Cardinal Lustiger has been the voice of French Catholics

By Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, retired archbishop of Paris, has been the voice of French Catholics for almost a quarter century, particularly defending the right of believers to have a say in public debates.

Cardinals, including French Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, join in the funeral Mass for Pope John Paul II in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican April 8. (CNS photo from Reuters)

Born into a Jewish family, the cardinal has also been outspoken in condemning anti-Semitism and promoting dialogue with Jews and with the nation's growing Muslim community.

Known as a gregarious and outspoken church leader, he is expected to be an influential European voice in the conclave.

Cardinal Lustiger defended church-state separation at a time when France was debating whether to ban religious symbols, including head scarves worn by Muslim women, large Christian crosses and Jewish skullcaps, in public schools.

In September 2003, he urged a government commission not to "disturb a fragile balance" between church and state by allowing religious symbols at schools.

As an archbishop who has not been shy about discussing his Jewish past -- he once told reporters he still considered himself to be a Jew and had a "dual affiliation" -- Cardinal Lustiger, 78, has received considerable media attention, which he has used to promote interfaith dialogue.

The cardinal, who converted to Catholicism from Judaism, represented the pope Jan. 27 at the commemoration in Poland of the 60th anniversary of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where his Jewish mother died. The first time he visited Auschwitz was in 1983, when he accompanied Pope John Paul II there.

During the 2005 commemoration, Cardinal Lustiger said, "The silence of Auschwitz-Birkenau's victims impels us to uphold and order the upholding of the dignity of each human being."

The cardinal has worked hard to improve Catholic-Jewish relations. In October 1998, the New York-based Center for Christian-Jewish understanding gave him its "Nostra Aetate" award, named for the declaration on non-Christian religions issued by the Second Vatican Council.

The previous year, the French bishops issued a five-page declaration confessing that "the church of France failed in her mission as teacher of consciences" by remaining silent while Jews were persecuted in Nazi-occupied France during World War II. Cardinal Lustiger was one of the principal figures to present the document at a ceremony near a former Nazi deportation point for French Jews in a Paris suburb.

He has written or edited 20 books, belongs to the prestigious French Academy and is a member of Vatican agencies that deal with bishops, clergy, religious life and Eastern churches.

Born in Paris Sept. 17, 1926, to Polish Jews who had emigrated to France, he was given the name Aaron. His family did not practice its faith, but paid for its Jewish identity with the loss of several members during the Holocaust.

The future cardinal was spared, however, because a Catholic family in Orleans, France, sheltered him and his sister during the war. In 1940, at age 14, he was baptized and took the name Jean-Marie.

He became the bishop of Orleans nearly 40 years later and was elevated to archbishop of Paris in 1981.

Both appointments surprised French Catholics. Cardinal Lustiger said in a later interview that after he was named to Orleans in 1980, he wrote the pope and suggested he might have made a mistake by elevating a parish priest with Jewish heritage to the head of a diocese.

But the pope would hear none of it. Eventually the two church leaders came to express very similar opinions on issues ranging from the value of prayer to the failures of communism.

The cardinal repeatedly has expressed concern for apparent changes in French society's values.

He told a New York audience in 1996 that feminism "might lead our civilization into a blind alley" where equality of opportunities is concerned, because "the difference between man and woman is anthropologically grounded."

More than once, the cardinal has defended the French bishops' practice of weighing in on national political matters, explaining in a 1987 interview that the Catholic Church in France has a right to use its "substantial moral credit" in public affairs.

In 1996, Cardinal Lustiger was received into the French Academy, whose members comprise the country's literary elite. Membership in the academy, established in 1635, is considered as great an honor as holding a high-ranking government post.

Upon his election to the institution in 1995, Cardinal Lustiger said he intended to use his new title to draw attention to modern ethical and moral questions, including the problem of supreme evil raised by the Holocaust.


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