Cardinal Lustiger Examines Complex Christian-Jewish Ties

NEW YORK—The Holocaust has paradoxically brought Catholics and Jews closer together, because it has helped spur the Roman Catholic Church to rethink its relationship with Judaism, a French cardinal said on Oct. 20.

Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger, archbishop of Paris and a Jewish convert, said the Catholic Church has embraced Jews since the Second Vatican Council and has acknowledged the role Christians played in the Shoah, or Holocaust, in the 1940s.

“In Christian-Jewish relationships, Christians have opened their eyes and ears to the Jewish pain and wound. They expect to be held as responsible. They agree to bear that burden without rejecting it, [for] others. They have not tried to declare themselves innocent,” Cardinal Lustiger said. “If they have not asked for the victims’ forgiveness, it is because they know that only God can grant forgiveness.”

The cardinal received one of this year's Nostra Aetate Awards from the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding on Oct. 20. The organization, founded in 1992 at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., annually honors individuals who contribute to interreligious harmony.

John Cardinal O‘Connor, archbishop of New York, introduced the other recipient, Rabbi Rene-Samuel Sirat, chief rabbi emeritus of Europe. Cardinal O‘Connor himself received the award in 1996.

The award refers to Nostra Aetate (“In Our Age”), the 1965 document of Vatican II that extended olive branches to non-Christian religions and especially encouraged “mutual understanding and appreciation” between Catholics and Jews.

Cardinal Lustiger gave the main address at the ceremony, speaking for an hour before about 500 people at Sutton Place Synagogue on East 51st Street in Manhattan.

He suggested that the Holocaust has helped the Church recapture its historical and spiritual link with the Jews. “After the Shoah — but not only because of the Shoah — the determination to recognize and respect the gifts granted to the Jewish people in the history of salvation, and the rediscovery of perpetuity of the people of Israel and of its fidelity are for the Christians the fruit of their rediscovery of their own wealth and vocation,” the cardinal said.

He also defended the French Bishops’ Declaration of Repentance issued September 1997 at Drancy, France, which asked Jews to forgive the Church for what it called the “sin” of silence committed by most French Church leaders during the Nazi persecution. The document attributed the wartime bishops’ lack of action to a too-narrow sense of responsibility and to “commonly held anti-Jewish prejudices.”

In his speech, Cardinal Lustiger acknowledged criticism of the document as too harsh on French Catholics. “In the … Declaration … we did not want to insist on the role played by numerous Catholics to save a number of Jews in France,” Lustiger said. “Some Roman Catholics have reproached the Drancy Declaration for failing to emphasize this aspect of history. But how could we then have not yielded — even unconsciously — to the temptation to justify ourselves?”

At the same time, he applauded recent efforts to honor Gentiles who helped save Jews from the Nazis. “To perpetuate their memory is a duty for our generation with regard to the next,” the cardinal said. “For the just prove that the best as well as the worst can spring from man's heart.”

He recalled his own narrow escape as an adolescent from the German-occupied zone of France to the Vichy side. “I do remember the ones who provided me with forged documents. I do remember those who helped me get across the demarcation line. I do remember those who warned me that I might be arrested soon. I do remember those who put me up without asking any questions. I do remember those whom I trusted and who never betrayed me. I do remember what they did for me and for the members of my family who were not arrested in those times of dereliction.

“Yet I cannot remember their names, or sometimes even their faces.”

Cardinal Lustiger said next year he will ask Catholics in his archdiocese to join Jews in prayer on Yom Shoah, the day of commemoration of the Holocaust. He added that Cardinal O‘Connor has agreed to ask Catholics in New York to do the same.

Cardinal Lustiger, 72, the first Jewish cardinal since the 12th century, is occasionally mentioned as a possible successor to Pope John Paul II. He was baptized in 1940, ordained in 1954, and became archbishop of Paris in 1981.

During the address, he offered an extensive historical outline of Catholic-Jewish relations.

St. Paul, he noted, wished to stir a holy “jealousy” among his Pharisee brothers toward the Gentiles who were embracing Christ. Yet in subsequent years, Jews and Christians have often acted out of selfishness instead of love. “What has happened between Jews and Christians over the last 20 centuries is a tragedy of human jealousy usurping the appearance of divine jealousy,” Cardinal Lustiger said.

Both Christians and Jews must acknowledge past wrongs, he added. But Jews, he noted, have suffered the brunt of intolerance “because the balance of power was blatantly unequal.”

“Yet the reciprocity in lack of understanding and contempt remains eloquent,” he said.

Cardinal Lustiger offered a theory to explain why Christians treated Jews badly. Medieval Christians, he said, eager for their earthly kingdoms to be the “temporal realization of the Kingdom of Heaven” lacked “patience” for the Second Coming of Christ, and so they established “temporally religious” regimes “bound to be oppressive and intolerant.” The Church, too, wielded secular power, and the two sources of power reduced the traditional Christian hope for the future into an all-consuming pursuit of the present.

In other words, so caught up were the Church and the Christian kingdoms with reflecting (and enforcing) heaven on earth, that they forgot that earth is merely a passing prelude to heaven.

“Please note in passing,” Lustiger added, “that this temporal religiousness was found just as unbearable by the great spiritual figures whom the Holy Spirit has never tired of giving to the Church.”

But for today, Cardinal Lustiger sounded optimistic about harmony between Christians and Jews, particularly in the United States. “It is my intuition that, for the time being, you are more free than the Christians and Jews of the Old Continent, where the wounds of the past are still open…".

During his speech Cardinal Lustiger did not mention Edith Stein, the philosopher and Jewish convert Pope John Paul II canonized as a saint Oct. 11 in Rome. Stein, like Cardinal Lustiger's mother, died at Auschwitz during the Holocaust.

But the cardinal's introducer, Dr. Samuel Pisar, a New York lawyer, author, and survivor of Nazi death camps, addressed Stein's canonization directly. Pisar acknowledged great strides Catholic churchmen have taken to patch up relations with the Jews, but said he found some Vatican pronouncements lacking.

“Sister St. Teresia Benedicta (Stein's religious name) was gassed at Auschwitz because as Edith Stein, she had been born a Jew,” Pisar said. “That His Holiness saw in her canonization an opportunity to institutionalize Catholic commemoration of the Shoah, is heartwarming to us all. But to fix such annual commemorations for Aug. 9, the date of Edith Stein's death, instead of the 27th of Nisan, established for half a century as Yom Shoah, to commemorate the death of 6 million Jewish martyrs, may bring needless pain and discord, and raise suspicions about a Christianization of the Holocaust.”

Cardinal O‘Connor replied in his speech that he was not sure reports of the Pope's remarks on this matter were accurate. He said he would ask the Pope himself to clarify his feelings, when he visits Rome in a few weeks.

Matt McDonald writes from Mash-pee, Massachusetts.