Award to Jewish-born Cardinal Raises Ecumenical Controversy
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Award to Jewish-born Cardinal Raises Ecumenical Controversy

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A group that promotes Christian-Jewish relations has honored the archbishop of Paris for his contribution to ecumenical understanding.

But as far as at least one major Jewish group is concerned, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger is a living example of ecumenicism gone too far.

The Anti-Defamation League boycotted Tuesday’s event, which was sponsored by the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding, because Lustiger was born a Jew and converted to Catholicism at age 14.

Lustiger apparently does not think that his baptism constituted a break with his Jewish identity.

Neither did Pope John Paul II when, earlier this month, he elevated Edith Stein, another Jew who converted to Catholicism, to sainthood and described her as “an eminent daughter of Israel and a faithful daughter of the church.”

A few months ago Lustiger described himself, in a private meeting with Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz, the director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding, as “a fulfilled Jew.”

Told that using such a term would offend Jews presenting him with the center’s Nostra Aetate Award, the cardinal pledged not to use it. The award is named for the 1960s Catholic document which recognized for the first time the legitimacy of Judaism and ushered in a new era of interfaith dialogue.

Rabbi Rene-Samuel Sirat, who has served both as the chief rabbi of France and the grand rabbi of Europe, was also honored with the award.

For some Jewish leaders, using polite language does not change the reality of the cardinal’s syncretic view of his faith.

“I respect his decision of conscience and faith” to convert to Christianity, said Abraham Foxman, ADL’s national director.

“It would be fine to have him speak at a conference or colloquium,” he said, “but it’s inappropriate for a Jewish organization to honor him.”

While the center is run by a rabbi and supported substantially by Jewish contributors, it is not technically a Jewish organization. It is housed on the campus of Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., a Catholic institution.

Then known by his birth name, Aron Lustiger had just become Bar Mitzvah as the Nazi era took hold and he and his sister were sent by their mother to live with a Catholic family in Orleans, France, for safety.

His mother perished in Auschwitz.

The young man, whose upbringing was devoid of all but the most minimal Jewish practice, became enamored of the family who gave him haven and saved his life, said Ehrenkranz.

Soon after that, at age 14, Aron was baptized and became Jean-Marie.

“I don’t fault him for converting as a young man who had nothing,” Ehrenkranz said.

“It’s a problem with a lot of young Jewish people today searching for something and nobody’s ever given them any Jewish spirituality or content, so they turn to Buddhism and other religions.”

Fourteen years after converting, Lustiger was ordained a Catholic priest and began working as a chaplain at the Sorbonne in Paris.

In 1979 he was appointed the bishop of Orleans and just two years later, archbishop of Paris. He was named cardinal in 1983.

He has made a valuable contribution to Jewish-Catholic dialogue, say those involved in interreligious affairs, for reasons that seem at least partly rooted in his Jewish lineage.

A close associate of the pope, he is considered to have been instrumental in getting the Carmelite nuns to finally vacate their convent on the edges of the Auschwitz death camp in 1993.

He was also centrally involved in a document issued last year by the French Bishops Conference titled “The Declaration of Repentance.”

In it, the Catholic church leaders of France took responsibility for “failing to lend their aid” to the Jews under Nazi persecution. “We beg God’s pardon and we call upon the Jewish people to hear our words of repentance,” they wrote.

“Lustiger has had enormous impact on his fellow cardinals,” said Rabbi A. James Rudin, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee.

“He brings his own former Jewish experience, which is something very unique, to it. He made a choice and that was his to make. I consider him a Roman Catholic cardinal who was formerly a Jew, and who occupies an extremely important position,” said Rudin, who attended the awards ceremony.

Still, Lustiger has confronted opposition before from the Jewish community.

When he visited Israel a couple of years ago, Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau condemned him as a “traitor to his people.”

But Lustiger clearly remains devoted to what he considers both parts of his identity.

In his speech accepting the award Tuesday, he called on Catholics in France and New York to go to church on Holocaust Memorial Day, or Yom HaShoah, “in the spirit of penance and as an act of faith in the Lord of the living and the dead.”

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