Jean-Marie Lustiger, French Cardinal, Dies at 80
By JOHN TAGLIABUE
August 6, 2007
As archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Lustiger (pronounced li-sti-ZHAY) led France’s 45 million Catholics for almost a quarter century, until his retirement in 2005.
He was an early champion of interfaith relations and accompanied John Paul to Damascus, Syria, in 2001, when John Paul became the first pope to set foot in a mosque. Earlier, Cardinal Lustiger was involved in efforts to close a divide between Jews and Christians over the presence of a convent at the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, where his mother had perished.
Jewish-Christian relations were a concern of his throughout his career. He spoke on that theme repeatedly. But his assertions that he had remained a Jew despite his conversion drew outcries from some Jewish leaders.
“I believe he saw himself as a Jewish Christian, like the first disciples,” said Gilbert Levine, the conductor and a close friend of the cardinal.
Like John Paul, Cardinal Lustiger was a conservative. He opposed abortion and the ordination of women and married men to the priesthood, and he sought to preserve the priestly vow of celibacy. He was accused of replacing older, liberal clergymen with younger, conservative successors.
He was also amiable and often informal. He would wear loafers and black corduroy suits with stylish cuts and sit on the edge of a desk, legs dangling, as he talked to students in a packed church hall. But the core of his message was traditionalist.
Besides his Jewish heritage, he was an unlikely and surprising choice to lead the Roman Catholic Church in France as archbishop. A former parish priest, he had few patrons in the French church establishment and had made a point of saying he felt more at ease talking to children and workers than to clerics.
But it was precisely his outsider status that may have appealed to John Paul, a fellow Pole. The pope was concerned that France had grown complacent about its Roman Catholicism. On a visit to the country in 1980, he had asked, “France, what have you done with the promises of your baptism?”
Many church analysts said they believed that John Paul had intended to provoke the French church by skirting the ecclesiastical bureaucracy and choosing a son of Polish Jewish immigrants to be archbishop — a man whom the Nazis had forced to wear the yellow Star of David during the occupation of Paris.
But once installed, Cardinal Lustiger used his intelligence and frankness, and not least his sense of humor, to try to disprove the pope’s fear that the French church was, in John Paul’s words, Rome’s “tired, oldest daughter.”
Cardinal Lustiger had been ill for some months, though the cause of his death was not provided. “In the course of phone conversations that I had with Jean-Marie Lustiger in the course of the last weeks, I found a man of great courage, lucid about his condition, but full of the hope of soon meeting him to whom he had consecrated his life,” President Nicolas Sarkozy said in a statement announcing his death.
Aaron Lustiger was born on Sept. 17, 1926, in Paris, the first of two children of Charles, who ran a hosiery shop, and Gisèle Lustiger; his parents had met in Paris after moving to France from Poland around World War I.
After the German occupation of France in 1940, Aaron was sent with his sister, Arlette, to live with a Catholic woman in Orléans, where the children were exposed to Catholicism and where Aaron, at 13, against the wishes of his parents, decided to convert. He was baptized in August 1940, adding the name Jean-Marie to Aaron. His sister was baptized later.
In September 1942, their mother was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where she died in 1943; the father survived the war, returning to Paris, where he died in 1982.
After France was liberated, the future cardinal studied literature at the Sorbonne before entering the seminary of the Carmelite fathers in Paris in 1946 and later the Institut Catholique de Paris, a training school for the clergy. He was ordained in 1954. His father watched the ceremony from a seat far in the back.
Until 1959, Cardinal Lustiger was student chaplain at the Sorbonne, and for the next 10 years director of the Richelieu Center, which trained chaplains for French universities. In 1969, he was appointed pastor of Ste. Jeanne de Chantal, in the 16th Arrondissement, one of Paris’s wealthier neighborhoods. He transformed the parish, perhaps a model of the complacency the pope feared, into one of the archdiocese’s most active.
Cardinal Lustiger appeared to have undergone a spiritual crisis in the late 1970s, when he considered leaving France for Israel. “I had started to learn Hebrew, by myself, with cassettes,” he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in 1981. “Does that seem absurd, making your aliyah?” he said, referring to a Jew’s return to Israel. “I thought then that I had finished what I had to do here, that I was at a crossroads.”
Then, in a surprise appointment, he was made bishop of Orléans, the city where he had been baptized. There, he called attention to the plight of immigrant workers in the region.
The pope appointed him archbishop of Paris in January 1981, and if the French clergy were surprised, the appointee felt burdened. “For me,” he told an interviewer, “this nomination was as if, all of a sudden, the crucifix began to wear a yellow star.”
In an early interview as archbishop, he said: “I was born Jewish, and so I remain, even if that is unacceptable for many. For me, the vocation of Israel is bringing light to the goyim. That is my hope, and I believe that Christianity is the means for achieving it.”
Reactions to his appointment were sharp. A former chief rabbi of Paris, Meyer Jays, told an interviewer that “a Jew becoming a Christian does not take up authentic Judaism, but turns his back to it.”
Archbishop Lustiger soon earned the nickname “the bulldozer” for his energetic, impulsive, sometimes authoritarian spirit. He built new churches and founded a Catholic radio station, Radio Notre Dame, and a Catholic television enterprise, KTO. In 1983, he was made a cardinal.
Countering those who said that European youth were not receptive to religion, Cardinal Lustiger in 1997 organized a World Youth Day, which was held in Paris and attended by more than a million people, including John Paul.
He had earlier been involved in the dispute over a convent of Carmelite nuns that had been installed in 1984 near the Auschwitz concentration camp. Many in the Polish church believed that a convent at Auschwitz was justified because Poles had died there. But many Jewish leaders were outraged, saying that 9 of every 10 camp inmates had been Jews.
Roman Catholic prelates, including Cardinal Lustiger, and representatives of Jewish organizations worked out an agreement to move the convent, but the plan was thrown into doubt in 1989 when Cardinal Jozef Glemp of Poland ruled out a move. Cardinal Lustiger pressed John Paul to intervene, and in 1993 the pope ordered the Carmelites to move, resolving the crisis.
In his later years, Cardinal Lustiger accompanied Pope John Paul on his pilgrimages to promote understanding among faiths. But the cardinal’s boyhood decision to be baptized never sat well with some Jewish leaders.
In 1995, while he was visiting Israel, Yisrael Meir Lau, the Ashkenazic chief rabbi and a concentration camp survivor, said Cardinal Lustiger had “betrayed his people and his faith during the most difficult and darkest of periods” in the 1940s. The rabbi dismissed the assertion that the cardinal had remained a Jew.
In response, the cardinal said: “To say that I am no longer a Jew is like denying my father and mother, my grandfathers and grandmothers. I am as Jewish as all the other members of my family who were butchered in Auschwitz or in the other camps.”
He stepped down as archbishop in 2005, but with the pope’s death that year, the cardinal was frequently mentioned as a potential successor.
He countered such speculation with characteristic humor. Asked by a Jewish friend over dinner whether he thought he might become pope, the cardinal responded in French-accented Yiddish, “From your mouth to God’s ear.”