Sunday, August 05, 2007

Son of Israel and Rome, Prince of Paris, Lustiger Dies

The French church mourns one of its leading lights tonight; the archbishop- emeritus of Paris Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger died earlier today at 80, after a yearlong battle with lung and bone cancer.

A giant of the post-Conciliar church worldwide and the secular life of Rome's "eldest daughter" for almost 30 years, Lustiger was named to the City of Light, his hometown, in 1981. Particularly favored by John Paul II, who gave him the red hat two years later, the late pontiff saw his man in France as a bridge not just to Paris, but to Israel and the Jewish people.

Born in the French capital in 1926, Lustiger's parents -- Polish Jews who had emigrated west a decade earlier -- named their son Aaron. At 13, against the wishes of their parents, he and his sister were baptized, at which time he took the name Jean-Marie. Three years later, in 1942, his parents were deported to Auschwitz, where his mother, Gisele, was killed.

While his conversion created a longstanding rift with his father, Charles Lustiger attended his son's ordination as a priest, sitting near the back of the congregation. Of the faith of his birth, the cardinal once said, "I was born Jewish and so I remain, even if that is unacceptable for many. For me, the vocation of Israel is bringing light to the goyim.

"That is my hope and I believe that Christianity is the means for achieving it."

In early 2005, shortly after his retirement as archbishop, John Paul asked Lustiger -- a key advocate of the Holy See's establishment of diplomatic relations with the State of Israel -- to represent him at observances marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Polish concentration camp to which his parents were deported.

"I don't want to return, because it is a place of death and destruction," he said at the time.

"If I am going, it is because the Pope asked me."

Ordained a priest in 1954, the cardinal-to-be was first assigned as chaplain to the students of Paris' Sorbonne, then fused new life into a parish in the city's 16th Arrondissement before being named bishop of Orleans in 1979 by the newly-elected Polish Pope, who returned him to the capital two years later as archbishop in succession to Cardinal François Marty.

(Unsurprisingly, the appointment of a prelate who, despite his conversion, never shirked his Jewish roots as archbishop of Paris was panned by the leader of France's post-Concilar resistance, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. Despite being named to lead the archdiocese where he was born and ordained, Lustiger "is not truly of French origin," Lefebvre -- who would be excommunicated before his 1991 death -- was quoted as saying at the time.)

Marked by a fervent missionary zeal, the cardinal's quarter-century at the helm of the church in Paris saw many pioneering initiatives, some of which would spread to the wider church. A radio station and TV channel, a ramped-up youth outreach by the college chaplain who, but a decade earlier, zipped around the city on his motor-bike, some 20 books, and the zenith of his efforts -- a seminary planned around a new model of formation and the Ecole Cathedrale, now a pontifical institute, for the formation of the laity -- comprised the core of a legacy whose institution-building, while great, was geared only as a complement to, never a replacement for, a diligent and enthusiastic pastoral engagement.

In 1997, Lustiger -- a frequent guest in the papal apartment -- welcomed his good friend to Paris for World Youth Day, where a million young people showed up and newspaper headlines proclaimed "The Triumph of John Paul II." Eight years later, after a lengthy and contentious succession stakes, one of his former auxiliaries, Archbishop Andre Vingt-Trois of Tours, was named as his successor. As a young priest, Vingt-Trois had served as Père Lustiger's assistant at the Sorbonne.

The cardinal was diagnosed with the dual cancer at the end of 2006. He made his final public appearance at the January funeral of the wildly popular cleric Abbè Pierre, held in Notre-Dame Cathedral, and at an emotional May farewell to his fellow "immortals" of the Academie Française, he was said to have looked up at the portrait of the founder of the venerable institution and exclaimed of his next destination, "I am going to meet up with Cardinal Richelieu!"

Lustiger's death was announced by the French President Nicholas Sarkozy, who praised the cardinal as "a great figure of the spiritual, moral, intellectual and, naturally, religious life of our country."

"His personality was the image of the trials that life lead him to traverse and that were above all the trials of Europe across the 20th century," Sarkozy said. "These trials forged a man of character, but also one of social engagement and of a free spirit and mind" -- a spirit and mind which, the Gaullist president noted, "never gave or did anything halfway."

"The spiritual journey of Cardinal Lustiger remained at the same time both an example and a great mystery," Sarkozy continued. "Having lived in his own sinews both the continuity between Judaism and Christianity and also the originality of the Christian message that leads certain individuals to the total and all-important gift of their persons, Jean-Marie Lustiger was the complete image of the man of faith and of the interior life."

In his own comments, Archbishop Vingt-Trois said that "we are all under the shock of his demise, even if he had prepared us to it for some time."

"I personally experience all at once the loss of a father, of a brother and of a friend, after receiving the onus of succeeding him at the head of the archdiocese of Paris," Lustiger's successor said. "Over the last two years, I had many opportunities to appreciate his thoughtfulness towards me, as he proved ceaselessly ready to answer the questions I wanted to ask him and to provide me with the advice I needed, without ever attempting to weigh upon the decisions I had to make or trying to interfere in any way."

"Many bishops in France as well as priests and deacons in Paris cannot but remember him as the one who ordained them. They know that he has not abandoned them and that he will keep on looking after them and being close to them."

Tomorrow night, the archbishop will celebrate Mass in Notre-Dame for his mentor's happy repose. The cardinal's body will lie in state there from Thursday morning until a funeral liturgy scheduled for Friday.