Deacon Levy values his Jewish upbringing

By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

LECLAIRE — As a Jewish boy growing up in New York, Matt Levy could not have imagined his future as a deacon in the Roman Catholic Church. Reflecting on his life’s experiences, Deacon Levy says both religious faiths shape his ministry and walk with God.

Barb Arland-Fye
Deacon Matt Levy and his wife, Lisa, pose for a picture at Our Lady of the River Catholic Church in LeClaire. Deacon Levy grew up Jewish and converted to Catholicism as an adult.

Ordained for the Diocese of Peoria, Illinois, in 2002, Deacon Levy recently moved to LeClaire with his wife, Lisa. Last month, Bishop Thomas Zinkula assigned the 61-year-old deacon, who has a military, engineering and financial advisor background, to serve at Our Lady of the River Parish in LeClaire and Church of the Visitation in Camanche.

“Deacon Levy’s early, lived experience as a Jew, who as an adult converted to Christianity, provided him with a unique opportunity to see how ‘the New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New,’” Bishop Zinkula said. “That, and his deep love of and appreciation for the sacraments, are a great enhancement to the diaconate.”

The deacon’s journey to Catholicism began after he left home in his final year of high school and moved in with a Catholic friend whose family embraced their faith. The Brenner family did not impose Catholicism on the teenager, instead inviting him to Mass and breakfast afterwards at a pancake house. “So I joined them for Mass and pancakes!” While he did not understand what was happening in the Mass, “I wanted what they had.”

His friend’s family made one request of Levy, to contact his biological father, Ralph, who had been out of his life since a difficult divorce. Father and son reconnected and developed a close relationship.

Following high school graduation, the future deacon entered SUNY Maritime College in New York where he and the few Jews in his class did their best to maintain high holy days. After earning his undergraduate degree, he entered the Navy and continued studying the Old Testament.

Deacon Levy met his future wife, Lisa, on a blind date in San Diego while serving in the Navy. Lisa, a devout Catholic and college student in Arizona, was visiting her aunt in San Diego. On a date at the San Diego Zoo, he proposed to Lisa. They officially engaged the following year.

He knew that Lisa wanted to marry in the Catholic Church in her hometown so he talked with her pastor. “He was so encouraging; such a fine, loving man, who made no demands except to keep following the Holy Spirit,” Deacon Levy recalled.

He began attending Bible study with a group led by a Southern Baptist on the naval base where he served. “They knew their New Testament and I knew the Old Testament. Such a synergy!” Afterwards, he received baptism in the Southern Baptist Church. “It really wasn’t a conversion; it was a continuation.”

Lisa and Deacon Levy married in 1985, in her parish church in Illinois. Later, he enrolled in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). On the same day his infant daughter received the sacrament of baptism, he was received in the Catholic Church and completed the sacraments of initiation.

Ten years later, he participated in a Cursillo retreat. By then, he was a husband and father of five working as an engineer in the Illinois Quad Cities. On two separate occasions, two different deacons asked him whether he had considered becoming a deacon. The possibility never crossed his mind.

“I think my willingness to help and be of service, probably from being an Eagle Scout, were reasons for other deacons to see if I had what they thought it took to be a deacon,” he said. “I am also very good at listening and saying I’m sorry, which comes from being married 35 years! Also, while I can be very serious, I have a decent sense of humor and I smile a lot!”

Deacon Levy’s discernment came from “trying to respond to God’s calling. When I would ask him why me, he would say, why not you?”
Like his father, Deacon Levy eventually became a financial advisor. On visits to his father’s home, Deacon Levy prayed the Liturgy of the Hours, which includes psalms from the Old Testament, prayers familiar to his father.

The deacon recalled a conversation with his father, who asked, “I thought you gave everything up to be Catholic?” “Not at all,” Deacon Levy replied. “I’m just continuing the journey.” His father responded, “I want what you have, that peace that you have.”

Ralph Levy enrolled in an RCIA class. When he completed his studies and entered the Catholic Church, his son gave him his first Communion. It is a story Deacon Levy cherishes about his father, who died a couple of years later.

Deacon Levy served his first assignment at St. John Parish in Rapids City, Ill., where he and his family were parishioners, before moving to Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Silvis, Ill. He also served as spiritual director for the Northwest Area Teens Encounter Christ (TEC). As an avid, endurance bicyclist, he has used cycling to “pray and to grow closer to God through the highs and the lows that situations present themselves.”

He said he has always been able to see God’s mercy, “where God enters into the chaos of our lives. Experiencing God’s mercy made me want to share his mercy with others. My life experiences whether good or bad have allowed me to relate to others in a more profound and deeper spiritual way.”

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