This Day in Jewish History

The Jew Who Would Become France’s Top Catholic Is Baptized

Aaron Jean-Marie, upon being named archbishop of Orleans: 'It was as if the crucifix had begun to wear a yellow star.’

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On August 21, 1940, 13-year-old Aaron Lustiger, a Paris-born Jew, underwent baptism into the Catholic faith in Orleans, France. Four decades later, Father Jean-Marie Lustiger, as he now called himself, would be appointed archbishop of Paris and subsequently a cardinal.

Aaron Lustiger was born on September 17, 1926, the older of what would be the two children of Charles and Gisele Lustiger. The parents were both Polish Jews who met after immigrating to France. Charles ran a clothing shop in the French capital. Although a grandfather of Aaron’s back in Silesia, Poland, had been a rabbi, the immediate family was not religiously observant.

Aaron attended the Lycee Montaigne, in Paris, but after the start of World War II in October 1939, his parents sent him and his sister, Arlette, to Orleans, into the care of a Christian family. Drawn to Christianity after having begun reading the New Testament, he decided, after several visits to an Orleans church during Easter week of 1940 that he wanted to be baptized, something he later acknowledged that his parents found “unbearably painful.” Five months later, he was baptized as Aaron Jean-Marie by Orleans bishop Jules Marie Courcoux.

According to Henri Tincq, who wrote a 2012 biography of Lustiger, both his parents were also baptized that autumn, in the hope that a Catholic identity might protect them from arrest by the Nazis.

In fact, Jean-Marie, his sister Arlette, also a convert, and his father Charles did survive the war by hiding in Southern France. Gisele however was arrested after returning to Paris, and was deported in September 1942 to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where she was murdered the following year.

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The vocation of Israel

After the war, the family’s surviving members returned to Paris, where Jean-Marie earned a literature degree from the Sorbonne in 1946. That was followed by clerical training, first at the Carmelite seminary in Paris and then at the city’s Institut Catholique. He was ordained a priest on April 17, 1954.

Over the next two and a half decades, prior to his appointment as archbishop, Lustiger served as chaplain at the Sorbonne, headed a Catholic training center and was vicar of a 16th-arrondissement parish. In December 1979, he was named archbishop of Orleans (about which he remarked that, “it was as if the crucifix had begun to wear a yellow star”), and just over a year later received the call to return to Paris to become the effective head of French Catholics.

Lustiger was a Catholic traditionalist, and remained opposed to birth control, women’s ordination and the possibility of marriage for priests. Yet he always maintained, to the consternation of some Jews, that he remained a Jew, even after becoming archbishop of Paris, when he declared: “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.”

He was an outspoken opponent of expressions of anti-Semitism, and worked hard for reconciliation with Jews, helping to hammer out a resolution to the crisis caused by establishment of a Carmelite monastery in Auschwitz in the 1980s.

Lustiger told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in 1981 that during a spiritual crisis in the previous decade he had considered moving to Israel. “I thought then that I had finished what I had to do here [in France], that I was at a crossroads,” he explained, adding that he “had started to learn Hebrew, by myself, with cassettes. Does that seem absurd, making your aliyah?”

With his charisma and communications skills, Lustiger was often mentioned as a possible successor to Pope John Paul II, with whom he was very close. In fact, he submitted his resignation as archbishop in September 2001, when he turned 75, and it was accepted by John Paul in 2005.

In April 2007, Lustiger, suffering from lung and bone cancer, entered a clinic outside Paris. He died there on August 5 of that year, at age 80.

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