Jean-Marie Lustiger

Journalists trying to assess the life of Jean-Marie Lustiger (1926-2007) are like the crowd at the foot of Mount Sinai trying to figure out why Moses was complicating their lives. An eloquent sadness in him was too ancient for any one race to claim; and when, in 1999, he read his own mother’s name, Gisele, at a public remembrance of deported and dead French Jews and added “ma maman,” he spoke with a voice older than Exodus, and as old as the first day outside Eden.

 

His parents were non-practicing Ashkenazi Jews, emigrants to France from Bendzin in Poland in the First World War, and his father survived his mother in Auschwitz in 1943. On a visit to Germany in 1937, he stayed with an anti-Hitler family of Protestants and read the New Testament for the first time. In 1940, his sister joined him in converting to Christianity while under the protection of a Catholic family in Orléans whose bishop baptized Aaron, adding the names Jean-Marie. The pain of losing his mother in such a crucible of evil ached all the more from his father’s sense of betrayal. Charles, who kept a hosiery business, was of radical political views and held the tradition of the generations his one vital link to moral cogency. When Jean-Marie was ordained a priest, Charles watched his son from the rear of the cathedral, and the beauty of heaven that can seem harsh on earth was there that hour.

His life from then on would be rattled by lesser men on every side for whom he was not enough of this or that. Charles had tried to get the chief rabbi of Paris to annul his son’s baptism, and the Jerusalem Post announced his death with a headline calling him an “apostate.” In another quarter, the shadows of Maurras and Petain lurked long. When Pope John Paul II named Parisian-born Lustiger archbishop of Paris in 1981, Archbishop Lefebvre publicly objected to the appointment of “someone who is not truly of French origin.”

Lustiger was a rabbinical clone of Wojtyla, who gave him the red hat in 1983. This was clear from his first Mass as Bishop of Orléans. His predecessor, Guy-Marie Riobe, had genuflected before every trend of the day, leaving the diocese a material and spiritual shambles, and Lustiger did not mention his name. At the Mass, when all the people joined in the conclusion of the Eucharistic Prayer as they had been recently taught to do, Lustiger firmly placed his hand on the altar and said, “This is mine.”

I first knew him from his visits to New York, where he spoke of modern superficiality as the sentimental seed of dire cruelties. The former chaplain of the Sorbonne had studied social science there with the worst man in the world, Pol Pot, and he knew the heights and depths of man, as well as the deadly shallows. Even so, he was astonished, as an apostle and anthropologist, that when he raised a theological question at the dining table of an American cardinal, an auxiliary bishop sprang to his feet and sang an Irish song amidst gales of laughter.

I said Mass with him in his residence in Paris shortly before the 1997 World Youth Day there, which would gather one million people. The French government had tried to block the whole event. He said his part of the Mass in English, which he was trying to perfect for the great event, and assigned to me the rest in French. Afterwards in the sacristy, he asked, “Where did you learn to speak our language the way you do?” The pregnant ambiguity of the compliment, or its opposite, was a vintage way of the French being French.
Many wept on his last visit to the other 39 Immortels at the Académie Française a few months before his death from cancer. They did not question his place in Paris as a prince, and more than that. And when he carried the cross each Good Friday from Notre Dame to Montmartre, no one doubted that he was perfectly cast to do that from above. “For if he had not hoped that they that were slain should rise again, it would have seemed superfluous and vain to pray for the dead” (2 Macc 12:44).

Fr. George W. Rutler

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Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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