By Fr. George Welzbacher
August 26, 2007
The newly elected and (conspicuously pro-Arnerican) President of France, Nicholas Sarkozy, interrupted a recent New Hampshire vacation to fly back to France to attend the funeral of Jean-Marie Lustiger, for many years the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris. At the conclusion of the funeral Monsieur Sarkozy flew back at once to the United States to meet with President Bush. This criss-crossing of the Atlantic was a remarkable expression of respect for a remarkable bishop, a convert from Judaism who counted Pope John Paul the Great among his close friends. Among the Cardinal's most visible achievements were the highly successful organization of two World Youth Days, one in Paris in 1997 and a follow-up in Rome in 2000, and the spectacular defeat of a previous French president's effort to secularize Catholic schools.
In its edition of August 18th the British publication The Economist devoted to Cardinal Lustiger the space it allots each week to the obituary of an eminent figure. I reprint the obituary with some abridgement.
* * * * *Cardinal Lustiger The Economist 8/18/07
At the funeral of Jean-Marie Lustiger, at Notre Dame de Paris on August 10, his second cousin Jonas Moses-Lustiger read a psalm in Hebrew and placed on the coffin a jar of earth that had been gathered from the Mount of Olives. Then another cousin, Arno Lustiger, bent over the coffin to recite Kaddish. Only when those things were done was the body of Cardinal Lustiger carried inside the cathedral, where Catholic panoply took over.
There was no question of mixing the rites; the cardinal, said his staff, would not have liked that. Yet they were mixed in himself. He was a Jew by birth, instinct, emotion and devotion; he was a Catholic by conversion and conviction. He cracked Jewish jokes, and put on a suit and kippa to go to synagogue, although the evening would find him in his soutane again. For him, Christianity was simply the fruit of Judaism; his first religion came to completion in his second. Christ, in his eyes, was the Messiah of Israel, His cross worthy of a yellow star. And since the mission of Israel was "to bring light to the goyim ", preaching the gospel became his own mitzvah.
The theology was complicated, despite the jut-jawed charm and aquiline intensity with which it was expressed. Many on both sides did not understand it. The Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel called Cardinal Lutsiger a betrayer of his people; the Jerusalem Post denounced him as an apostate. On the Catholic side, arch-conservatives lamented that their archbishop was not "truly of French origin".
In one sense, this was correct. His father and mother were Polish-Jewish immigrants, keeping a hat-and-drapery shop in Montparnasse, in Paris. The young Aaron had been protected from Christianity, kept inside during Christian festivals and made aware that his grandfather had been a Yiddish-speaking rabbi in Silesia. But he had found a New Testament at his piano teacher's and discovered, as he read it, that he seemed to know this story already.
The moment of conversion came at 14, in Orleans, where his family had taken sporadic shelter in a Catholic household during the war. On Holy Thursday he stole into Orleansc athedral to find it blazing with candies and flowers. The next day, Good Friday, he found the church stripped as a sign of desolation. Christ's presence, followed by Christ's absence, impressed him so deeply that he asked to be baptized. Explaining to his parents was "unbearably painful"; outraged, they called in a rabbi, but the rabbi seemed to think their boy was either deluded, or sensible. Fourteen years later he was ordained a priest.
The future cardinal was convinced, even then, that he had not abandoned one iota of his Jewishness. To say he had, he once explained, "is like denying my father and mother, my grandfathers and grandmothers". He had kept the name Aaron as his first name at baptism, only adding Christian ones.... He constantly moumed the members of his family who had died in the camps, especially his mother, who was transported to Auschwitz in 1942. He would say Kaddish for her on her death day, and on his first visit to Auschwitz, in 1983, he slipped away to kneel in the grass among the barracks, in his archiepiscopal robes with his scarlet skull-cap, and he wept.
Possibly because that wound had never healed, possibly because melancholy kept dogging him, he pursued his career as a priest with a wild, frenetic energy---As a chaplain in the Paris universities, a post he held from 1954 to 1969, "Lulu" was remembered in sharp black corduroys and black loafers, tearing round the Latin Quarter on a motorbike. As Archbishop of Paris, in 1984, he led a demonstration of a million people to protest against Francois Mitterrand's attempt to secularize Catholic schools. He set up Radio Notre Dame and a Catholic TV station; in his 70's, in 1997 and 2000, he organized joyous World Youth Da in Paris and in Rome. Fervent for evangelization, "the Bulldozer" gingered up all his 106 parishes in Paris, summarily shifted clergy who failed to perform, and founded his own seminary, which eventually provided about 15% of the city's priests.
Though a new broom and a gale of fresh air.... he was intellectually conservative. Most of the world's wrongs, including fascism, communism and anti-Semitism, he traced to the Enlightenment and the cult of reason. Relativism and the collapse of moral values he blamed on the student riots of 1968, "this bedlam", in which he had refused to take the students' side. All his instincts and emotions, as well as his Polish background, endeared him to John Paul II, and it was under the mantle of that friendship that he rose first to bishop of Orleans, then to archbishop, and finally to cardinal, all within five years.
But he never forgot. He taught himself Hebrew in readiness for his aliyah, or formal return to Israel. Every detail of his funeral, with its two rites, he carefully arranged himself. Then he wrote his epitaph:
I was born Jewish. I received the name of my paternal grandfather, Aaron. Having become Christian by faith and baptism, I have remained Jewish. As did the apostles.