'Jewish' French cardinal dies at 80

Jean-Marie Lustiger, who converted to Catholicism, insisted he remained a Jew.

cardinal and rosen 298 (photo credit: AP [file])
cardinal and rosen 298
(photo credit: AP [file])
Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, a Jew who converted to Catholicism and rose through church hierarchy to become one of the most influential Roman Catholic figures in France, died Sunday, the Paris archbishop's office said. He was 80. Lustiger - whose Polish immigrant mother died in the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz - was archbishop of Paris for 24 years before stepping down in 2005 at the age of 78. Lustiger died in a hospice in Paris, the archbishop's office said. A cause of death was not immediately provided. For years, Lustiger was the public face of the church in mainly Roman Catholic France, speaking out on critical issues and serving as a voice of calm wisdom in tumultuous times. World Jewish Congress (WJC) Deputy Secretary-General Maram Stern released a statement describing Lustiger as someone who "always knew what anti-Semitism, persecution and hatred meant for the Jewish people, and fought strenuously to overcome them. That is what he will be remembered for by many in the Jewish world." Stern said: "Together with the late Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Lustiger was instrumental in fostering dialogue and a better understanding between Catholics and Jews, both on a personal and an institutional level. His efforts are a shining example to those who want foster mutual respect and understanding between religions and cultures." President Nicolas Sarkozy said the country had "lost a great figure of spiritual, moral, intellectual and naturally religious life." Archbishop of Paris Andre Vingt-Trois said Lustiger's "reflections, and his personal history, led him to play an important role in the evolution of relations between Jews and Christians." Lustiger kept largely silent on the tragedy of his mother Gisele, killed at the hands of the Nazis. But during France's National Day of Remembrance to commemorate the deportation and death of French Jews during World War II, Lustiger, taking part in the reading of names in 1999, came to his mother's. "Gisele Lustiger," he intoned, then added, "ma maman" (my mom), before continuing, Catholic World News reported. "The strength of evil can only be answered with an even greater strength of love," Lustiger said at an August 2005 Mass in Lodz, Poland, in memory of the more than 200,000 Jews deported from there to Nazi death camps. A confidante of former Pope John Paul II, Lustiger represented the then-pontiff at commemoration ceremonies for the 60th anniversary in January 2005 of the liberation of Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp where his mother died. It was his second trip to Auschwitz, after a 1983 visit. "I don't want to return, because it is a place of death and destruction," Lustiger told reporters. "If I am going, it is because the pope asked me." Lustiger announced in April 2007 that he was being treated for a "grave illness" at a Paris hospice for the terminally ill. On May 31, Lustiger, bound to a wheelchair, made an emotionally charged appearance at the prestigious Academie Francaise to say goodbye to his fellow "immortals," as the 40 members of the Academie are known. The author of numerous books, Lustiger was made a member of the Academie Francaise in 1995. Despite his diminished physical appearance, "we felt his fervor," fellow member Jean-Marie Rouart said later. An atypical archbishop and cardinal, Lustiger appeared to have perfectly synthesized his Jewish heritage with his chosen faith. "Christianity is the fruit of Judaism," he once said. "For me, it was never for an instant a question of denying my Jewish identity. On the contrary," he said in Le Choix de Dieu (The Choice of God), conversations published in 1987. Born Aaron Lustiger on September 17, 1926 in Paris to Polish immigrant parents who ran a hosiery shop, he was sent to the town of Orleans, 130 kilometers south of the capital, to take refuge from the occupying Nazis. There, Lustiger, who was not a practicing Jew, converted to Catholicism in 1940 at the age of 14, taking the name Jean-Marie. Two years later, his mother was deported to Auschwitz. He was ordained a priest in April 17, 1954, in Paris, after earning degrees in philosophy and theology from the Catholic Institute's Carmes Seminary. For 15 years, he served as chaplain to students at the Sorbonne University, reportedly zipping on a motorbike through the winding streets of the Latin Quarter, the Left Bank student neighborhood. Lustiger was appointed pastor of the Sainte Jeanne de Chantal parish, holding the post for 10 years until 1979, the year he began his swift climb up the hierarchy. As bishop of Orleans in 1979, Lustiger was named archbishop of Paris in 1981. Two years later, in 1983, Pope John-Paul II made him a cardinal. Despite his role as a "prince of the Church," Lustiger remained an eminently grass roots figure, creating a Christian radio station, Radio Notre Dame, in 1981 and expounding on issues ranging from the August 2003 heat wave that killed thousands of people in France to the building of a united Europe. In contrast, Lustiger kept his personal journey of conversion a mostly private matter. However, he called for a "true dialogue" between Christians and Jews in a 2002 book, La Promesse (The Promise) that delved into Judeo-Christian relations and "the mystery of Israel." He specified that "Israel" in the book was the biblical reference to the Hebrews, not the Jewish state. The book is a collection of oral meditations made in 1979 to a community of monks as well as more recent addresses at several Jewish conferences. In an October 2003 interview in the French daily Le Figaro, Lustiger said that the "center of living gravity of the Church" was moving from its old center to Africa, the Americas and elsewhere, and predicted that, in the third millennium, Asia would become the new land of evangelization. A funeral Mass for Lustiger was to be held Friday at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, the Paris archbishop's office said.