Aaron Lustiger was born in Paris in 1926 to Jewish parents who had emigrated from Poland. When World War II broke out, the family fled to Orléans. After reading the Christian Bible, the teenage Lustiger felt drawn to the Orléans Cathedral. He decided to convert to Catholicism, with the reluctant consent of his parents, adding Jean-Marie to his baptismal name. Lustiger’s mother Giselle returned to Paris to run the family shop. She was swept up in the Nazi arrests of Parisian Jews. Giselle Lustiger died in Auschwitz in 1943. Meanwhile Jean-Marie studied while hiding at seminary. He later rejoined his father and sister hiding in the south of France until the end of the war.
Lustiger became a priest after the war, which caused a complete rift with his father. He was ordained in 1954 and served as a chaplain to the Sorbonne and then as general chaplain to the universities of Paris. In 1969 he became a parish priest, achieving wide recognition as a preacher who spoke with sincerity, humor and a sharp intellect. He was appointed Bishop of Orléans and then Archbishop of Paris. In 1983 Pope John Paul II elevated him to Cardinal. Generally considered a conservative—he called himself a “Modern Traditionalist”—Cardinal Lustiger maintained positive relationships even with people with whom he disagreed politically.
Criticism of his identity and calling came from all directions. Some Jews, including the Chief (Azhkenazi) Rabbi in Israel accused him of betraying his people and religion by becoming a Christian, but French Jews defended him. Meanwhile some French Catholics complained of his appointment because he was “not truly French,” even though he was born in Paris.
Anti-Semitism and racism has been frequently and violently expressed in French society, and Cardinal Lustiger was a strong verbal opponent of such views. He spoke against xenophobic politicians, holding that all people are equal in dignity because all are created in God’s image. He supported the rights of immigrant workers. Twice he attended commemorations at Auschwitz. At a mass in Lodz, Poland for 200,000 Jews deported to the death camps he said, “The strength of evil can only be answered with an even greater strength of love.” During a time of increasing anti-Semitism Lustiger participated in France’s Day of Remembrance of the deported and murdered Jews. As he joined in the reading of the names of the dead, he came to Giselle Lustiger and tearfully said, “My mama.” The impact of his public witness was electric. In 2003 when wearing of Muslim head scarves prompted an attempt to disallow religious symbols in student’s clothing, Lustinger urged the government to allow such symbols so as not to “disturb a fragile balance” between the state and religion.
Cardinal Lustiger was proud of being Jewish. He spoke Yiddish and entered the synagogue to recite kaddish, the Jewish mourners’ prayer, for his mother. He felt his role as a Christian priest was rooted in the Jewish vision of Israel being a light to the nations. He stimulated a French Catholic statement of repentance for the passivity of the Church during the Holocaust and collaborationist participation in the Vichy regime. He encouraged the development of deeper Jewish-Christian dialog and was given an award for advancing Christian-Jewish relations by the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding. When he died in 2007 his funeral at Notre Dame Cathedral began with his cousin chanting kaddish.
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