If I Am Catholic: David Merkowitz

The number of places of worship nationwide is decreasing, but faith remains. What role does faith play in the modern world? We asked five Ohioans to share what it means in their daily lives.

David J. Merkowitz is the Director of Grants and Programs at Ohio Humanities. He has a PhD in History with a focus on the history of Catholics and Jews in the city from the University of Cincinnati. These days, he makes his home with his wife and two boys in Westerville. 

I was a junior at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati when my beloved grandfather John passed away.  

At the time, I was a part of the tech crew for Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. That theatre community was especially tight and a bit drunk on Jesuit spirituality. The Holy Spirit danced with us on stage, sat with us when we held Mass at least once during the run of every show.  

One of the first public outings for my grandma did after my grandpa died was attend the show. We both listened—her from the audience, me from behind the spotlight in the wings—as Cinderella sang to Jack near the end. 

Now you’re on your own.
Only me beside you.
Still, you’re not alone.
No one is alone, truly. 
No one is alone.  
Sometimes people leave you.
Halfway through the wood. 

The song crushed me. Still today, it can bring a tear if I am in a certain cast of mind.  

If I am Catholic, it is because of those grandparents—John and Edna—who I knew and loved. If I am Jewish, it is because of my other grandparents—Hyman and Frances—who passed away before I was born. I stand on the line between their faiths.  

Ten years of Catholic schools, active engagement in parish life through college and beyond, and the full of compliment of sacraments grounds me in my Catholicism.  

I was pretty lucky with the Catholic Church that surrounded me in my youth. The Cincinnati parish I grew up in was a welcoming place with mostly good priests and an excellent school. Attending St. Xavier High School introduced me more fully to Jesuit values and spirituality, and it provided an intellectually engaging place to grow in my faith.  

The University of Toledo, where I went to college, had a thriving campus ministry under the leadership of the renowned Father Jim Bacik. I was so engrossed I even flirted with the idea of joining the Jesuits.  

After that, in graduate school, I found the University of Cincinnati campus parish yet another wonderful spot to nurture my faith and meet my future wife (sorry, Jesuits). 

Then the sex abuse crisis exploded and has remained at a slow, annihilating boil ever since.  

The last 20 years have been more of a struggle. A lot has lashed my faith and connection to the Catholic Church, but generally, the foundation remains.  

Then, there is my Jewish side. My sense of being Jewish happened around the family table at Passover, Hanukkah, and during the High Holidays. Ironically, I have found it easier to engage with my Jewish side since COVID, as I joined High Holiday services from synagogues near and far over Zoom. 

I know, intellectually, that you really can’t be more than one religion at a time. Religions make truth claims, and part of the deal is accepting to one degree or another what the religion teaches. I, however, choose to hold my religions in tension. My decision has been to know as much as I can and not to choose between them.  

I feel strongly enough that the Catholic Church is a net positive that both of my boys are going to Catholic schools and being brought up in the faith. But, like I did, we celebrate our Jewish connection at the Passover Seder, at Hanukkah, during the High Holidays, and hopefully by having house filled with wide-ranging conversation and sources of knowledge where the boys can explore the history, faith, and values of Judaism. 

My family gave me the opportunity to explore religion without judgement, and I hope I am offering my boys the same. 

As I look back now to Grandpa John’s funeral Mass, I remember the sense of purpose and direction that it gave our grief. The ceremony offered a story—an opportunity to at once hold this person we lost in our heart and yet also to pass them along to God.  

Thanks to both of my religions—and, more importantly, my heart’s lived experiences—I see our world as a place pierced by a world beyond our senses and filled with those we loved and those they loved and so on. 

Perhaps, then, it turns out a modern-day musical actually summarizes my beliefs best: 

Still, you’re not alone.
No one is alone, truly. 
No one is alone.