David Maria Jaeger, a Catholic priest who converted from Judaism, will be installed this morning as a prelate auditor of the Roman Rota, a papal law court that serves as the chief appellate court of the Catholic Church.

Jaeger has come a long way from his youth in downtown Tel Aviv. He attended Bilu Elementary School, at that time a school for Tel Aviv's religious Zionist bourgeoisie, studied at the Zeitlin religious high school and from there, went all the way to the Holy See's highest court.

His sister Leah flew in from Israel yesterday morning for the event, bringing a special sculpture made especially for the new auditor by Menashe Kadishman. The artist hammered out the image of Jesus on the cross, with his head on the upper edge of the cross and his hands bound to its sides.

Attorney Chaim Stanger, a close friend of Jaeger's from their days together at Bilu, was also invited, but will be unable to attend because he has been under house arrest for the last few months.

Jaeger's appointment to the Holy See's highest judicial body - comprising 20 auditors hand-picked by the pope and headed by Dean of the Rota Antoni Stankiewicz - is considered a personal sign of appreciation by the pope for Jaeger's years as legal adviser to the delegation that negotiated the Vatican's Fundamental Agreement with Israel. This pact, signed in 1993, enabled the establishment of diplomatic relations between the parties the following year.

Jaeger, 56, was born in Tel Aviv to Gershon, a legendary history teacher at the Ironi A High School, and Dvora, who served as Brazil's deputy consul in Israel.

"He was a genius, physically large, an intellectual at a young age," Stanger said. "He spoke unusually maturely for his age. And children abused and hurt him."

As a teenager, Stanger continued, "Jaeger disappeared for six years." When he returned, at 22, he met Stanger and told him, "You know, I'm now in the church."

"I have a black hole regarding the period between the ages of 16 and 22," Stanger said. "He returned a doctor of theology and never spoke of the process he underwent. He told me, 'Chaim, when the time comes, we'll talk.'"

In the 1980s, Stanger came to his friend's aid, defending him in a report that Channel 1 television did about Jaeger. Rabbi Shlomo Goren, at whose north Tel Aviv synagogue Jaeger's father prayed, had attacked the younger Jaeger, terming him a meshumad - a derogatory word for someone who converts away from Judaism that literally means "destroyed."

Jaeger asked Stanger to defend him, and the latter told Channel 1, "A person cannot be wiped out, his soul cannot be killed."

Stanger noted that Jaeger's father acted "as if he didn't know his son had converted to Christianity, because as I understood it, this wasn't something they spoke about. But he was loved by both his parents; his mother also gave him support and love."

Another person who became Jaeger's friend is Prof. Arie Nadler, a former dean of Tel Aviv University's School of Social Sciences. The two met several years ago at a university symposium on the subject of prejudice.

"He came dressed as a Franciscan priest, but he was immediately familiar to me," Nadler said yesterday. "He looked just like his father, who was my admired history teacher at Ironi A and a significant and special figure in my life. He began to tell us about himself, and it was very exciting to me. We met several times, in Rome as well, and we became friends.

"He is a special man," Nadler continued. "He's told me about his deep ties to Israel. We didn't delve deeply into the reasons for his Christianity. He only gave hints."

When Jaeger was asked yesterday whether he feels Israeli, he replied, "at least as much as you do," adding, "I'm just like any Israeli citizen who works for an international organization situated outside the country - just like there are Israelis at the International Monetary Fund in Washington, the UN in New York or UNESCO in Paris. I am in a supra-national international body, that's the only the difference."

"I'm a loyal and patriotic son of our people and our country," he said. "After all, that was the whole point of the Jewish people's emancipation in the 19th century, that we would become a nation, not a religious minority among gentiles. A person can live according to his conscience, he can not believe in any religious faith or believe in one rather than another, all according to his own intellectual conscience."

Jaeger held two important positions en route to this appointment: legal adviser to the Holy See in the negotiations with Israel and, in the 1990s, head of the Diocesan court of Austin, Texas, which rules on issues of canon law such as marriage annulments.

Over the past two decades, he has divided his time among Israel, Rome and the United States. He will hold his new post until age 75.