Becoming Catholic #4: A Comedy, on Why a Medieval Jew Became a Medieval Catholic—The Story of Abraham

Making Wisdom Popular

The “Becoming Catholic” blog series is a multi-part, multi-year, bite-size, fact-focused attempt at describing the journey of a lifelong protestant to the Catholic Church.  You can read all the individual articles here.

This is the story of how a Medieval Jew, the most unlikely of candidates for Christian baptism, became a Christian, despite the best efforts of the clergy—lightly adapted from the “Second Story” of The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio, a collection of stories told in 1348 by some bored Florentines seeking relief from the scourge of the Black Death.

This amusing story shows how the worst of things prompted the best of decisions. It expresses, in a satirical manner, one of the great reasons I myself decided to become a Catholic—because the Church continued to stand athwart history, tenaciously consistent and stable despite the best efforts of Her clergy. My hope is that as this series continues, this assertion will become increasingly convincing. In the meantime, it’s time for a good—and instructive—laugh.

As the great convert Hilaire Belloc once said: “The Catholic Church is an institution I am bound to hold divine—but for unbelievers a proof of its divinity might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight.”[1]

The Decameron.jpg

A Stalwart Jew, and a Pesky Gentile

Our story begins with Jehannot de Chevigny, a Parisian merchant.  Jehannot had a Jewish friend named Abraham, and because he cared so much for his eternal soul, he decided to discuss the Christian faith with him.

Abraham told Jehannot that he believed “no faith to be sound and holy except the Jewish,” and that the faith of his birth would be the faith of his death.[2]

After being pestered by and presented with so many arguments and proofs by Jehannot for so long, Abraham finally relented, and responded:

Now listen, Jehannot, you would like me to become a Christian, and I am prepared to do so on one condition: that first of all I should go to Rome, and there observe the man whom you call the vicar of God on earth, and examine his life and habits together with those of his fellow cardinals; and if they seem to me such that, added to your own arguments, they lead me to the conclusion that your faith is superior to mine, as you have taken such pains to show me, then I shall do as I have promised; but if things should turn out differently, I shall remain as I am at present.[3]

Jehannot, previously so optimistic about the prospects of Abraham converting, was thrown into a deep gloom upon hearing of his desire to visit Rome.  “I have wasted my energies, which I felt I had used to such good effect, thinking I would finally convert him,” he said to himself, “for if he goes to the court of Rome and sees what foul and wicked lives the clergy lead, not only will he not become a Christian, but, if he had already turned Christian, he would become a Jew again without fail.”[4]

He thereupon attempted to convince Abraham that a trip to Rome was not necessary.  “[W]hy should you want to put yourself to the endless trouble and expense involved in going all the way from here to Rome?” he asked.

Abraham rebuffed him, and insisted on visiting Rome, for if indeed what Jehannot was saying was true, it was worthy of Abraham’s investigation.  As a result, Jehannot felt all but certain that Abraham, after seeing the rot and corruption in Rome, would never become a Christian.

Abraham Visits Rome

So Abraham mounted his horse, and headed to Rome, where he was welcomed by fellow Jews.  But quietly, surreptitiously, he began to observe the Pope, the cardinals, and other ecclesiastical dignitaries.  He saw that “practically all of them from the highest to the lowest were flagrantly given to the sin of lust, not only of the natural variety, but also of the sodomitic, without the slightest display of shame or remorse…”[5]  On closer examination, he also realized they were little more than a bunch of money-grubbers, and when not controlled by lust were the beasts of avarice. (How little things have changed.)

So Abraham returned home to Paris, disgusted by what he had seen.

Abraham Returns

After a few days, Jehannot decided to broach the subject of his trip to Rome.  “[W]hat sort of an opinion [have you] formed about the Holy Father and the cardinals and the other members of the papal court?”[6]

Abraham responded:

A bad one, and may God deal harshly with the whole lot of them.  And my reason for telling you so is that, unless I formed a wrong impression, nobody there who was connected with the Church, seemed to me to display the slightest sign of holiness, piety, charity, moral rectitude, or any other virtue.  On the contrary, it seemed to me that they were all so steeped in lust, greed, avarice, fraud, envy, pride, and other like sins and worse (if indeed that is possible), that I regard the place as a hotbed for diabolical rather than devotional purposes.  As far as I can judge, it seems to me that your pontiff, and all of the others too, are doing their level best to reduce the Christian religion to naught and drive it from the face of the earth, whereas they are the very people who should be its foundation and support.[7]

Jehannot, though not surprised, was crushed.  All of the hard work he had done to convince Abraham, all the proofs he had marshaled, all the arguments he had concocted—it had all been a waste as a result of Abraham’s visit to Rome.

But then something happened that shocked him.  “But,” Abraham said, with eyebrows raised:

Since it is evident to me that their attempts are unavailing, and that your religion continues to grow in popularity, and become more splendid and illustrious, I can only conclude that, being a more holy and genuine religion than any of the others, it deservedly has the Holy Ghost as its foundation and support.  So whereas earlier I stood firm and unyielding against your entreaties and refused to turn Christian, I now tell you quite plainly that nothing in the world could prevent me from becoming a Christian.  Let us therefore go to the church where, in accordance with the traditional rite of your holy faith, you shall have me baptized.[8]

For Jehannot, the drop of his draw was only matched by the rise of his spirits.  He was, indeed, “the happiest man that ever lived.”[9]

So he escorted Abraham to the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, and asked the priest to baptize him.  As soon as the priest heard Abraham affirm that he had freely chosen to be baptized, they asked his sponsor for his new Christian name.  “Call him ‘John,’” Jehannot said. 

After this, Jehannot requested some of the best teachers in Paris to instruct Abraham in the faith, after which the former Jew became “a good and worthy man, holy in all his ways.”[10]

And that is the story of how the Medieval Jew, Abraham, became a Catholic.

The End.

SOURCES

[1]Robert Speaight, The Life of Hilaire Belloc (New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1957), 383.  

[2]Giovanni Boccacio, G.H. McWilliam, trans., The Decameron, “Second Story” (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 38.

[3]Id.

[4]Id. 39.

[5]Id. 40.

[6]Id.

[7]Id. 40-41.

[8]Id. 41.

[9]Id.

[10]Id.

RESOURCES

You can access my conversion story, as well as the writings of the Church Fathers (purchased and free) at the following links:

(1) My Conversion Story (podcast)

(2) Heart, Mind, and Soul: Intellectuals and the Path to Rome (Chapter 7 features my Conversion Story)

(3) “38 Volume Set” of Church Fathers for purchase (physical books)

(4) Church Fathers: New Advent website (the “38 Volume Set” online for free)

(5) Church Fathers: Ethereal Library of Christian Classics website (another free version of the “38 Volume Set”)

Joshua Charles