In Memoriam: Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger

From The Economist, Aug 16th 2007

Aaron Jean-Marie Lustiger, cardinal and archbishop, died on August 5th, 2007, aged 80

Cardinal Lustiger in Auschwitz AT THE funeral of Jean-Marie Lustiger, at Notre Dame de Paris on August 10th, his second cousin Jonas Moses-Lustiger read a psalm in Hebrew and placed on the coffin a jar of earth that had been gathered on 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 Lustiger 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 Orléans, where his family had taken sporadic shelter in a Catholic household during the war. On Holy Thursday he stole into Orléans cathedral to find it blazing with candles 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 baptised. 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. At the same time, those who thought this a conversion of convenience, to save his hide, were wrong. He had not wanted to save his hide. Like most survivors, he constantly mourned 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 cry.

Motorbike and bulldozer

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 1954-69, "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 François Mitterrand's attempt to secularise Catholic schools. He set up Radio Notre Dame and a Catholic TV station; in his 70s, in 1997 and 2000, he organised joyous World Youth Days in Paris and in Rome. Fervent for evangelisation, "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, unafraid to shout "Merde!" if a crucifix fell over, 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 Orléans, 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.
Cardinal Lustiger and chief rabbi of France Samuel Sirat

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