“The Jewish Cardinal” is a TV movie released in Europe under the title of “Le Metis de Dieu.” “Le Metis” is loosely interpreted as “a person of mixed blood.” It is an amazing story, and it is true.
In 1940, when the Germans occupied France, many young Jewish children were sent to safe houses. Aaron Lustiger was the son of Polish-Jewish immigrants who lived in France. Aaron and his sister were sent to live with a Catholic woman in Orleans at that time. Their mother had been shipped to Auschwitz where she died, but their father was able to stay in Orleans. Against his father’s wishes, Aaron converted to Catholicism when he was 13 years old, and took the name of Jean-Marie.
Laurent Lucas - Wikimedia
Jean-Marie is Named Bishop
Aaron’s young life is shown in the film in flashbacks. The main story is the fact that Jean-Marie (Laurent Lucas) became a Catholic priest in the city of Orleans, and in 1979 was summoned from his parish in Paris, France to Rome to speak with Pope John Paul II. The Pope informed Jean-Marie that he wished to name him the Bishop of Orleans. This had profound meaning because Orleans was where Jean-Marie Lustiger was baptized into the Catholic faith. Jean-Marie’s reaction was to ask the Pope if he was appointed Bishop because he was Jewish.
Eiffel Tower in Paris - Wikimedia
Jean-Marie’s Father Attends His Investiture
Jean-Marie’s father, Charles, was invited to his investiture. His cousin Fanny was responsible throughout his life for smoothing the relationship between the father and son. It was she who convinced the elder Lustiger to attend, although he did not stay for the dinner following the ceremony, pleading tiredness. He also held the Polish Pope, John Paul II, in high disregard because he had gone to Auschwitz to say Mass at the death camp where his wife had died.
Father Lustiger was beloved by his parishioners who referred to him as “the Bulldozer” because of his temperamental nature and his obstinacy. His closest aide, Father Julien, always called him “Lulu.” Father Julien remained with him throughout all of his assignments.
Pope John Paul II had a high regard for the priest. Father Lustiger constantly made it known that he did not renounce his Judaism when he converted to Catholicism. He truly felt that he was following in the footsteps of the apostles who were, like Jesus, Jews. He often practiced and strengthened his Hebrew and attempted to understand Christianity’s growth and development out of Judaism with Christ as the cornerstone, joining both faiths.
Pope John Paul II - Wikimedia
Friendship between Lustiger and Pope John Paul II
After his appointment as Bishop and from that time on, Bishop Lustiger met repeatedly with the Pope at the Vatican and also at his papal retreat in Castel Gandolfo. He and the Pope discussed vital issues of the day that were important both politically and globally. The Bishop supported John Paul II staunchly in all of his endeavors.
The film did a beautiful job of showing the friendship between Lustiger and John Paul II. Aurelian Recoing, who portrays John Paul II, is a scene stealer when the two are shown together. At one point, the Pope pointed to his white sneakers that he wore to navigate the long halls of the Vatican. He remarked that “they give me wings.” In another scene, he showed the Bishop his new “Popemobile” of which he was so proud. Interestingly, the two characters are shown as human beings with imperfections - short tempers, stubbornness, pride - which afflict all of us in our relationships with others. Those characteristics made those figures so much more appealing than if they were shown only as holy, dedicated stick figures representing the Church.
Cardinal Lustiger - Wikimedia
Appointment as Archbishop, then as Cardinal
Within two years, Bishop Lustiger was named the Archbishop of Paris, and two years later, Pope John Paul II said to him “I want to name you a Cardinal and have you as my advisor.” His appointment as Archbishop, in particular, was crucial to John Paul II’s agenda for accelerating the fall of Communism. Without Archbishop Lustiger’s position of promoting reconciliation between Judaism and Catholicism, animosity between Jews and Polish Catholics would have delayed the fall and created a religious backlash where cooperation was needed instead.
The Pope’s Influence on Lustiger
The Archbishop followed the Pope’s example of using modern communications to the utmost. He launched a Catholic radio station, and had disputes with the Catholic press who exposed his Jewish background as the son of Polish Jews who fled to Paris before he was born. He loudly proclaimed his Jewishness alongside his Christianity, even though it added to the damage of his relationship with his father. Even as a Cardinal, he was a highly controversial figure, prone to anger and self-justification. He made a highly publicized visit to Auschwitz which once more caused grief to his father.
Auschwitz had a profound effect on him. He was unable to pray the Lord’s Prayer there, nor the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. When he received the news of his father’s death, his cousin Fanny asked him if would recite the Kaddish at the Jewish service, an honor given to the son of the deceased. He would not say the Kaddish, and it was passed on to another friend. Fanny was so disappointed in her cousin, she said to him “You hurt your father to the end. I do not want to see you again.”
St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican - Wikimedia
Controversial Carmelite Convent
One of the most significant episodes in the film concerns a controversy which arose when a group of Carmelite nuns built a convent on the grounds of Auschwitz. The Pope agreed to it initially, but Lustiger’s Jewish heritage came to the fore and he found himself the mediator between two forces, each with good reasons to back up their convictions. Lustiger’s deep emotional ties to the place where his mother died strained his allegiance to his chosen religious faith. In an emotion-filled meeting with his Cardinal, John Paul II shed tears of remorse for the hardships that had been afflicted on his loyal friend throughout his life. The Pope agreed that the Carmelite convent should not have been built. It was removed in 1984.
An interesting note is that the Roman Catholic Church was not in favor of this film and refused to allow any of the churches in Paris to be used as its setting. Therefore, the churches depicted in “The Jewish Cardinal” are all Protestant churches in Paris.
Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Lustiger, Cardinal Kuharc Wikimedia
Death of Cardinal Lustiger
When Cardinal Lustiger died in 2007, he had left word requesting that the Kaddish would be recited for him at his funeral. It was performed by his cousin in front of the doors of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris where he is buried. His epitaph, which he had written himself in 2004, declared that he was born Jewish and remained so.