The next Jewish pope

Intellect and intimacy ... Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger. Photo: Simon Schluter

His mother was burned in the ovens of Auschwitz, yet he converted to Catholicism, rose to the zenith of power in the church, and could become its next leader. Jean-Marie Lustiger spoke with Paul Sheehan.

He started life as Aaron Lustiger. Now he is Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, prince of the Catholic Church, confidant of Pope John Paul II. As the Pope grows more and more frail, Cardinal Lustiger, the Archbishop of Paris, grows more crucial to the leadership of the church.

"When he says Mass at Notre Dame [Cathedral] the place is always crammed and when he walks through the crowd it is a sight to behold," says Professor Colin Nettelbeck, head of the school of languages at Melbourne University, who studied at the Sorbonne while Lustiger was a chaplain there.

As one of the world's most influential and charismatic intellectuals, he is giving lectures in Sydney and Melbourne this week. But if you want to see him speak and don't have a ticket, forget it. Both events sold out long ago.

The cardinal is not exactly intimidated by intellectual fashion. Having seen, first hand, the rise and crash of nazism, communism and Marxism, and now the rise of globalism and consumerism, he takes a long-term view: he does not think the church needs to enter into a popularity contest.

"I'm sorry Jesus Christ did not have a good public relations office because maybe he wouldn't have had the bad problem of being crucified," he told the Herald during an interview this weekend.

Of the current fixations with feminism and sexuality he says, "These are problems of society, not the church ... When you look at the issues around feminism, it's not going so good. When you look at the issues of sexuality, it's not going so good."

In the classic tradition of French intellectuals, he worries that "citizens are being turned into units of an all-pervasive consumption". He sees society drifting toward "new forms of conformism, of unfreedom".

"I think Dr Goebbels would be happy with some of the advertisers of today. He would think, 'If I'd had this agency I might still be in power'."

He sees the huge and failed social experiment of Marxism being replaced by something that is similar - the rise of powerful wealthy elites that control an increasingly unequal and unreflective society.

"This will be the weakness of democracy. Democracy needs citizens not consumers. When people are merely consumers of politics, they are more easily manipulated. And in our time conformism is stronger than in the past."

The paradox is obvious: the mantra of modern civilisation is personal freedom and expression but Lustiger sees the exact opposite actually taking place. "I'm afraid what we called the new civilisation, the shift to the new culture of image and immediacy, it's an illusion. Popular culture is lower today than it was at the beginning of the 20th century."

"From the 17th century, we have had the progressive ambition that everybody could be a partner in the culture of the elite. Now, I'm afraid about the culture of the people ... Children are educated now not to reflect but to be impulsive. They respond to images, sensations. They don't have a sense of history ... In all the rich countries, violence amongst teenagers is growing. It's terrible. You see it in the statistics; you hear it from educators. Why? Because there are not as many parents. Work. Divorce. Single parents. No fathers."

His Australian lectures will pose this question: is the human species behaving like locusts, clustering in giant cities that cover Earth in concrete and suck in enormous amounts of energy from the countryside? He talks of the impact of the "massive phenomenon of urbanisation" which has seen the percentage of world population living in cities grow from 30 per cent to almost 50 per cent in just 50 years. He believes most large cities "unleash murderous impulses".

Although serving as Archbishop of Paris and leader of the college of cardinals, he has the gift of intimacy. And it is in his role as a servant of the poor and the outsider that he will speak in Melbourne today and at NSW Parliament House on Wednesday night. The lectures will raise funds for Caritas Australia, the overseas aid and development agency of the Catholic Church which is currently dominated by a major commitment to East Timor.

Born in Paris in 1926, the son of Polish Jewish migrants, Aaron Lustiger celebrated his 13th birthday as war broke out. His father placed him in the care of a Catholic family and although he never sought to sever his Jewish roots (he remains a great supporter of Israel), in 1940, aged 14, he converted to Catholicism. Sixty years later, he remains one of the church's staunchest defenders.

He has become a living bridge over the river of bad blood, mischief and mistrust that has divided the relationship between Catholicism and Judaism for 2,000 years. Elie Wiesel, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and chronicler of the Holocaust, has written that when he thinks about the career of Jean-Marie Lustiger he thinks about the history of transgressions against Jews:

"I think of the tensions and conflicts that over centuries have marked the relations between our two religions: the hateful writings of the church fathers, the massacres during the Crusades, the Inquisition, the pogroms, the public humiliations. I think of the silences of [Pope] Pius XII; his intercessions with Third Reich authorities were restricted to converted Jews. Only those mattered to him."

Of Lustiger himself, Wiesel wrote in his memoir And The Sea Is Never Full: "His evident sincerity makes him seem vulnerable and profoundly disarming ... But he insists that having been born a Jew, he will die a Jew. I try to explain to him why this stand seems untenable to us; I cite laws and customs."

In the end Wiesel pronounces himself a friend of Lustiger, yet, so driven by his career-long documentation of anti-Semitism, Wiesel seems oblivious to the racism of his own argument. Anyone can convert to Judaism, but can a convert ever become a chief rabbi? Whereas anyone can become a Catholic and even an archbishop because it is a religion, not a tribe.

The young Aaron Lustiger, who witnessed first-hand the monstrosity of nazism, whose mother was burned in the ovens of Auschwitz, has given a very different personal perspective of Christian intervention during World War II:

"The Righteous remain hidden ... I do remember the ones who provided me with forged documents. I do remember those who helped me get across the demarcation line. I do remember those who warned me that I might be arrested soon. I do remember those who put me up without asking any questions. I do remember those whom I trusted and who never betrayed me."

What leaps out from Jean-Marie/Aaron Lustiger is not how Catholic or Jewish he is but how French. With a craggy Gallic jawline, he is a classic French intellectual, comfortable with abstraction, unafraid of profundity, given to elegant soliloquising.

His first pastoral role threw him unwittingly into the path of history, when he was sent to the University of Paris, the Sorbonne, as chaplain of the university parish in 1954. The next decade spent there , later as director of the Richelieu Centre, was the decade which saw the climax of the Algerian war of independence, the French defeat in Vietnam, the influx of American culture and the currents which would rise to a flood in the mass street demonstrations of Paris in 1968.

"You can't underestimate the importance of those 10 years he spent at the Sorbonne," says Professor Nettelbeck. While living in Paris he also saw how the then Father Lustiger rejuvenated the moribund parish of Sainte-Jeanne de Chantal in the 16th arrondissement, one of the wealthier and more complacent sections of Paris. "He would have all the priests come to Mass on Sunday and go out and greet everyone." From there he became Bishop of Orleans.

Could this man be the first Jewish pope in almost two millennia? He certainly sits in the first rank of the crimson aristocracy.

While he shuns the trappings of ranks, he has been received like royalty since he arrived on Thursday, grey with jet lag, and bereft of luggage (thanks to a major Australian airline which shall remain nameless). His schedule includes visits with current and former governors-general, premiers, religious leaders and business titans. Dick Pratt, the billionaire member of the Jewish community, put on a big bash for him in Melbourne.

Although the cardinal does not care for fashion, he is happy to change. The Catholic Church has never expended much energy on environmentalism, but Lustiger has converted to this, too.

"The Bible talks about man's power to subdue nature. But now we know we can destroy it. The problem seems very new. I remember the first time I heard about the ecology movement, which began in California in 1965, when I received some papers from Berkeley. I thought then that the Americans were a little crazy. But it turned out they were right."

(c) 2001 Syndey Morning Herald

Return to WebToday