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Ritual, faith and a case of kidnapping


Issues of faith and the power of ritual in Judaism and Catholicism are central themes of a new Off-Broadway play that uses a little-known story from the darker side of church history as its theatrical backdrop. These historical abuses won’t be little known for long, however, if the author of “A Ritual of Faith” achieves his goal of worldwide production. “A Ritual of Faith” came to New York’s Theatre Row March 2, running through April 6 at the Lion Theatre, following earlier productions in Pittsburgh and Chicago.

The play is inspired by the 19th-century story of Edgardo Mortara, a 6-year-old Jewish Italian boy who was taken from his parents in the Roman ghetto by the Catholic church and raised by Pope Pius IX (1846-78). Brad Levinson, a surgeon and author of three other plays, learned of the historical abduction more than 25 years ago. A Jewish history buff, he was inspired eight years ago to write the play.

“The kidnapping of a child on the basis of ritual is as dramatic as it could be,” he said during a telephone interview from his practice at Pittsburgh’s Mercy Hospital.

In the play, Aaron Congedo, who is described as being 10 or 11, was secretly baptized as an infant by a Catholic servant who thought the boy was dying. When the Holy Inquisitor, Fr. Pietro Santini, learns this, he orders the child be “returned to his rightful family” -- the church.

The issue of ritual in faith is highlighted in an exchange between David, Aaron’s father, and a monk who guards the boy at a monastery. “What kind of religion splashes water on someone’s head, says a prayer, and then says you are a member of our faith?” David asks. The monk counters with: “What kind of religion inflicts the awful pain on a newborn baby by cutting the most sensitive part of his body and then says you are a member of our faith?”

Levinson says he first experienced the hold rituals can have over people when, as a child during the High Holy Days, his Orthodox grandmother took him to a Manhattan bridge, held out a handkerchief and symbolically emptied it into the water as a sacrificial offering of atonement. “I’m not sure I fully believed it, but I know she did. It forced me to think about the power of ritual.”

Another theme of the play deals with faith. When Aaron’s uncle, Yaacov, tries to intercede with Santini on the family’s behalf, he tells the priest he envies his ability “to offer eternal life to your followers.” Santini says it is an honor given him by the pope, to which Yaacov replies in an aside: “Even more enviable, the fact they believe it.” Yaacov finally realizes he can’t change Santini’s mind because the priest is a man “not of truth but of faith.”

In a later exchange, Santini explains to Yaacov that what makes a Christian is faith: “First he believes and only then can he understand. The problem with you Jews is you want to understand before you believe. That is not the Lord’s way.”

Levinson says he hopes audiences pick up on this difference between Jews and Catholics, and that the play will help them understand each other better. “The dialogue between Catholics and Jews has come a long way in the last few years, but the emphasis has been on the Holocaust and the church, not the kind of things that led to the Holocaust. This issue of these baptism kidnappings has never been discussed to any degree.”

Interestingly enough, it has been among Jews that Levinson has found resistance to discussing them now. When he sought the help of a leader of the Jewish community in Rome, she read his play and told him she would make sure it was never done there. Her reason was because Aaron’s parents discuss conversion as a way of getting their son back.

“It was fascinating, but I was very hurt by it,” Levinson says. Nevertheless, the play has been translated into Italian and Levinson went to Italy to secure the copyright.

When he told a Holocaust survivor about the historical abductions of Jewish children, the man told him they never could have happened or he would have heard of them. “He said, ‘They did a lot to us, but not this,’ ” Levinson says. “Even people you think would know, don’t.”

Levinson never sought the advice of Catholic clergy. “I wouldn’t dare send it to the church for fear they’d have the ability to stop it,” he says, adding that he did show it to a Catholic friend who told him, “It will get to New York one day.” Levinson said, “I thought she was crazy.”

The New York production will include at least two post-performance discussions, which Levinson says may help Jews and Catholics see each other differently: “Jews probably need to trust the church a little more. It’s hard for Jews, including me, because of the past, to admit they’re going to trust Catholics more. Catholics have to understand their past. I’m not trying to change things historically or politically. It occurred. You can’t change that.”

Levinson hopes “A Ritual of Faith” will get published so it can be widely done. “My ultimate goal is that it will last past when I’m dead. If it’s done in New York and then closes, I will have failed. My mission is to get it done throughout the world.”

Retta Blaney’s latest book, Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life Through the Eyes of Actors, will be published in late summer by Sheed & Ward.

Related Web site

Emerging Artists Theatre Company

National Catholic Reporter, March 21, 2003