updated 8/5/2007 10:39:02 PM ET 2007-08-06T02:39:02

Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, a Jew who converted to Catholicism and rose through church hierarchy to become one of the most influential Roman Catholic figures in France, died Sunday, the Paris archbishop’s office said. He was 80.

Lustiger — whose Polish immigrant mother died in the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz — was archbishop of Paris for 24 years before stepping down in 2005 at the age of 78. He died in a hospice in Paris, the archbishop’s office said.

A cause of death was not immediately provided, but Lustiger had said in April that he was being treated for a “grave illness.”

For years, Lustiger was the public face of the church in mainly Roman Catholic France, speaking out on critical issues and serving as a voice of calm in tumultuous times. He appeared to have perfectly synthesized his Jewish heritage with his chosen faith.

“Christianity is the fruit of Judaism,” he once said.

“For me, it was never for an instant a question of denying my Jewish identity. On the contrary,” he said in “Le Choix de Dieu” (The Choice of God), conversations published in 1987.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who spoke to reporters during a vacation in New England, said the country had “lost a great figure of spiritual, moral, intellectual and naturally religious life.”

‘An important role’
Archbishop of Paris Andre Vingt-Trois said Lustiger’s “reflections, and his personal history, led him to play an important role in the evolution of relations between Jews and Christians.”

A confidante of the late Pope John Paul II, Lustiger represented the pontiff at January 2005 commemorations of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, where his mother died.

“I don’t want to return because it is a place of death and destruction,” said Lustiger, who had previously visited the camp in 1983. “If I am going, it is because the pope asked me.”

Lustiger kept largely silent on the tragedy of his mother Gisele. But during France’s National Day of Remembrance to commemorate the deportation and death of French Jews during World War II, he took part in the reading of names in 1999 and came to his mother’s.

“Gisele Lustiger,” he intoned, then added, “ma maman” (my mama), before continuing, Catholic World News reported.

“The strength of evil can only be answered with an even greater strength of love,” Lustiger said at an August 2005 Mass in Lodz, Poland, in memory of the more than 200,000 Jews deported from there to Nazi death camps.

On May 31, a wheelchair-bound Lustiger made an emotionally charged appearance at the Academie Francaise to say goodbye to his fellow “immortals,” as the 40 members of the prestigious academy are known. The author of numerous books, Lustiger was made a member of the Academie Francaise in 1995.

Despite his diminished physical appearance, “we felt his fervor,” fellow member Jean-Marie Rouart said later.

Born Aaron Lustiger on Sept. 17, 1926, in Paris to Polish immigrant parents who ran a hosiery shop, he was sent to the town of Orleans, 80 miles south of the capital, to take refuge from the occupying Nazis. There, Lustiger, who was not a practicing Jew, converted to Catholicism in 1940 at the age of 14, taking the name Jean-Marie.

Two years later, his mother was deported to Auschwitz.

Lustiger was ordained a priest in April 17, 1954, in Paris, after earning degrees in philosophy and theology from the Catholic Institute’s Carmes Seminary. For 15 years, he served as chaplain to students at the Sorbonne University, reportedly zipping on a motorbike through the winding streets of the Latin Quarter, the Left Bank student neighborhood.

Lustiger was appointed pastor of the Sainte Jeanne de Chantal parish, holding the post for 10 years until 1979, the year he began his swift climb up the hierarchy.

Named bishop of Orleans in 1979, Lustiger was named archbishop of Paris in 1981. Two years later, in 1983, Pope John-Paul II made him a cardinal.

Despite his role as a “prince of the Church,” Lustiger remained an eminently grassroots figure, creating a Christian radio station, Radio Notre Dame, in 1981 and expounding on issues ranging from the August 2003 heat wave that killed thousands of people in France to the building of a united Europe.

‘True dialogue’
Lustiger kept his personal journey of conversion a mostly private matter. However, he called for a “true dialogue” between Christians and Jews in a 2002 book, “La Promesse” (The Promise) that delved into Judeo-Christian relations and “the mystery of Israel.” He specified that “Israel” in the book was the biblical reference to the Hebrews, not the Jewish state.

The book is a collection of oral meditations made in 1979 to a community of monks as well as more recent addresses at several Jewish conferences.

In an October 2003 interview in the French daily Le Figaro, Lustiger said that the “center of living gravity of the Church” was moving to Africa, the Americas and elsewhere, and predicted that, in the third millennium, Asia would become the new land of evangelization.

A funeral Mass for Lustiger was to be held Friday at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, the Paris archbishop’s office said.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments