A peculiar Catholic education led this Jew to love Rome




Crux’s associate editor and business manager Shannon Levitt, who’s Jewish, reflects on the peculiar Catholic education she’s received by being married to editor John Allen, and in particular what it’s taught her about the magic of Rome.

I’ve been the beneficiary of a peculiar kind of Catholic education. I’m not a Catholic, so I didn’t attend Catechism classes. I didn’t study at a Catholic school or university.

Instead, I married a man, our editor John Allen, who knew a lot about the Church when I first met him, and then I moved with him to Rome where he expanded his knowledge about the ins and outs of the Vatican by covering it for the National Catholic Reporter, The Boston Globe and now Crux.

I’m Jewish, but John likes to joke that I know more about the Catholic Church than most Catholics. It’s probably true, but not because I made a rigorous course of study. It’s just hard not to when you live in Rome, and can’t swing a baseball bat without hitting a priest, or a nun, or a bishop, or even a cardinal!

It’s the one city on earth where there is no priest shortage in sight.

I’m not a religious Jew, with a few exceptions as when I was working with Orthodox Jews in L.A., but I am rather committed to my religion in various ways. One was to be critical earlier in my life of Christianity in regard to its history with Judaism, and the Catholic Church in particular.

John and I both have a background in high school debate, so you can imagine some of our “conversations.” I admit that I tend to get wound up fairly easily, while he remains calm and reasonable, which is maddening though effective.

I was raised in a small town in Colorado, where ours was the only Jewish family, so early on I learned the basic tenets of Christianity. There were very few Catholics, though, so it was only after John that my Catholic horizons were expanded.

He taught at a Catholic high school in L.A. where most of our friends, his fellow teachers, were Catholic. Then he went to work for NCR where I became close with several of his colleagues, all Catholic, and I was a teacher in a Catholic high school where all my good friends were Catholic.

My arguments with the Church receded in the face of knowing, and loving, so many Catholics.

But it was in Rome where I got my real Catholic education. All of my biases were challenged, even my reflexive dislike of Opus Dei, a group thought to be fairly conservative and not exactly at the vanguard of empowering women. I remember the day when I had lunch with a priest of Opus Dei, who would become a very dear friend, and being so ready to despise him.

Years after that meeting, when John was researching and writing his book about Opus Dei, he was made aware of an ex-member whom he had wanted to interview but who was warned that I, his wife, was a secret supporter of Opus Dei and should not be trusted based on a travelogue I had shared with friends.

This was before social media, so I still don’t know how that “leak” happened. Oh, how we laughed about it. If they only knew me, they would laugh too.

In Rome I had the immense pleasure of meeting so many people doing so many incredible and inspiring things, not in spite of their faith, but because of it. All of the misconceptions I had about missionaries, for instance, were dispelled in the face of coming to know people who were sacrificing their entire lives and welfare to serve others in precarious situations all over the world.

This is not meant to say that all missionary work is the same. But the people I met were really doing God’s work, and it would be hard for anyone to deny it when faced with their reality.

I had the opportunity to meet amazing people from all walks of life in the Church, from men and women religious to the heads of their orders, from seminarians to cardinals. I even once had a cardinal take me aside to apologize personally for any anti-Semitic overtones in Mel Gibson’s movie Passion of the Christ.

I met journalists covering the Church, and members of the Roman Curia who were being covered. I don’t mean to say they were all amazing. I also had to sit through some pretty excruciatingly dull conversations so John could get an interview, and I had to swallow my tongue in the face of some pretty wretched opinions.

I remember one dinner in particular when I sat between two dreadful priests I liked to call Dumb and Dumber, while John sat next to a member of Spain’s secret service telling him his adventures. Believe me, John got an earful after that dinner about future seating arrangements.

But overall it was an amazing experience, and the people I met were among the best.

Recently in Crux we have had a few stories about the official number of visitors in Rome in 2016 being down for a jubilee year, probably due to reasons such as terror attacks in Europe. There has been some criticism obliquely launched at Pope Francis’s Year of Mercy not being the tourist magnet that it could have been, or should have been.

There is good reason, of course, to think that Francis didn’t consider tourism when he declared the Year of Mercy anyway. He seemed more interested in highlighting places other than Rome. He opened the holy door of St. Peter’s, but he also opened the cathedral of Bangui’s holy door in the capital of war-torn Central African Republic, emphasizing that the Year of Mercy was to be celebrated everywhere.

Having lived in Rome during some of its most crowded events, such as World Youth Day in a sweltering August of 2000, and the death and funeral of John Paul II in 2005 – when the crowds were so thick I couldn’t even break through them to get to the international store where I bought my beloved chocolate-frosted Pop Tarts – I don’t view the 3,952,140 pilgrims who came in 2016 as a loss.

My friend and neighbor visited Rome last month. She was raised a Catholic, but now considers herself more of an agnostic. When we spoke about her trip, she frequently mentioned St. Peter’s and how much she had enjoyed being there and seeing Michelangelo’s Pieta, among other things, so I asked whether that had made her feel proud to be a Catholic.

She hesitated and said not exactly, but that the beauty and history of the place had rekindled something in her, something spiritual. Then she told me how lucky I had been having lived in Rome for so many years. It gave me a very sharp pang of longing for Rome.

That’s how I know tourism may be up and it may be down, but people will always go there.

It’s not just a Catholic thing, though that’s there in spades and is a wonderful and essential part of the Eternal City. If you are Catholic, I would suggest you owe yourself a trip to Rome to see it all firsthand and discover what it’s all about.

Yet the first Jewish community outside of the Middle East was also in Rome, and its footprint is still there in the artisan neighborhood of Trastevere and in the Roman kitchen with its focus on organ meats, not to mention the beautiful streets and terrible history of Rome’s Jewish Ghetto. So it isn’t surprising that a Jew could take pride in Rome just as a Catholic can.

But I would argue that it’s basically non-denominational, and even non-religious. It’s a human pride. Pride for what humans can accomplish on our best day.

By Shannon Levitt





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