In the early 1950s, or so I’m told, two young men who would later come to world prominence attended some of the same political science lectures at the Sorbonne. One was the son of Polish-Jewish parents who had emigrated to France; the other was from Cambodia. One had lost his mother to the race-madness of German National Socialism; the other would himself be the cause of suffering for innumerable mothers. One had been converted to Catholicism as a young man; the other had followed a different messianic creed, Marxism. One would become the embodiment of a humanizing, reasonable faith; the other would come to symbolize the horrors that irrationality married to utopianism can cause. One would advocate spiritual revolution; the other, communist revolution. One would see his name invoked as a blessing; the other’s name would be cursed.
One was named Jean-Marie Lustiger; the other, Pol Pot.
A novelist of sufficient skill could take that scene — Lustiger and Pol Pot, together in a lecture hall at the Sorbonne — and turn it into a meditation on the consequences of accepting or declining Pascal’s Wager in the late twentieth century. Jean-Marie Lustiger really did believe in God, of course; he didn’t simply live “as if God existed.” But how different the worlds that Pol Pot touched would have been had that young Cambodian accepted Pascal’s challenge, even if he could never bring himself to make Lustiger’s act of faith.
Born September 17, 1926, Jean-Marie Lustiger was made archbishop of Paris in 1981 and was one of the most prominent members of the College of Cardinals for more than two decades, embodying precisely the Catholicism imagined by Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council: a Church engaged with the modern world; a Church that had opened its windows to modernity; but also a Church that asked modernity to open its windows to the worlds of transcendent truth and love. Like the late John Paul II, Cardinal Lustiger was completely convinced, on the basis of both faith and reason, that being a Catholic and being an engaged, compassionate, intelligent human being, dedicated to healing the world’s wounds and advancing the cause of human freedom, were two sides of the same coin.
Both of these Christian giants believed that the story of the Church — the story of God’s gift of himself to the People of Israel and in his son, Jesus Christ — is the story of humanity, rightly understood. The human story and the Christian story do not run on parallel tracks, as it were. The Christian story is the human story, read in its true depth and against its most ample horizon. For Cardinal Lustiger, the “choice of God” was, at the very same time, the choice of an authentic humanism, a truly liberating humanism that could set men and women free in the deepest meaning of freedom: freedom from the fear of final oblivion that has haunted humanity for millennia, but no more so than in our time.
Because he came from a human world outside the worlds-within-worlds of French Catholicism, Jean-Marie Lustiger could see things perhaps more clearly than others. He could see, for example, that both the conventional “left” and “right” options among French Catholics were, in fact, no options, for both imagined the Church wedded to worldly power: in one case, the power of the revolution (however it might be conceived); in the other, the power of the old order. The Church, as Lustiger understood it, was not in the business of aligning itself with worldly power of any sort. The Church was in the business of evangelization, of service, of mission, of witness to the truths about the dignity of the human person on which the rights of man most securely rest. The Church’s public business was forming a culture of authentic freedom that could then form the kind of citizens who can live freedom nobly, rather than meanly or selfishly.
To meet Jean-Marie Lustiger was to meet a man of God: He was a wonderful human being — intelligent, caring, funny in a wry way — because he had been transformed by the power of God, in Christ, through the Holy Spirit. His great desire was that others might share in the gift that he had been given, the gift of faith. That gift led him to read situations in their true depth, often against the grain of the conventional wisdom. And this was another quality he shared with the late John Paul II — the quality of reading the dynamics of history in depth. Like the man who took a great risk in appointing him archbishop of Paris, Lustiger (who took no less a risk in accepting John Paul’s appointment) understood that the most dynamic force in history over time is neither politics nor economics but rather culture: what men and women honor, cherish, and worship; what men and women are willing to stake their lives on.
And at the heart of culture, Lustiger knew, is cult: the act of worship. Everyone worships; the only question is whether the object of our worship is worthy. Jean-Marie Lustiger lived, led, and died in the conviction that the worship of the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus is true worship, worship that can shape a truly liberating humanism. That is why everyone whose life he touched was the richer for the encounter.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.
This article was originally published on First Things: On the Square