His given name is Aaron, the same as the first High Priest of the Children of Israel. He wears garments similar to those worn more than 2,000 years ago by the kohanim (Jewish priests) in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
But this Aaron, the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland whose mother died in Auschwitz, is a priest of a different kind. Having converted to Catholicism at the age of 15, he has risen to become Archbishop of Paris.
Now known as Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger, he is at the age of 72 sometimes mentioned as a long shot candidate for pope. But he is also known as a major force for improving Catholic-Jewish relations in France and around the world, including helping author the “Declaration of Repentance” the far-reaching September 1997 apology by France’s Catholic bishops to the Jewish people for complicity during the Holocaust — a document credited with being more progressive and forthcoming than the more recent April 1998 Vatican statement on the Holocaust.
Surrounded by his colleagues in the interfaith community, and his Jewish second cousin from Brooklyn, Cardinal Lustiger was honored for his courageous efforts Tuesday night at a ceremony at Manhattan’s Sutton Place Synagogue.
“He’s always been very strong and extremely involved in Catholic-Jewish dialogue,” said Rabbi Joseph Ehrehkranz, an Orthodox rabbi who in 1993 founded the Center for Christian Jewish Understanding at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.
Rabbi Ehrehkranz selected Lustiger and Rabbi Samuel Sirat, former Chief Rabbi of France, to receive the center’s third annual Nostra Aetate Award, named after the landmark 1965 Vatican document that helped begin thawing relations between Jews and Catholics.
In keeping with his cutting-edge efforts, Cardinal Lustiger, wearing his black and maroon robe and red cardinal’s skullcap over his graying head, announced yet another important initiative Tuesday night.
Addressing Jewish sensitivities and criticism over Pope John Paul II’s action last week canonizing Jewish convert Edith Stein, and calling for the day of her death in Auschwitz (Aug. 9) as the day Christians should memorialize the Holocaust, Lustiger announced a historic solution.
He proposed that Christians commemorate the Holocaust on the traditional day observed by Jews, the 27th of the Hebrew month Nisan, which next year falls on April 3.
“Next year I will not fail to invite the Catholics of Paris to join the Jewish communities in prayers on Yom Shoah — in the spirit of penance and an act faith in the Lord of the living and the dead,” announced Cardinal Lustiger.He said he proposed the idea to New York Archbishop John Cardinal O’Connor, and said O’Connor agreed to do the same.
Jewish leaders immediately hailed the proposal.
“It is significant that Lustiger promised to honor the Jewish Yom HaShoah,” said Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, who called the Aug. 9 date suggested by the pope a “faux pas.” Rabbi Greenberg added that he hoped John Paul II, a friend of both cardinals, would “follow the lead” and adopt the practice throughout Roman Catholicism.
Dr. Samuel Pisar, a French Holocaust survivor and international attorney, who has been critical of the church, said he was “delighted” by Lustiger’s proposition.
Also in the audience and praising Lustiger was his Jewish second cousin, Henri Lustiger-Thaler, a Brooklyn resident by way of Paris and Montreal, who teaches sociology in New Jersey. Henri’s mother Sala is first cousin to the cardinal.
“We are all very, very proud of him,” said Henri, who calls his cousin “Aaron.”
“I think you can see from his talk tonight that the sense of reconciliation between Jews and Christians is uppermost in his mind, and I think that’s very laudable. That’s something that the end of this century very much needs.”
Asked about what it’s like for a Jewish man to have a cardinal for a relative, Henri, who said he has a very strong Jewish background, answered, “clearly it’s very different.”
He distinguished between his situation and that of the Jewish relatives of Edith Stein, who have expressed mixed feelings about her sainthood.
“Jean-Marie’s life is about dialogue,” he explained. “The Edith Stein story is for Jews, I think, a very uncomfortable story.”
“Life takes many different roads,” he mused. “And Aaron, Jean-Marie, has taken a particular road. And in that road, we support him. And the fact that he has initiated this kind of incredibly historic dialogue that you’ve just heard places things on a very different level — [this is] something that the world very much needs to have, a cardinal who is Jewish.”
And does the Jewish family ever discuss the possibility of their cousin becoming pope?
“That kind of speculation is not only there in our family but there in the world,” Henri confides. “If he became pope, we’d be thrilled.”
When he was 13, Lustiger’s Polish Jewish parents hid him in a Catholic boarding school as Germany occupied France in 1940. His mother was murdered in the Auschwitz death camp in 1943, at about the same time he was studying to be a priest and adopting the French pronunciation of his name, “Lous-ti-jay.”
He spent the rest of the war in Orleans, where he later became bishop.Lustiger was ordained a priest in 1954 and became assistant chaplain at the Sorbonne’s Catholic student center. He quickly rose in the church hierarchy, and in 1981 was appointed archbishop of Paris. He was made a cardinal in 1983 and played a key role in settling the controversy over the Carmelite convent at Auschwitz.
When he was appointed archbishop, Lustiger said he did not regard his conversion as a denial of Judaism, but as a strengthening of the Jewish identity manifested in Christianity. “I have always regarded myself as a Jew, even if this is not the view of the rabbis.” Some rabbis contest the notion that the cardinal continues to be a Jew since his conversion.
Cardinal Lustiger noted that he is a Levi — the Israelite tribe from which priests come.