Cardinal Lustiger: 10 years after death, Jewish convert still looms over Church in France

Cardinal Lustiger: 10 years after death, Jewish convert still looms over Church in France

Cardinal Lustiger: 10 years after death, Jewish convert still looms over Church in France

Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger at Notre Dame Cathedral on August 15, 1988. (Credit: Claude Truong-Ngoc/Wikimedia Commons.)

Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, the Jewish convert who became Archbishop of Paris, died ten years ago. His epitaph, which he wrote, reads: “I was born a Jew. I received the name of my paternal grandfather Aaron. Christian by faith and by baptism, I remained a Jew, as did the Apostles.”

When Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger died on August 5, 2007, his funeral Mass at Notre Dame Cathedral began with the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead.

It was an unconventional liturgy for a man whose tenure as Archbishop of Paris spanned almost a quarter-century, but it was fitting for a man whose life was marked by defying traditional norms. On the tenth anniversary of his death, it’s impossible to understand the French Catholic Church without reckoning with the indelible mark he left on it.  

Lustiger was born in Paris in 1926 to Polish-Jewish parents who owned a clothing shop on the Left Bank, where the family lived until moving to Orléans in 1939 to flee Nazi persecution. While Lustiger, along with his sister and father survived Nazi occupation, his mother was arrested and taken to Auschwitz where she was murdered in 1942.

These consequential teenage years not only exposed Lustiger to the evils of anti-Semitism, but also inadvertently introduced him to Christianity when he discovered a Bible in the home of his piano teacher.

At age 14, while visiting the cathedral in Orléans on Holy Thursday, he was moved by the rich symbolism of the liturgy he witnessed. He returned the following day on Good Friday and in short order announced he was converting to Catholicism.

Despite his father’s protests — and attempts to have his baptism nullified — Lustiger drank deeply from the waters of Catholicism. After studying literature at the Sorbonne, he enrolled in seminary in Paris and was ordained a priest in 1954.  

One of Lustiger’s first assignments was as a student chaplain in Paris at a time when the universities were filled to capacity following the Second World War. It was here, during the first decade of his priestly ministry, that his student interactions instilled a particular zeal for young people in the Church.

It was also during this time as a Sorbonne chaplain that he was situated in ground zero of the 1968 student uprisings aimed at sparking a Leftist revolution. But if May 1968 proved to be a defining political experience for the nation, it was a religious one for the young priest as he sought to legitimize the Catholic faith as an antidote to the country’s existential crisis.

In 1969, he was appointed to a parish in Paris’s sixteenth arrondissement, where he would spend the next decade engaged in local pastoral responsibilities. While this assignment kept him out of the national spotlight, it didn’t keep him from being noticed in Rome. In 1979—to his surprise and much of the French hierarchy — he was appointed by Pope John Paul II as bishop of Orléans.

Back in Orléans, Lustiger quickly developed a reputation as an energetic bishop — open to new ideas and a willingness to invest in individuals who would execute them. One of those individuals was Matthieu Rougé, a teenager living in Paris at the time. He recalls reading an article in the daily French Catholic newspaper, La Croix, about a young upstart bishop who was quickly becoming known for his impressive communication skills. The article speculated that Lustiger could even become the next Archbishop of Paris.

Less than two years later, in January 1981, a fifteen-year-old Rougé would be present at Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral for Lustiger’s first Mass as the newly appointed archbishop. In an interview with Crux, Rougé recalled how Lustiger’s compelling personal witness of the power of the gospel — and his ability to communicate it with such conviction — would lead him to enter the seminary in Paris a few years later, eventually going on to serve as Lustiger’s eleventh priest secretary from 2000-2003.

The Medium as Metaphor

Around the time Lustiger returned to Paris, President François Mitterand agreed to liberalize French broadcasting laws. Previously, radio had been confined to one national channel and a few select private channels, but with the new changes Lustiger seized this as an opportunity for the Church and founded Radio Notre Dame.

While Lustiger lacked a long-term plan for the radio station, he knew this expanding platform was one the Church must use to its advantage. According to Rougé, Lustiger’s philosophy was pretty simple: “a new opportunity in the world, meant a new opportunity for Christ.”  

And so began Lustiger’s engagement in the realm of communications, though this interest in the media wasn’t merely one-sided. Since his appointment as archbishop, the Paris press had been fascinated by his Jewish background, which created an immediate audience for him—and by extension, the Catholic Church.

Lustiger’s winsome personality and media savvy made him an instant favorite of journalists. He also made it clear that he considered it essential to engage the secular press and would go on to scandalize many traditional French Catholics by granting an interview with Libération, a prominent left-wing daily paper.

A decade later, as satellite and cable grew more popular, Lustiger argued — against the wishes of many of his brother bishops — that the Church should be a major player in the realm of television. In 1999, he founded KTO, France’s national Catholic television channel; its diverse programming, along with its professional broadcasting standards, represents Catholic television programming at its best. Philippine de Saint-Pierre, director general of KTO, told Crux that the ongoing success of the network is a result of Lustiger’s “prophetic intuition.”

Yet the reach of Lustiger’s influence on Church communications wasn’t limited to France. While a young doctoral student at the Institut Catholique de Paris, Robert Barron would frequently attend Lustiger’s weekly 6:30pm mass at Notre Dame.

“He was the John Paul II of France,” he told Crux. “He had that sense of a very vibrant, confident Catholicism that was in dialogue with modernity. As I understood Lustiger, he was always between standard left-right categories. He didn’t embrace the fashionable Marxism, but at the same time he wasn’t a restorationist, and I’ve very consciously followed in that line.”

Today, Catholics around the world know the work of Barron, now auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles, who has been a pioneer in using film and social media as a tool for the new evangelization. Through Barron’s ‘Word on Fire,’ a global media ministry, every year millions of viewers are introduced to the faith through his videos, podcasts, and documentaries — an ongoing attempt to continue Lustiger’s conversation between Catholicism and the modern world.

Sowing the Seeds of World Youth Day

In 1980, John Paul II made his first apostolic visit to France and Lustiger had the idea that the Church should organize an event for young people. Members of the French hierarchy at the time were skeptical of any such effort, and were anticipating a small-scale event with one or two thousand young people.

Lustiger, not to be underestimated, booked what was then the largest stadium in Paris and managed to fill it to overflow capacity with 20,000 young people on hand to welcome the pope. The event would prove so successful that many have credited it as one of the inspirations for World Youth Day, which John Paul II would inaugurate in 1984 and has gone on to become the largest gathering of young people in the world.

In 1997, at the height of his time as Archbishop, Lustiger would have his turn to play host to World Youth Day — once more defying a hostile French bishops’ conference and pulling off another smashing success with over 1.5 million people attending the final mass with John Paul II.

Because of his deep conviction that World Youth Day was one of the Church’s greatest programs, he would go on to serve as a mentor and a friend to future planners of World Youth Day. Father Thomas Rosica, who served as National Director and CEO of World Youth Day 2002, told Crux: “I considered Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger to be a mentor and friend, a bold, courageous, passionate Church leader who was one of the most hopeful, forward-looking leaders I have ever known.  He literally took me by the hand and taught me how to lead a World Youth Day in Canada in 2002 after his great experience in Paris 1997.”

Jewish-Christian Unity

Despite his success in the realm of communications and his championing of World Youth Day, it is certainly his work in the area of Jewish-Christian unity for which Lustiger will long be remembered.

His epitaph, which he wrote, reads: “I was born a Jew. I received the name of my paternal grandfather Aaron. Christian by faith and by baptism, I remained a Jew, as did the Apostles.”

He once remarked that “I was born Jewish and so I remain, even if that is unacceptable for many. For me, the vocation of Israel is bringing light to the goyim. That is my hope and I believe that Christianity is the means for achieving it.”

Reflecting back on the many times he heard the cardinal preach, Barron puts it like this: “He wasn’t in any way repudiating his Judaism, he was calling on it. I think the recovery of the Jewishness of Christianity will be what he’s most remembered for.”

A Lasting Legacy

After being named Archbishop of Paris, Lustiger wrote a report on his vision for priestly formation. He would go on to ordain over 250 priests for the archdiocese, an impressive number given global averages during that time, and arguably a vindication of his approach to vocations.  

The report was never made public and is held by Lustiger’s successor, Cardinal André Armand Vingt-Trois, but according to Rougé, it effectively calls for a priesthood rooted in the belief that “you don’t have to choose between theological progressivism or traditionalism. There is another path of being deeply rooted in Jesus Christ which frees you to announce Christ to the world.”

Lustiger died at the age of 80 after a long battle with lung and bone cancer, leaving behind a Church and a country — that, despite at times having vehement disagreements with their varying constituencies, came together in unity to honor a man that tirelessly spent a lifetime doing just that.

“Before Pope Francis started speaking of missionary discipleship, Cardinal Lustiger was modeling those words in his own life,” Rosica told Crux. “Like Pope Francis today, Cardinal Lustiger had clear sightedness, determination and passion in all he did. He knew of those who opposed him and sidelined him, but he also knew that in order for the Church to grow, it must go forward and not backward.”

Anchored by ancient truths, yet aiming to chart a new course in a modern world, the unlikely legacy of Lustiger is at times one of contradiction—but also one of confidence that in Catholicism, there’s room for the fulfillment of it all.   

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