Aaron Jean-Marie Lustiger, Cardinal Archbishop of Paris

Aaron Jean-Marie Lustiger, Cardinal Archbishop of Paris Wikimedia Commons

The hit of this year’s Hartford Jewish Film Festival was “The Jewish Cardinal,” a French TV biopic about Aaron Jean-Marie Lustiger, the Jewish convert who served as archbishop of Paris from 1981 until 2005. It was the opening night presentation last Thursday, and played to sold-out crowds in two theaters Saturday evening.

No question, Lustiger’s life was remarkable. The son of immigrants who had left Poland for France around World War I, he found himself strongly attracted to Christianity as a boy, and was baptized into the Catholic Church by the Bishop of Orléans in 1940. With his sister (who also converted) and father, he fled to unoccupied southern France, while his mother returned to Paris to run the family hosiery shop. In 1942, she was deported to Auschwitz, where she died the following year.

After the war, Lustiger went into the priesthood, and spent a couple of decades involved with university chaplaincy at the Sorbonne. In 1979, he was appointed bishop of Orléans by Pope John Paul II, who had a special fondness for a fellow Polish ex-pat with whom he could speak Yiddish. Promoted to the archdiocese of Paris less than two years later, Lustiger famously 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.

The film focuses on the complexity of this hybrid identity, which is better conveyed by its French title, “God’s Crossbreed” (“Le Métis de Dieu). It was indeed unacceptable to many — including to traditionalist Catholics, some leaders of the French Jewish community, and not least to Lustiger’s father, a non-observant Jew who nonetheless saw his son’s conversion as a betrayal.

Theologically, Lustiger (who died in 2007) was very much down with the conservative program of John Paul, a circumstance that alienated him from most other French bishops and which the film glosses over. But he was not shy about standing up for the Jews, most notably when it came to the Carmelite nuns who set up shop in Auschwitz in the mid-80s. To be sure, 80,000 Poles died in the camp along with the 1.1 million Jews, and the nuns were about the business of praying for everyone. But the optics were not good, and (in the film’s portrayal) once Lustiger realized it, he persuaded his landsman Karol to get them out of there.

Despite this satisfying denouement, I left the film wondering a bit at my co-religionists’ warm embrace of “The Jewish Cardinal.” Lustiger’s Christian-Jewish identity remains an awkward thing, and you come away thinking that he’s never become entirely comfortable in his own skin. Yet, as we make our way into the new century, hybrid religious identities are increasingly common — and, I guess, increasingly acceptable even to Jews of a certain age in Connecticut.

Categories: Institutions

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Mark Silk

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life.

4 Comments

  1. samuel Johnston

    “For me, the vocation of Israel is bringing light to the goyim.”
    This condescending, arrogant, and ignorant sentence summarizes my objection to the three religions of Abraham. Did the Greeks live in Darkness from which they needed to be rescued? The Buddhists? Was any Jewish or Moslem or Christian prophet, more enlightened than Zarathustra? Who are these old men who claim such great wisdom that even the Moderns must pay homage? I say they are evil men, and their quest for power exceeds their desire to discover new revelations of the (always and forever partial) truth, wherever they may be found.

    • That’s a rather ignorant comment. If you read Plato (Phaedo, for instance, but also the Republic) you will find out that indeed classical culture in its noblest expressions was longing for the divine mystery to reveal itself to mankind. There is a reason why the Greeks and the Roman embraced Christianity in large numbers (way before if was embraced by the power of the state.)

      • samuel Johnston

        ” in its noblest expressions was longing for the divine mystery to reveal itself to mankind.”
        What a Catholic toady you are! Noble indeed! Try your ignorance against these great thoughts:

        from Xenophanes
        1. Men create the gods in their own image.
        2. No human being will ever know the Truth, for even if they happen to say it by chance, they would not even known they had done so.

        Siddhārtha Gautama always refused to answer questions about the Gods saying they were too speculative.

        Zarathustra labored (in vain) to introduce morality to religion.
        “The cardinal concept of aša—which is highly nuanced and only vaguely translatable—is at the foundation of all Zoroastrian doctrine, including that of Ahura Mazda (who is aša), creation (that is aša), existence (that is aša) and as the condition for Free Will.”
        “The purpose of humankind, like that of all other creation, is to sustain aša. For humankind, this occurs through active participation in life and the exercise of constructive thoughts, words and deeds.”
        Wikipedia

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