Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger died on Sunday.
Cardinal Lustiger was a key figure in the Catholic-Jewish dialogue that Pope John Paul II so valued. He was the Pope’s representative at the commemoration ceremonies for the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in 2005 and served as a middle man between Jews and the Church on sensitive issues like Catholic anti-Semitism. He was uniquely fitted for these responsibilities because he was actually born a Jew–a fact that made many Jewish figures who worked with him uncomfortable.
He was born in Paris to secular Polish-Jewish emigres in 1926. Following the German invasion of France in 1940, he and his sister were sent for their own protection to live with a Catholic woman. At 13, he was baptized. Despite his conversion, he considered himself Jewish: “I was born Jewish, and so I remain, even if that is unacceptable for many,” he once said. And, in a way, he had the most unassailable Jewish credentials: his mother died as a Jew in Auschwitz.
Further complicating matters, he considered himself “a fulfilled Jew,” implying that Christianity was a higher step on the path to religious enlightment than Judaism.
His life raises all sorts of interesting questions: Can a devout Catholic still be Jewish? How should the Jewish community consider such a person? Are converted Jews actually a good thing for the Jewish community (because of their connection between two faiths)? Is it OK to convert out of Judaism, but not to consider your new religion superior to your old one? Did Cardinal Lustiger betray his born religion by converting–or was he actually a righteous gentile for the work he did in the Church?
The complexities of his life are fascinating, and difficult to resolve, even for the late Cardinal. In the 1970s, 30+ years after converted, he considered making aliyah.
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