As violence between Israel and Gaza continues, officials warned this week that antisemitism in the U.S. has reached “historic levels.”
The U.S. bishops have condemned antisemitism repeatedly in recent years. Last November, the bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs stressed that antisemitic actions are “even more painful in light of the Church’s relationship to the Jewish tradition and our connections to the Jewish people in dialogue and friendship.”
The connection between the Catholic Church and its Jewish roots was a personal one for Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, the son of Polish Jews and a convert to the Catholic faith, who nonetheless considered himself to be Jewish for his entire life.
Lustiger defended his identity as both a Jew and a Catholic against those who were wary of him as the leader of the Archdiocese of Paris at the end of the 20th century.
The cardinal was born Aaron Lustiger on Sept. 17, 1926 in Paris. His parents were Polish Jews.
When German forces entered France in 1940, Lustiger and his family were forced to wear the Star of David on their garments, as were all French Jews. His mother was later arrested and sent to Auschwitz, where she was killed.
To escape the Nazi occupation, Lustiger and his sister were sent to live with a Catholic family in Orleans.
There, the two children learned about Catholicism.
Aaron decided to be baptized at the age of 13. When he did so, he took the name Jean-Marie.
As a boy, Lustiger wanted to be a doctor. He later earned a degree in literature at the Sorbonne and worked briefly as a mechanic before attending seminary in Paris. He was ordained a priest in 1954.
For the next 25 years, Lustiger worked as a chaplain, a formator, and a parish priest. He became known for his powerful preaching, friendly demeanor, and witty sense of humor.
His priesthood was not easy.
The cardinal told a biographer that during the 1970s, he had a spiritual crisis, provoked by the persistent antisemitism he experienced. He thought even of leaving France, and moving to Israel.
But in 1979, Pope John Paul II unexpectedly appointed him Bishop of Orleans, and Lustiger returned to the diocese where he had been baptized some 30 years prior.
In 1981, Lustiger became the archbishop of Paris, and was created a cardinal in 1983.
Leading the Church in the place of his birth was painful for the new archbishop, especially as he faced criticism from both Jews and Catholics.
He later described the experience by saying “the crucifix began to wear a yellow star.”
Even those who didn’t criticize him took note of the unusual circumstances of a Jewish cardinal, and the tension that some felt about his religious identity. In fact, while Lustiger led the archdiocese, there was a joke about him in Paris, according to some news reports:
“What’s the difference between the chief rabbi of France and the cardinal of Paris? The cardinal speaks Yiddish.”
Lustiger was known as theologically conservative, with a passion for youth - he helped organize World Youth Day 1997 in Paris - and media. He founded a radio station, television channel, and seminary during his time in Paris. He also reached out to the traditionalist community after the Lefebvre schism.
The cardinal was passionate about interfaith relations. He joined Pope John Paul II on visits to leaders of other religions, and was present when the pope entered a Syrian mosque in 2001.
He helped mediate in a dispute over a Carmelite convent erected near Auschwitz concentration camp.
The Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding granted him the Nostra Aetate Award in 1998 for his work on promoting Catholic-Jewish relations.
The cardinal embraced his Jewish identity, even after converting to Catholicism.
Lustiger often emphasized that Christianity is “the fruit of Judaism,” saying that for him, “it was never for an instant a question of denying my Jewish identity.”
But at times, the cardinal faced criticism for his acceptance of Christianity.
He was once accused by the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Yisrael Meir Lau, of having “betrayed his people and his faith.”
Lustiger replied, “To say that I am no longer a Jew is like denying my father and mother, my grandfathers and grandmothers. I am as Jewish as all the other members of my family who were butchered in Auschwitz or in the other camps.”
Those close to him said he did not view the two as contradictory, but instead viewed himself as both Jewish and Christian, much like the early followers of Jesus.
He requested that his epitaph read, “I was born Jewish. I received the name of my paternal grandfather, Aaron. Having become Christian by faith and by Baptism, I have remained Jewish, as did the Apostles.”
Cardinal Lustiger retired in 2005, at the age of 78. He died Aug. 5, 2007, after a battle with cancer. His funeral at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris included the Kaddish, a Jewish hymn of mourning.
Following his death, the World Jewish Congress lauded Lustiger as “a pioneer of Christian-Jewish dialogue.”
“He always knew what anti-Semitism, persecution and hatred meant for the Jewish people, and he fought strenuously to overcome them. That is what he will be remembered for by many in the Jewish world,” said WJC president Ronald Lauder.
Lauder said that the cardinal “was instrumental in fostering dialogue and a better understanding between Catholics and Jews, both on a personal and an institutional level.”