drawn into reading and reflection until I found myself persuaded of its truth.
What particular reading influenced you the most?
Overall, I can focus on two major teaching documents of the Church in the 20th century. One is that magnificent encyclical of Pius XII, Mystici Corporis Christi (The Mystical Body of Christ, 1943), which was written in such a tightly reasoned and compelling manner and explains the relationship of man and God, of human beings among themselves as called to salvation and constituted in the Church as the body of Christ the Savior. That is very, very powerful reading for me. It was then and it is now, and I suppose will always be.
The other document was the constitution on The Church in the Modern World, of the Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes (1965), which spoke directly to our condition as persons in the world today, as searchers for an anchoring in God’s plan for the universe and for humanity with specific reference to all the eternal and contemporary questions that humanity faces in our time. This sort of clinched the deal, as it were.
And once you decided you wanted to be received into the Church, what happened then? What was the route you took?
Rather absurdly, it was not easy. I had always learned that Christians desired nothing better than to make converts, nothing more than to persuade others and to baptize them and make them Christians and members of the Church.
But it just so happened that the two or three Catholic priests of my acquaintance — of course, I didn’t know many where I lived — were not very helpful. One or two of them were too fearful of the consequences for them if they made a Jewish convert in Israel. They imagined to themselves some sort of punitive state apparatus that would be after them when, in fact, it was completely unjustified.
There was then and there is now in this respect complete religious freedom in Israel. But they didn’t really know the country and were led by their imaginations of unsubstantiated fears.
The other one [priest], and that one hit me very strongly, had become a relativist in his old age, to spare himself trouble but also out of relativist convictions. That confined him to saying, “Well, why don’t you just go off and be a good little Jewish boy instead.” That was very demoralizing, astounding and disappointing, but since I was absolutely convinced that I must follow my conscientious conviction and become a Christian, I found a home with the Anglicans and was baptized in the Anglican cathedral in Jerusalem — a collegiate church of St. George the Martyr.
In retrospect, it was quite providential, as it gave me a wonderful opportunity to know and appreciate the Anglican church and make many friends within the Anglican church until I found the opportunity to accomplish my original design, also institutionally, and be as it were received into the Catholic Church.
Of course for those kinds of clergy, they were too fearful to receive a Jewish convert. It was far easier to decide to receive a Protestant into full communion of the Catholic Church.
For how long were you an Anglican?
For about two years, but I wasn’t really an Anglican. I had not changed my faith or conviction. It was simply the only place where I found acceptance in those circumstances. Then, as I say, I learned to love very deeply the distinctive contributions of the Anglican tradition and those ancient Catholic traditions that the Anglicans had preserved.
And then what prompted you to move from the Anglican church? Why did you choose not to stay there?
It had always been my understanding and my choice to be a Catholic. I found my home for a while in the Anglican church only because those two or three Catholic priests whom I had known, guided by their own misguided fears and thoughts, had not agreed.
It’s not as if I sort of rejected the Anglican church — I had never in fact meant to be anything other than a Catholic.
How did your relatives and friends react to your conversion?
Not in any particular way. There was no change at all in any of my relationships then or now. We were always a civilized family, and we recognized that in matters of conscience, faith and conviction each person must make his own choices.
And from there, did you recognize a calling to become a priest, or did that happen before you were a Catholic?
Obviously, before I became a Christian, which is really the point. It’s not a true presentation to say I was a Protestant who became a Catholic; I was always a Catholic. It was only for contingent and institutional reasons that I had to find a home elsewhere first for which I am very grateful for all that it taught me and for all the friendship and warm support that I received. I think it was shortly after my baptism, perhaps like many converts who are zealous to go the whole way, I formed the intention to offer myself for the priesthood and almost at the same time for the religious life, too.
And although you weren’t a practicing Jew immediately before you became a Catholic, how has your view of Judaism changed since you became a Catholic? Has it, in fact, complemented your perception of Judaism?
Well, Jews do not think of Judaism in such abstract terms, at least not Orthodox Jews where I came from. Judaism is not thought of as a theology or ideology, it is a way of worshipping God and of relating to God. And again, in a way, I am very grateful to providence for having made me go through a particularly dense form of doing that, but as I said, after a couple of years, this was no longer an experience that was definitive for me and I became, rather than a Jew converted to Christianity, a contemporary person, a secular person, a seeking person who embraced Christianity.
I have, of course, always had and will always have the highest regard for those who continue in their own beliefs to seek and serve God and know him and love him in that way. Of course, it must also be understood that Judaism is not a major question for an Israeli as I was. For us, being a Jew is a national identity rather than a religious identity. And that national identity remains of course unchanged. How could it not?
Did you sense, though, a certain uprooting, a severing of your roots?
No, not at all. Again, one has to understand the specificity of being an Israeli. It might be a drama for a Jew of the exile, or a Diaspora Jew as he is called nowadays, because in some sense a religious identity is all that distinguishes him from all the other members of the civil community. So when he changes his religion, it is very difficult for him or for others at any rate to see in what sense he might still be Jewish. But the whole problem that may be so painful for Jews in the Diaspora does not really exist, or should not really exist, in Israel where Jewish identity has been transformed to a national identity.
So it would be rather like an Englishman who was a Protestant becoming a Catholic.
In the diplomatic work that you’ve done in the past between Israel and the Holy See, did it help a great deal to know how the Israelis think and how they deal with the Vatican?
Yes, of course. My principle qualification for taking part in the negotiations was my academic specialty, which is as a canon lawyer with specialization in Church-state relations. Secondarily, of course, as someone whose expertise has been in the precise area of Church-state relations in the Holy Land. Being an Israeli myself is, of course, helpful but it is normal. It is just a way, like that of the Holy See’s representatives who negotiate in Italy are Italian, or the way Church officials in the United States who have dealings with the civil authorities are themselves American.
It is a completely normal situation for the Church and for the minister for the Church. Of course, in Israel it is a normal situation that is not shared by many. So I felt it was perfectly normal. Certainly, it’s been very helpful in the sense that everyone else in the negotiations had been either a foreigner to Israel or sometimes a member of a national minority in Israel. So it is certainly very helpful to be and belong to the national community.
Does it give you a sense of privilege having had that background; does it give you an extra insight into the faith?
I don’t like to use the word “privilege.” As a jurist, I find that word odious. But I certainly think it is immensely helpful first of all to be able to read the Scriptures in Hebrew, to have had extensive familiarity with them, and so on. This is immensely helpful. I cannot myself imagine not having that ability.
And does your background give you a more acute perception of Christ’s redemption?
I don’t know, because I feel as a Christian the redemption of the human being and as a human being of our time, of our age. As I said before, I had not the experience of the road to Damascus as it were, of even a sudden insight or revelation while a practicing Jew, that all one’s beliefs and practice find their fulfillment in Christ — as they do, of course. But personally it was not the route through which I came to the faith.
Edward Pentin writes
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