Charlie Rich (1899-1998) is one of the most fascinating figures among 20th-century Jews who found the fullness of Truth in the Catholic Church.
Charlie Rich was born to a pious Jewish family in a small Hungarian village. His mother was a pious and spiritually-minded woman; she descended from a Hasidic family known for their work to relieve the poor and needy. When Charlie was still an infant, his father emigrated to the United States to earn money to support his family. Hence, Charlie was brought up by his mother and pious Jews, who lived celibate to have time for studying the Scriptures and commentaries by various rabbinic schools. It was they who taught Charlie to read and write in Yiddish, using for this purpose the first five books of the Old Testament. Already as a small boy, Charlie would go everyday to the synagogue early in the morning to pray. Many years later, he remembered these prayers as a source of great joy. He felt then God’s closeness and love. He liked being alone and silent outdoors in the beautiful Hungarian forests.
In New York City
By the time Charlie was 10 years old, his father had saved enough money to bring his whole family to New York. In this entirely new environment, the boy lost his childlike faith and became an atheist. A decisive impact that made Charlie change his views was made by a teacher of his, who was an agnostic. The loss of faith in the existence of God, however, did not destroy in the young boy the strong desire for truth. Charlie searched for it assiduously by reading all kinds of books in the local library. By the time he was thirty-three, he had read almost all the most important works of literature, as well as the books by the greatest Christian authors such as St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bernard, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Teresa of Ávila and Bl. John Newman. Fascinated with them, he found it hard to believe, however, that Jesus Christ was God. His disbelief in the existence of God caused Charlie to feel in his heart an ever growing void and led him to give up seeing any sense in life. Finally, a day came when he sank into despair. It was a terrible spiritual torment for him. He came to the conclusion then that the only way out was suicide … Feeling completely broken, Charlie went to the Bronx Park to hang himself. He was about to throw a rope over a tree branch when he heard footsteps behind him. He was frightened… He did not have enough courage to carry out his plan.
His disbelief in the existence of God made Charlie in his heart feel ever greater void and stop seeing any sense in life. Finally, a day came when he sank into despair
Soon afterwards, on a hot summer day, when passing by a Catholic church, he thought of going in, but a fear grasped him that he might be asked to leave. Despite the fear, Charlie did go inside because he wanted to cool down and rest. The church was silent; the young man was alone; he sat down and felt completely at peace while his attention was drawn to a stained-glass window representing the scene of Jesus calming a storm (Luke 8: 22-25).
He became a new man
Looking at the stained-glass window representing the scene from the Gospel of Jesus calming a storm, Charlie felt a great desire to believe, with the same certainty and strength as did those who came here, prayed and believed, that Christ had really existed, died and resurrected and that his words noted in the Gospel were true. A thought occurred to him that if all that had been true, then human life, suffering and death would have had some sense, and the truth about Christ would have been a source of unending happiness. This, however, seemed to him too wonderful and unreal to be true. Charlie came to the conclusion that he faced an illusion, a fraud and falsehood. While he was thinking, he suddenly heard very clear words that left him stupefied: “Of course, it is true, Christ is God, is God come down to make Himself visible in the flesh. The words in the Gospels are true, literally true.”
These words made Charlie fall to his knees, begin to pray fervently and offer thanks. The grace of God’s merciful love fell upon him and healed his wounded soul. It was a mystical experience of God’s presence, the certainty of his existence, the tenderness of his care and infinite mercy.
“I have, since my Baptism and First Communion, acquired a happiness which I would not exchange for anything in all the world” (Ch. Rich)
From this moment on, as he himself wrote, the story of his life took on a new spiritual quality which is hard to describe in human words as it concerns coming to know of Christ’s love, surpassing all knowledge (cf. Eph 3:19). This mystical experience transformed the man’s entire system of values. Charlie knelt and thanked the Lord for coming himself to his rescue and telling him in person that Christ was God. During this prayer, God completely transformed his spiritual and intellectual life. Charlie became a new man. It was a spiritual rebirth of which Christ speaks: “You must be born from above” (John 3:7); and St. Paul writes: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor 5:17). Charlie felt indescribable spiritual joy and gratitude for this absolutely undeserved gift of conversion. From that day on, the person of our Lord Jesus Christ became everything for him, the greatest Treasure, for which he was prepared to lay down his life. Many years later, Charlie wrote: There was an ineffable fragrance about the words ‘Jesus Christ’, a sweetness with which nothing can be compared. The sound of these words to this day fills me with a strange inexpressible joy, a joy which I feel does not come from this world. I have, since my Baptism and First Communion, acquired a happiness which I would not exchange for anything in all the world. It has given me a peace of mind and a serenity of outlook which I did not think was possible on this earth, ‘the peace of God which surpasses all understanding’ (Phil 4:7).”
Charlie zealously prepared for his baptism for six months. He was baptized in the St. Francis Xavier Jesuit Church in New York City on March 18, 1933. Remembering this great event, Charlie stressed what a great gift and grace baptism was. He wrote that through this sacrament a man “becomes a member of the Mystical Body of Christ the Church of Rome is. Without the Life Christ is, there is no life at all. It is to Heaven we have been made.”
After the conversion, Charlie devoted his life to daily contemplative prayer lasting many hours crowned by the Eucharist and the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. He shared his joy of faith with others and fulfilled God’s will. He wrote: “I become a Catholic so that I may in that way be happy, not just for a few years, but forever and ever. I become a Catholic that I may in that way get the grace to one day participate in the joys of the angels and saints in the life to come. It is to that life the grace of conversion is meant to lead.” After his conversion, Charlie took up residence, as a layperson, in the monastic community of Jesuit Fathers in New York City. It was there that he spent most of his long life: he died aged 99 in 1998.
A man of deep prayer, contemplation and mortification, he wrote down his inspirations, meditations and reflections.
The Catholic Church gives us God himself
Charlie believed that being a Catholic was a special grace from God. Jesus Christ enables everyone who through baptism has become a member of his Mystical Body to have in him his life and love. Jesus continuously gives us his life and love in daily prayer and in the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist. If a Catholic stops praying, he betrays his calling. If he lives in sin and refuses to break with it, scorning God’s mercy, he betrays Jesus and lives in a state of spiritual death which may deprive him of eternal life. Charlie wrote: “I did not become a Catholic to be happy in the present life but in the one to come, my holy Catholic faith being the way that leads to the eternal and everlasting kind of joys they experience in Heaven. Does not St. Paul say that: ‘If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied’ (1 Cor 15:19)?”
“How we should thank God for the fact that we are Catholics, so that we may in that way have Christ with us in the church near we live” (Ch. Rich)
For Charlie, the greatest grace and gift from Divine Mercy was his conversion and membership in the Catholic Church. He asked: “What ‘mercy of the Lord’ can exceed the mercy of God that enables me to believe in all the Catholic Church teaches? Can the mercy of God be made more manifest than in the grace extended to us to become members of the only true Church? It is becoming a Catholic that matters and not in any other thing the world has to offer, be this good and beautiful as it may. The Church of Rome gives us God Himself. It does so in His fullness – a greater gift than God is, a human being cannot hope to receive. We receive the gift God Himself is, when we receive Holy Communion. Can Protestantism and Judaism endow the soul with such a sublime gift? It is to the Church we must go to have God in the fullness He may be experienced by us this side of Heaven […]. To have God in all His fullness we have to have the grace of membership in His Mystical Body. It is the Voice of Christ the Church makes use of when He says: ‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly’ (John 10:10).
There is the beauty in the Church, and it is made manifest in the writings of the fathers and doctors of the Church as well as of all the saints who have ever lived. Christ lives in saints; they exemplify Him in their daily lives and with this exemplification there is the beauty to be found like in the angels and saints in Heaven. The saints bring down this beauty on earth for it is in them that we get a living experience of what the beauty of God is like to man. Do we wish to become beautiful with Christ’s own beauty? If we do, it is to the Church of Rome we must go, and the beauty is to be found in everything she promulgates by way of her liturgy, her chants, her statues and her paintings. It is to the Church of Rome we must go to get a living experience of the beauty of Christ’s being, seeing that His beauty is enshrined in and interwoven with everything she does and is. There is the beauty from Heaven to be had in the Church of Rome and is to be found in the doctrines she promulgates.
And so, one could go on and on writing about all that the Church of Rome is and never come to an end in praising all her divine qualities. Is she not the heavenly Jerusalem which has descended on this earth?”
The real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist
Charlie discovered that the greatest treasure of the Catholic Church was the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. After baptism, the Eucharist became for him the source and summit of his entire Christian life. This is what he wrote about the mystery of the Eucharist: “There is a need in the soul for the presence of God in His naked essence. And, although some people like to speak of the ‘historical Christ’, it is Christ on the altar that matters so much for a member of the household of the true faith. […] How joyous, how tremendously peaceful the hours have been that as a Jewish convert I have spent in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament! How sorry I feel for my fellow Jews who failed to have their God in that way in their own synagogues! […] In ancient times, God dwelt in the “ark”. He does so today in the tabernacle on an altar, in front of which a light burns to tell us that the Lord and Creator of the universe is there present in the Sacramental Presence of His Divine Son. […] What can any religion have to offer which cannot give us Christ in His Eucharistic Presence? So that when we go to the place where He is there present, so that we can ‘taste and see that the Lord is good’ (Ps 34:8), we get the foretaste of what we are going to experience when we find ourselves in the state of glory together with Christ.
There is a sweetness of Christ to be experienced in the Church of Rome in which He has deigned to take up His Blessed Abode, so that we walk into a church we get the feeling we are in the infinite bliss that name designates for a believing human being. For a believing human being, Heaven denotes Christ the Lord, that word having Him alone in view. I think of all this as I find myself praying before the Blessed Sacrament. I think of all this, and as I do so, I am filled with compassion for the Jewish people who have no Christ on their altar to turn to for comfort in their innumerable earthly needs, for the kind of consolation to be had in Christ alone in His Eucharistic Presence […].
Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth; for the Lord has spoken: ‘I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand’ (Isa 1:2-3). It is of the Jewish people these words have been written. I get a depressing feeling every time I pass a synagogue, knowing Christ has now transferred His presence from that place to where He exists in His Sacramental state. I think of all this, and a dreary feeling comes over me, and I pray for those who know not Christ in His sacramental state. Not knowing Christ in that state, they do not have the grace to love the Love Itself Jesus is. ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest’ (Matt 11:28) – our Lord says to the Jewish people.
“My holy Catholic faith is the ticket to eternal and endless joy in heaven” (Ch. RIch)
How we should thank God for the fact that we are Catholics, so that we may have Christ with us in the church near where we live. As Catholics, we don’t have to go far away to find Christ, seeing that in His Sacramental Presence He resides at our very doorstep, in the nearest church that we happen to find ourselves in. To have Heaven, we only need to step inside and make an act of faith in the Real Presence, seeing that in that way we can all rise to the heights of the most sublime kind of prayer it is in the province of a human being to experience. And although in the Old Testament God performed wondrous deeds, they’re surpassed to an infinite degree by making Himself available to us in the Holy Eucharist. What are the marvels performed by Moses compared to those performed by the priest during the act of Consecration?
All for Jesus
Charlie was uncompromising and claimed that a believer in Christ should not do anything half-heartedly but should be all for Jesus, serve him and love him with undivided love. The psalmist speaks of Christ: “You are the most handsome of men” (Ps 45:2). From the very first day of his conversion, Charlie admired the beauty of the person of Christ. He wrote: “If we fail to be in Christ, we are in the eyes of God nothing at all, seeing that Christ constitutes the sole Reality this universe contains; without Christ rooted in our deep inner being, we are nothing at all. In fact, without faith in Christ nothing has any meaning. […] We are not born to become this or that; we are born to be the truth-seekers God wishes us to be, the Truth our Lord Himself said He was in the words, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life’ (John 14:6). In my case, the quest for God’s truth led me to the feet of St. Peter in the city of Rome, so it is for this reason I have the grace to find myself a member of the Mystical Body of Christ.”
After his conversion, Charlie’s life became a song of gratitude as we read in a psalm: “Sing to him a new song” (Ps 33:3). Wholeheartedly and with great joy, he continually thanked God for the grace of faith and being member of the Catholic Church.
He wrote: “And so, as a former member of Judaism, I sing this song with all those who are the recipients of a similar grace. With St. Paul we all say, ‘For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God’ (Gal 2:19-21).”
From the first day after his becoming a Catholic, Charlie desired, like St. Paul, to free himself from earthly life and be with Christ (Phil 1:23). He wrote that at the time of baptism, the gates of heaven opened for him. During devout contemplation he heard heavenly music and strongly desired to depart this world as soon as possible and go to heaven: “I find myself drawing near the goal of my heart’s desire Jesus in the state of glory is, so I wonder why am I being detained on this earth? But I realize God has His own reasons for this kind of detention, so I say fiat, and with this word comes a peace of soul I would not exchange for all the wealth of the world.”
Source: Honey from the Rock, compiled
by Roy Schoeman, San Francisco 2007.