NEW YORK (JTA) – As he lay dying last week in a Paris hospice, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger reached out to his longtime friend Rabbi Israel Singer.
The Jewish-born Catholic official, who served for decades as a conduit between the Vatican and the Jewish community, called Singer, a former senior official of the World Jewish Congress and a major player in the effort to build Catholic-Jewish ties. Singer flew to Paris and the two met several times before Lustiger succumbed to cancer on Sunday. He was 80.
“He was completely conscious and aware,” said Singer, who called Lustiger by his Hebrew name. “Some of the conversations were 25 years old. They were very moving.”
Born Aaron Lustiger in Paris in 1926, he was the first child of secular Polish-Jewish emigres. In 1940 he was sent with his sister to live with a Catholic woman following the German occupation of France. In August of that year, at age 13, he was baptized, adding Jean-Marie to his name.
Lustiger was a central figure in Catholic-Jewish reconciliation efforts that characterized the tenure of Pope John Paul II, with whom he was close. He served as John Paul’s representative at the commemoration ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in 2005.
As archbishop of Paris, Lustiger served as a diplomatic back-channel, relaying to the Vatican Jewish concerns regarding Catholic anti-Semitism and the building of a convent at the Auschwitz death camp.
The latter issue had a special resonance for Lustiger because his mother, Gisele, perished there.
“He understood the feelings that a Jew has about sensitive and important issues,” Singer said. “You didn’t have to convince him. You didn’t have to convert him. He knew what it felt to be a Jew in a non-Jewish environment because, in this respect, many aristocratic Catholics probably viewed him as a Jew.”
A longtime proponent of interreligious reconciliation, Lustiger was nevertheless seen as a troubling figure by the small cohort of Jewish leaders who regularly engaged their Catholic counterparts in dialogue. Though widely admired for his warmth and friendliness, even those close to him acknowledged their discomfort sitting across from a man who had willingly converted to Catholicism and yet continued to speak of himself as a Jew.
“I was born Jewish, and so I remain, even if that is unacceptable for many,” Lustiger once told an interviewer.
“For me, the vocation of Israel is bringing light to the goyim,” he said, referring to the Hebrew term for non-Jews. “That is my hope, and I believe that Christianity is the means for achieving it.”
In an interview soon after being named archbishop by Pope John Paul II, he told an interviewer, “For me this nomination was as if, all of a sudden, the crucifix began to wear a yellow star.”
One Jewish leader who met Lustiger many times in the context of interreligious dialogue said such comments underscore what he saw as the “problematic” nature of the endeavor.
“He said that as a Catholic he is a fulfilled Jew,” said the leader, who asked not to be identified. “It implies that if you do not share that faith then you’re not complete.”
“It took awhile for Jewish leaders to recognize that he was not proselytizing but that he was really sincere in seeing himself as a bridge that could help reconciliation.” said Rabbi James Rudin, a past chairman of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations.
Even Singer, who was close to Lustiger and hosted him in his home, said he was deeply uncomfortable at their first meeting.
“It was almost impossible for me,” Singer said. “I was embarrassed to tell people that we were meeting.”
If it was hard for his Jewish interlocutors, it seems to have been equally hard for Lustiger himself.
In the 1970s he was reported to have considered leaving France for Israel, but he remained and quickly rose up the Church ranks. He became bishop of Orleans in 1979 and archbishop of Paris in 1981. Two years later John Paul made him a cardinal. He retired in 2005.
During a 1995 visit to Israel coinciding with Holocaust Remembrance Day, Lustiger was vilified by Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, who accused him of betraying his people at their darkest hour.
“To say that I am no longer a Jew is like denying my father and mother, my grandfathers and grandmothers,” Lustiger responded. “I am as Jewish as all the other members of my family who were butchered in Auschwitz or in the other camps.”
In a lighter moment during an appearance at Tel Aviv University, Lustiger was asked if he could become the next pope. He replied using the Yiddish word for crazy: “Meshuggeh.”