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Bridging the Divide
U. S. A. | NEWS | NEWS
Rhonda Jones’ journey from Judaism to Catholicism was not without a few surprises.

Rhonda and Larry Jones
Rhonda and Larry Jones

November 5, 2010. Canandaigua, NY. As a little girl growing up in a Conservative Jewish family, Rhonda Jones believed in God, but from a safe distance. 

She believed in his goodness enough to pray to him earnestly over a certain beloved tulip in the spring, but she also knew that God was to be feared. Every year, at Rosh Hashanah, God wrote in his Book of Life who was going to live and who was going to die in the coming year. On Yom Kippur, they had to apologize for all of their sins, including some rather impressive ones whose names she didn’t understand. If there was one thing she was sure about, it was that God was to be respected from across a chasm of distance and majesty.

Growing up in Ithaca, New York, her childhood was bright and cheerful. Her parents were friends with people from every background, including the members of the small Jewish community there and the Catholics with whom her dad had grown up playing sports. And although Rhonda was usually the only Jewish girl in her classroom every year, she always felt welcome and “special” for being different. The community, enriched by the presence of Cornell University, was remarkably diverse, with students and faculty from all nationalities, religions, and backgrounds.

At age 13, Rhonda decided to plunge more deeply into her Jewish faith. She joined the United Synagogue Youth (USY), learned Hebrew, and prepared for her Bat Mitzvah. During junior high and high school, she remained very involved in USY.

Going to college at the University of Rochester in western New York was a totally different experience, however. At that time, the university student body was about 50% Jewish, and those students came from mostly Jewish high schools.

“The girls dated only Jewish guys and their shoes matched their purses,” Rhonda recalled. By contrast, her friends were from a diverse range of backgrounds.

Meanwhile, one of her older brothers had married a woman from an actively practicing Jewish family. The two tried hard to steer Rhonda into greater and greater practice of the religion and urged her to marry a Jew, which she did while completing a PhD in clinical psychology.

Because of her own experience with bereavement following a miscarriage in the middle of her first pregnancy, she proceeded to specialize in helping women with pregnancy and neonatal loss and counseling clients with bereavement.

Her marriage
Jones family
Rhonda and Larry with their four children and their respective spouses.
lasted ten years, ending in divorce with two young children. It was shortly after that painful separation that she met Larry.

Extraordinarily blessed

Larry had been widowed for over three years, and had two children of his own. His wife Lucy had died of a heart attack, leaving him with a two-year old and an eight-year old.

Though grieving the loss of a loved one takes a lifetime, Larry’s sadness was accompanied by joy and peace. When Rhonda first met him, he surprised her by saying that he was “extraordinarily blessed.” She soon came to discover that behind his playful and ingenious sense of humor, there was a heart filled with prayer and concern for others. Larry was a sincere Catholic and he lived his faith with an attractive mixture of spontaneity, fidelity, and joy.

Drawn to each other from the start, they decided to get married, first by a judge and shortly after by a Catholic priest, as Rhonda’s first marriage had been declared null. Together with their children they formed an interreligious household. Rhonda’s two children attended Jewish “Day School” and learned Hebrew.  Larry and his two children went to Mass on Sundays.  His children attended Catholic schools during the week. The families celebrated both Passover and Easter, Christmas and Hanukkah. On one occasion, the two parents looked on with amusement when the younger son (Jewish, age 4) and the older son (Catholic, age 14) argued about the proper way to pray.

It was a different kind of Brady Bunch. There was mutual respect and celebration of each other’s traditions, and no pressure to convert on either side.

Shortly before Rhonda met Larry, a Catholic friend of her mother’s back in Ithaca, a certain Mary Mancini, had been praying fervently for Rhonda to find someone she would be very happy with for the rest of her life.

 “I was just so touched that she would want to do that,” said Rhonda. “It was the first time I felt in a whole new way such confirmation that there really is a God who listens to our prayers.  When I heard about her prayers, I knew that God had answered them.”

Little did Rhonda know that there were more prayers lifted up on her behalf, and that God was busy answering those, too.

Zacchaeus, come down!

Years later, as Rhonda and Larry were building up a network marketing business, she was busy attending networking events so that she could recommend them to the folks in their networking business. One of the events on her agenda was an ecumenical service on Sunday.

“Ecumenical, my foot,” she said, looking back. It was purely non-denominational Christian. But she attended anyway, keeping an open mind.

At one of the talks, a preacher expounded on the Gospel passage of Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus, who had climbed up into the sycamore tree to be able to see Jesus better over the crowd. Something about that Gospel passage worked its magic: there was a kind of instant recognition that touched her heart.

“When I heard all of what Jesus did for Zacchaeus in so few words, I immediately knew that Jesus was the Messiah, the one we had been waiting for,” she said. 

After the conference, she called up a Methodist minister friend and asked him what to read.  He suggested she start with one of the Gospels.

“What’s a Gospel?” she responded.

Another friend gave her a biography of Jesus that presented the main Gospel narrative in chronological order. As she read it, she found herself weeping. Then her 8th grade stepdaughter performed in a Passion mime at school, and again, she couldn’t stop crying through the entire play.

This was no longer a God to be feared from a distance. This was a God who warmly invited her to come closer, just as he had invited Zacchaeus. And it was a God who himself had “come down” from heaven to earth out of love.

Mixed reactions

She was seriously considering converting, and she chose Catholicism to practice her Christianity with Larry. But Rhonda, not understanding the Mass at all, was reluctant to attend Larry’s church because she found the Mass there to be too traditional.

She had previously attended a special Mass at a Catholic church in Rochester, NY for couples who had lost babies during pregnancy.  Larry knew that she had a good experience there, and although some aspects of the liturgy did not sit well with him, he switched parishes so that they could worship where Rhonda might feel more comfortable. Before long, they began forming new friendships and getting involved with the community, occasionally attending daily Mass as well.

When Rhonda joined the RCIA program, she met with mixed reactions. On the one hand, Larry was beaming with joy. But her two children were uncomfortable with her decision.

“It was hard for me because I did not want to hurt my children, but I also felt that I had to claim Christ. People would ask me, ‘Why don’t you wait five years?’ But I felt that I had to be honest and coherent -- that I had to do it,” she said.

When she told Larry’s previous parish priest, who had married them and now was dying of cancer, he wept for joy.

The Body of Christ… broken

Just a few months after she had completed the RCIA program and entered the Church, Rhonda and Larry faced a painful surprise.

The priest, who had brought her and 20 other people into the Catholic faith, went into schism, bringing about 90-95% of the parish with him. A very small number of people stayed, including Rhonda and Larry. Up until then they had become familiar with the many wonderful things the parishioners were doing for the community. In a way, this counterbalanced some of the growing expressions of ideology and hopes (not in conformity with the Magisterium) expressed by various parishioners and leadership.

The months following the schism were something of a nightmare. An attempt by Larry to offer the breaking-away parishioners a way to return, save face, and be faithful was immediately
Corpus Christi parish
Members of the schismatic Corpus Christi parish stand beneath their banner.
rejected at a meeting. The diocese sent another priest in to care for the remaining members of the parish, but he faced constant agitation from schismatic protesters.

At the new priest’s first Mass, the people who sided with the old priest decided to disrupt it by “striking from serving.” One of them was Rhonda’s RCIA sponsor, a religious sister.

When others tried to distribute Holy Communion, the agitators gave dirty looks. One stood directly in front of a substitute Eucharistic minister with his arms crossed, blocking others from receiving. When Larry saw that happening, he planted himself in front of a protestor with his own arms crossed so that the minister could sidestep him and distribute Communion.

Weekly, another woman protester climbed up on the altar and stood there through the Mass with her arms crossed in silent protest of anyone who was attending the Mass.

The name of the schismatic parish was Corpus Christi.

All throughout, there was a huge banner above the altar that said, “Can’t Hold Back the Spring.” It was the battle cry of the schismatic group, which was in favor of women’s ordination, gay marriage, and the open distribution of Communion to anyone who wanted it, even non-Catholics. In fact, Rhonda had been receiving the Eucharist for months before her baptism.  The parish omitted prayers for the Pope and the Creed was not recited during Mass.

When the new priest came in to the parish, Larry asked him if he would like him to take down the banner. The priest hesitatingly acknowledged that he didn’t want it up, so Larry took it down. But when the schismatics found out that Larry had silenced their battle cry, they threatened him with arrest, and he had to find someone in the diocese to give it to. It was put back up soon afterward. 

Later, when the bishop was in the hospital, protesters walked in a circle outside his residence in protest. Larry also showed up and walked in his own circle, by himself, holding a paper plate with the words “For the Bishop” written in black marker.

Finding Mary

At around that same time, the couple had to leave town to attend to dying relatives in other cities, including their daughter-in-law, who died of cancer at the age of 26. Rhonda and Larry traveled for months.

When they came back, the TV cameras were still everywhere, searching for a story and exploiting the controversy. Exhausted by grief and angered by the circus, they decided to leave the parish and look for a true community of faith, which they found at Immaculate Conception parish, a vibrant and faithful African American church in the inner city.

Years later, after moving to from Rochester to Canandaigua in the Finger Lakes, the couple met Regnum Christi consecrated members who were vacationing at the Notre Dame Retreat House, which happened to be across the street from their house.

“We just wanted to be with them as much as we could,” said Rhonda. “We fell in love with them.”

By talking to other Regnum Christi members, Rhonda started watching EWTN and was given Scott Hahn resources to continue learning her faith. She discovered St. Faustina and the Divine Mercy chaplet, learned the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and began reading and listening to tapes. Scott Hahn’s work was particularly interesting to her, since he was able to explain the Jewish roots of Catholicism.

That next April, while on her first silent retreat, she presented a prayer that she had been carrying in her heart as a wish: she wanted to have a relationship with Mary.

As she prayed, all of the Mary’s in her life suddenly came to the forefront of her mind “like a news reel.” She realized that all throughout her life, there had always been women named Mary who had been there for her.

There was Mary Mancini, who had prayed that she would find the right man to marry; the Mary who used to help her mom at home; Larry’s mother Mary; Maria Lucía, Larry’s first wife’s mother, who had remained close to them; and others.

“There were so many Mary’s who had watched over me my whole life. I was just dumbfounded. Mary was there all the time,” she said.

As she and Larry continue to grow in their faith, now as Regnum Christi members, they feel that their past battles have strengthened and sharpened them to seek the essentials and not to be dismayed by the storms that arise. What they cling to is Christ and his Church.

Looking back on the almost 25 years of their marriage, Rhonda remembers one more important detail. Larry walked with her at every stage of her journey across the divide from Judaism to Catholicism, and guided her through the chaos of a schismatic parish, but he never once pushed her into a decision she was not ready to make.

After she had been Catholic for some time, it occurred to her to ask him, “Larry, did you ever pray that I would become Catholic?”

His answer was simple. “Of course.”

This article is part of a series about God’s action in the lives of Regnum Christi members who turned to him in prayer. If you have a story to share, please contact us at this link.


PUBLICATION DATE: 2010-10-26


 
 


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