Aaron Jean-Marie Lustiger Biography
Aaron Jean-Marie Lustiger was a French cardinal who had served as the Archbishop of Paris. What makes Lustiger’s story extremely remarkable is the fact that he was born to Polish Jews and converted to Roman Catholicism as a boy and went on to become a leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Paris. As the Archbishop he led France’s 45 million Catholics for over two decades—a rare achievement for someone who had originally been born into another faith. Not surprisingly, he was an early champion of interfaith relations. He considered Christianity to be the accomplishment of Judaism and Jewish-Christian relations was a recurring theme of his speeches. Even though he had converted to Catholicism, he never gave up his faith in Judaism and considered himself to be a Jewish Christian, like the first disciples. He was a conservative who opposed abortion and sought to preserve the priestly vow of celibacy. He was also very intelligent and frank and had a charismatic personality that made him a very popular head of the church. He had been an adviser to Pope John Paul II and was even mentioned as a possible successor to the Pope. He strived to reconcile the Catholics and the Jews, and in the process became beloved to members of both the religions.
- He was born as Aaron Lustiger on September 17, 1926, in Paris. His parents, Charles and Gisele Lustiger were Jews from Poland who had migrated to France around World War I. His father used to run a hosiery shop.
- He received his primary education from Lycée Montaigne in Paris.
- Germany occupied France in 1940 and Aaron’s parents sent him along with his sister to live with a Catholic woman in Orleans. Exposed to Christianity, he decided to convert. Even though his parents were not practicing Jews, his father was appalled at his son’s decision.
- Aaron went ahead with the conversion and was baptized by the Bishop of Orleans, Jules Marie Courcoux in August 1940, adding the name Jean-Marie to Aaron.
- His mother who had been deported to Auschwitz died in 1942. Aaron along with his father and sister escaped with great difficulty.
- He attended the Sorbonne after the war and eventually went to the Catholic Institute of Paris, a training school for the clergy. He was ordained in 1954.
- He became a chaplain at the Sorbonne in 1954 where he served till 1959. After that he was made the director of the Richelieu Center, which trained chaplains for French universities, a post he held for the next ten years.
- In 1969, he became a parish priest of Ste. Jeanne de Chantal, 16th arrondissement of Paris. It was one of the city’s wealthier neighborhoods and the parish was somewhat complacent when Lustiger joined. He was successful in transforming the Parish into a highly active one with his dedication.
- He was appointed the Bishop of Orleans by Pope John Paul II in 1979. This appointment came as a surprise to him as he was not expecting to be handed such a prestigious position in the French Roman Catholic Church given his Jewish heritage.
- In 1981, he was promoted as Archbishop of Paris, succeeding Cardinal Marty. This appointment was criticized by the founder of the Traditionalist Catholic group, Society of St. Pius X, on the grounds that Lustiger was not of truly French origin.
- He participated in the annual meeting of the movement Comunione e Liberazione in Rimini in the summer of 1982 and was made Cardinal-Priest of Santi Marcellino e Pietro by Pope John Paul II the next year.
- He constructed several new churches in Paris and implemented reforms in the Archdiocese of Paris. He helped to create an independent theological faculty in the École cathédrale de Paris in 1984.
- He was named Cardinal-Priest of San Luigi dei Francesi in 1994. Lustiger became increasingly popular after he became a cardinal. He became internationally renowned and was even considered eligible as pope and was often referred to as a Jewish Pope.
- Along with religion he was also interested in politics and maintained close contacts with the political world. He had good relations with François Mitterrand's Socialist government in spite of the fact that they had political disagreements from time to time. He even presided as Archbishop of Paris over Mitterrand's funeral.
- In 1997, he organized a World Youth Day which was held in Paris. This was to counter those who felt that the European youth had no interest in religion. More than a million people attended the event proving that the youngsters were indeed receptive to religion.
- He submitted his resignation as Archbishop of Paris to Pope John Paul II in September 2001 on reaching the age of 75. Though initially reluctant, the Pope finally accepted his resignation after a few years in 2005.
- He was awarded the Nostra Aetate Award for advancing Catholic-Jewish relations by the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding in 1998.
- He was awarded the Bailli Grand-croix d'honneur et de dévotion of the Sovereign Order of Malta and the Grand-Cross of the Order of the Infant Henry the Navigator.
- He was a good natured and friendly man who was well loved by everyone. He was an outspoken opponent of racism and was known to be an energetic and enthusiastic person.
- He was diagnosed with bone and lung cancer and died on August 5, 2007. The World Jewish Congress paid homage to him after his death.
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