Le Bulldozer

The Achievement of Cardinal Lustiger

What is the fate-“grace,” some would say-that brings a fourteen-year-old named Aaron, grandson of a Polish rabbi and the son of humble French shopkeepers, to embrace Christianity with such profundity that he will one day die as the cardinal archbishop of Paris? The grace given to Cardinal Aaron Jean-Marie Lustiger—and grace is the only word for it-was to discover his Judaism in his belief in Christ, and to do so with such conviction that it made him a prophetic witness, unique in his day, to both Judaism and Christianity.

I first knew I was dealing with a different sort of French bishop when I interviewed Lustiger (he died on August 5 at the age of eighty) for an article I was writing for Commonweal (“The Force of Cardinal Lustiger,” April 25, 1986). I had just spent Christmas at the Benedictine abbey of Bec-Hellouin in Normandy. (John Paul II had originally chosen Bec’s legendary abbot, Don Grammont, for the archbishopric of Paris, but Grammont, who was seriously ill, would not be coaxed away from his monastery, so the pope had to settle for his second choice.) When I told him I had been at Bec-Hellouin, Lustiger perked up and asked how my time there had been. “Wonderful,” I said, adding hesitantly, “except for a sign I saw on one of the towers informing observers, ‘This Property Belongs to the French State.’” Did Lustiger guess this was a test? Did I?

The cardinal looked at me quizzically and smiled, but said nothing, so I leaped into the sort of personal opinion that angels fear and journalists should dread. “I mean,” I said, warming to my own indignation, “how dare ‘the French State’ appropriate for its recent self a venue that has been an epicenter of the church universal since the Bec abbot Anselm became archbishop of Canterbury?” It was a dangerous thing to say to a French churchman: they are usually as patriotic as they are Catholic. But not this time. This time a broad smile told me I hadn’t misstepped.

We stayed friends for the next two decades, though we disagreed about a great deal. I arranged events for him in the United States and in Paris. He loved meeting people extra ecclesiam, and most of my friends and acquaintances-academics, foundation people, artists, actors (most of them Jews)-were “outside the walls.”

As the 139th bishop of Paris, Lustiger racked up a record as controversial and criticized as it was original and admired. If he was equal to world-historical tasks, he did not always bring off lesser ones. I found he could be banal and unclear as a homilist, especially when he shot from the hip. At other times-the important ones-his honesty and insight were coruscating, discombobulating. As a writer and speaker on geo-religious topics, he was capable of impenetrable sentences that no one could decipher-not even a Yale audience I recall.

His episcopal hand was gigantic, omnipresent, and forever in motion. He wasn’t just bricks-and-mortar, he was un bulldozer. He could be authoritarian, provocative, impulsive, quick-tempered, and unforgiving. He could be unfair. He once got a Jesuit editor of Études fired for criticizing Vatican policy too much (and too effectively). He end-ran his own diocesan seminary by building two others. He moved curés about as if they were chess pieces (sometimes in response to political pressure). And he treated the French Conference of Bishops as if it were a parvenu on history’s stage, of no ecclesial or theological importance. His episcopal colleagues responded by never electing him president-an unheard of gifle for a cardinal, to say nothing of the archbishop of Paris. (On the other hand, Lustiger made it very clear he would never accept, so why offer?)

At bottom, though, Lustiger’s worst critics could not deny that he succeeded in doing what he set out to do-what the pope who stunned the French world with his appointment of Lustiger in 1981 intended him to do-to reestablish Paris, and indeed the entire French church, as a highly visible and strongly kerygmatic and orthodox presence in the nation. Lustiger simply reversed two generations of the ecclesiastical policy of enfouissement (embeddedment), which he considered a recipe for the church’s disappearance and dissolution into the fabric of society. Whether leading a million-person march in favor of “free” (largely Catholic) schools in 1984, or counseling Presidents François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac on public matters (or spiritual ones in the case of the former), whether building new churches and parishes, setting up new institutions of learning or training, or creating new radio and TV stations-while elsewhere they were all being closed-Lustiger left his mark on the proud, if steadily shrinking Église de France. The man went about his task with a workaholic’s single-mindedness, and he let the devil take the hindmost, which the devil often did. Lulu’s boys, as the hundreds of priests and bishops he created are known, will assure the survival of his policies for several decades to come. If this archbishop was unquestionably admired, even by his enemies, the divisions and scars he leaves behind in the church of France will be there for many years.

But his historic importance by no means ends with his role in France. As adviser to John Paul II and as a figure at the Vatican, he was one of a small handful of men-the only Frenchman-who played a critical role in Rome for nearly the entire papacy. One small example: his role in creating and executing the World Youth Days was crucial. And a very large example: his role in changing the church’s collective mind about, and dealings with, “our older brothers in the faith,” as John Paul referred to the Jews. Here Lustiger was the principal artisan, after the pope himself. In general, Lustiger’s effect on, and influence in, the college of cardinals was in inverse proportion to his sway with the French bishops. When John Paul first fell ill, Lustiger was regarded as papabile, though saying so within his hearing was the royal route to tasting his famed temper or contempt. (By the time John Paul died, Lustiger was ill himself. Would he have been elected pope? Nostradamus predicted that the last pope would be a Jew, so probably not.)

But even these things do not really explain why Jean-Marie Lustiger will figure importantly in the history of religion in the twentieth century.

At the cardinal’s funeral, for which French President Nicolas Sarkozy interrupted his New England vacation, Lustiger’s great-nephew, Moses-Jonas Lustiger, aged sixteen and wearing a yarmulke, stepped before his uncle’s coffin on the great parvis in front of Notre Dame Cathedral. He set on the coffin an earthen vessel that contained soil from the Holy Land. As he did so, the kaddish was being led by Arno Lustiger, the cardinal’s cousin. Arno did as the late cardinal had bid in his instructions: he announced to one and all that this particular liturgy was “one of the few Jewish prayers to be sung in Aramaic-the language of Christ.” Voilà an echt-Lustigerian moment.

How did he go about being a Jew and a Catholic cleric at the same time? First and foremost, he accepted that he would upset a very large number of people by constantly referring to his “historic witness” as both Jew and Christian. That was just for starters, for if all he did was scandalize, he would not have been a good witness, let alone a prophet.

Second, he steadfastly consulted with the head of the church on his opening to Judaism, whether in the matter of moving a Carmelite convent at Auschwitz that was found offensive by Jews around the world, or in eliciting a public repentance from the French bishops for their forebears’ role in abetting the Holocaust. One of the most dramatic moments in Lustiger’s long episcopate occurred in 1997, when he stood with the other French bishops of the several dioceses that had had transit camps. They stood at Drancy, the Paris suburb from which the cardinal’s own mother had been deported to Auschwitz in 1942 (she died there in 1943), and they listened to the bishops’ letter of repentance-a letter Lustiger himself had written.

It helped that Lustiger was simultaneously hyperclerical (Boston’s Richard Cushing had nothing on him for princeliness when it was called for), yet also refreshingly laïc-that is, both a civic citizen, trained in philosophy at the very secular Sorbonne, and a fierce churchman. It helped, too, that his humility outweighed his modesty, and that his melancholia and the omnipresent scrim of sadness that surrounded him were offset by a wonderfully wry sense of humor and a sparkling, scintillating critical intelligence. It also helped that he had a taste for discussing and debating with intellectuals and artists, and for knowing people from far outside the precincts of the Catholic Church, particularly agnostics and atheists.

Next, it helped considerably that he personally had a philosophy of history that went against the grain of received ideas. He once announced that the “singularity of the Shoah” consists in its being “the direct negation of Sinai,” that is, of Israel’s election as God’s chosen people. A staunch son of the Enlightenment and an active citizen in the Republic of Letters (he was elected to the Académie Française in 1995), he could yet point out the darker impulses of the Enlightenment-especially as mediated by “great men but masters of suspicion” like Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud-which have led, in later eras, to distortions and betrayals of enlightenment. He made it clear that he welcomed “the death of God” movement because he saw it as the burning off of certain forms of religious idolatry-a needed cleansing (a very Simone Weil thing to say).

What brought the rabbis around? What changed the minds of many Orthodox Jews in France, the United States, and Israel, so that gradually they came to consider Lustiger as “one more Catholic for them, but not a Jew less for us”? At the start of his apostolate, many Jews had sternly regarded him as a danger (one rabbi referred to his conversion as the “extinction of Judaism”). Undoubtedly, the cardinal’s good faith helped, as did his perseverance: he stubbornly remained in dialogue for decades, despite the anger and insults he experienced. Gradually, he got some Jews to acknowledge that Christianity, too, is a filiation given by God. Gradually, Elie Wiesel, the cardinal’s close friend, stopped sighing with disappointment that it was Christians, not Jews, whom the sensitive and impressionable fourteen-year-old turned to when he was searching for religious meaning.

In a piece published in Le Monde in 2005, the year of Lustiger’s retirement from Paris, the cardinal reminded his readers that Jews and Christians are ever linked-historically, theologically, and (not least) in the media-for they share a Schicksalgemeinschaft (a community of fate), and will always do so: they share a common responsiblity to the world for the biblical revelation. To that end, it is not enough, he wrote, that Jews and Christians have meetings (rencontres) or even that they forgive the historic harms they have done one another (réconciliation). They must also one day come together (retrouvailles)-in unity, if not unification. This is their task, their responsibility, their grace. The cardinal’s motto? “In God, all is possible.” What else?

I last saw the cardinal, to say adieu, this past December, when it was clear he would not recover from his cancer. We sat and talked in his little living room as a photograph of St. Edith Stein looked over at us. It made me nervous to be with a dying man, so he tried to put me at ease. This was quickly done, for I saw that he was in a better mood and mindset than I had ever seen him in before. Often in the past, when I arrived, I would find the cardinal wearing his worries and distractions on his sleeve. Not today. “No,” he answered me, “I am not suffering. I’m just in pain occasionally, though if I want them, drugs can take care of that.” (He did not always want them: they clouded his ability to think.)

Before I left, Père Lustiger reminded me that the doubt and agnosticism that have been assailing me for some years now are my own affair, and that God holds me as securely as ever in his hands. In any case, he added, before I kissed him farewell, that he himself would soon be in a better position to intercede for me.

Published in the 2007-11-23 issue: 

Steven Englund, a longtime Commonweal contributor, is the author of Napoleon: A Political Life (Harvard University Press), which won the American Historical Association’s J. Russell Major Prize. He is currently writing a comparative study of political anti-Semitism in Germany, Austria-Hungary, and France.

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