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Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, 80; convert worked for better relationships with Jews

August 07, 2007|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

PARIS -- Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, who was the son of a Holocaust victim and converted from Judaism to become one of France's most influential Roman Catholic figures, died Sunday. He was 80.

Lustiger, who was archbishop of Paris for 24 years before stepping down in 2005, died in a hospice, the Paris archbishop's office announced. A cause of death was not given, but Lustiger had been gravely ill for months.

As the public face of the church in mainly Roman Catholic France, Lustiger spoke out for years on critical issues and served as a voice of calm in tumultuous times.

Pope Benedict XVI praised Lustiger as a great figure of the church in France and as an intellectual who was intent on improving relations between Christians and Jews, according to a condolence telegram the pope sent to Paris Archbishop Andre XXIII.

A confidant of Pope John Paul II, Lustiger helped strengthen ties between the church and Jewish leaders by accompanying the pope on his landmark trip to the Holy Land in 2000.

Lustiger also represented the pontiff at the January 2005 ceremonies for the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, where Lustiger's mother died.

Lustiger kept largely silent on the tragedy of his mother, Gisele, a Polish Jewish immigrant.

But during France's National Day of Remembrance to commemorate the deportation and death of French Jews during World War II, Lustiger, taking part in the reading of names in 1999, came to his mother's.

"Gisele Lustiger," he said, then added, "ma maman," or "my mama," before continuing, Catholic World News reported.

Born Aaron Lustiger on Sept. 17, 1926, in Paris to parents who ran a hosiery shop, he and his sister were sent to the town of Orleans, 80 miles south of the capital, to take refuge during the Nazi occupation.

It was there that Lustiger, who was a nonobservant 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.

In 1954, Lustiger was ordained a priest 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.

Lustiger was named bishop of Orleans in 1979 and archbishop of Paris in 1981. His father, Charles, survived the war and lived out his life at his son's residence.

In 1983, Pope John-Paul II made Lustiger a cardinal.

Despite his role as a "prince of the Church," Lustiger remained an eminently grass-roots figure, creating a Christian radio station, Radio Notre Dame, in 1981 and expounding on such issues as the August 2003 heat wave that killed thousands of people in France and a united Europe.

The author of numerous books, Lustiger became a member of the Academie Francaise in 1995.

He remained private about his conversion to Catholicism, but said in a 1987 collection of his writings: "Christianity is the fruit of Judaism. For me it was never for an instant a question of denying my Jewish identity. On the contrary."

A funeral Mass for Lustiger is to be held Friday at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

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