The world was saddened to learn this week of the passing of Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger, the former Archbishop of Paris, at the age of 80.
Cardinal Lustiger served as the spiritual leader of France and the public face of the Catholic Church in that nation for 24 years. Pope Benedict expressed his profound sorrow, stating: “I give thanks to the Lord for his Episcopal ministry." French President Nicolas Sarkozy described him as a “great figure of the religious, moral, intellectual and spiritual life of our country.”
Lustiger was born into the Jewish faith of Polish immigrant parents, who ran a hosiery shop. They sent him to Orleans from Paris to take refuge from the Nazis during the Second World War, where in 1940, at the age of 14, Aaron Lustiger converted to Roman Catholicism from Judaism and adopted the name Jean-Marie. His parents were later sent to the infamous concentration camp at Auschwitz, where his mother died at the hands of the Nazis.
Shortly after being named the Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Lustiger alluded to his Jewish background, stating: “I was born Jewish and so I remain, even if that's unacceptable for many. For me, the vocation of Israel is bringing light to the goyim. That's my hope and I believe that Christianity is the means for achieving it.” Some saw things differently, as confirmed by The Jerusalem Post, which reported his death with a disturbing headline reading “Apostate French cardinal dies at 80.” The Post's obituary went on to quote the harsh opinion of Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau that Cardinal Lustiger had “betrayed his people and his faith during the most difficult and darkest of periods.” The Post's unfortunate headline and the Rabbi's comments are a sadly one-sided commentary on a man who was an outspoken opponent of anti-Semitism and promoter of the Catholic-Jewish dialogue.
Known not only for his commitment to Catholic-Jewish relations but also for his strong devotion to spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ as a bishop, he gained a reputation as enthusiastic proponent of the “new evangelization.” A gifted speaker and intellectual, the late Cardinal created a Catholic radio station, Radio Notre Dame, and authored more than 20 spiritual books and is largely credited with the religious reawakening in secular France.
“The strength of evil can only be answered with an even greater strength of love," he noted at a 2005 Mass in Lodz, Poland, in memory of the more than 200,000 Jews deported from there to Nazi death camps. During his 80 years as Jew and Catholic, as priest and bishop, and as a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ this holy shepherd of God dedicated his life to witnessing that “strength of love.” We encourage religious and secular leaders alike to model the leadership of this holy man who proclaimed truth with compassion and understanding. May he rest in eternal peace