Visitors to the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris will soon be able to ponder a commemorative marker carrying this inscription:
“I was born Jewish. I received the name of my paternal grandfather, Aaron. Having become Christian by faith and by baptism, I have remained Jewish as did the Apostles. I have as my patron saints Aaron the High Priest, Saint John the Apostle, Holy Mary full of grace. Named 139th archbishop of Paris by His Holiness, John Paul II, I was enthroned in this cathedral on 27 February 1981, and here I exercised my entire ministry. Passers by, pray for me. +Aaron Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger, Archbishop of Paris.”
In the early 1950s, two young men whose names would become familiar throughout the world attended the same political science lectures at the Sorbonne. One was the son of Polish-Jewish parents; the other came from Cambodia. One had lost his mother in Hitler’s Holocaust; the other would ignite a holocaust. One had converted to Catholicism; the other had converted to Marxism. One would live to become the embodiment of humane, intellectually coherent religious faith, and thereby give hope to his people; the other would marry irrationality to viciousness, and his name would become a curse among his people.
One was named Aaron Jean-Marie Lustiger. The other was named Pol Pot. A novelist of sufficient imagination could turn that scene — Lustiger and Pol Pot, in the same Parisian classroom — into a gripping tale about divergent roads taken, and the consequences that followed. I’m not a novelist, but I am very grateful for the privilege of having had Jean-Marie Lustiger’s life intersect with my own.
We first met in Washington in 1986 or so, when he was visiting America with a group of young aides. After a formal session at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the cardinal and I fell into more informal conversation, and I asked him whether this was his first trip to the U.S.. Oh no, he answered, he had once hitchhiked across the country. I asked him when. “1968,” he replied. I suggested that he might have chosen a more tranquil year.
Cardinal Lustiger was very helpful to me as I was preparing Witness to Hope: The Biography of John Paul II, and we stayed in touch over the years. Early in 2006, one of his assistants, Jean Duchesne, told me that the cardinal, quite ill with cancer, wanted to see me before he died, in order to share some memories of, and reflections on, the last years of John Paul II. We spent ninety minutes together in the cardinal’s modest Paris apartment last December and had a conversation that I shall always remember for its Christian lucidity and tranquillity in thinking about death, in the very face of death. I asked for the cardinal’s blessing as I left; I shall always cherish the memory of his hands on my head and his thin arms drawing me into a final embrace. Here was a man of God; here was a man. The first explained the second.
Like John Paul II, Aaron Jean-Marie Lustiger believed that the biblical story — the story that begins with God’s self-gift to the People of Israel and that continues in the Church — is in fact the story of humanity, rightly understood. The biblical story and the human story don’t run on parallel tracks; the biblical story is the human story, read in its true depth. For Cardinal Lustiger, the “choice of God” (the title of one of his best-selling books) was also the choice for a genuine humanism, the choice for a life without fear of final oblivion — the fear that was one root of the lethally different choice his Cambodian classmate had made.
Cardinal Lustiger, who wrote with great insight about worship and prayer, knew that at the heart of culture is cult. Everyone worships; the question is whether the object of our worship is a worthy one. Having lived and died in the conviction that worship of the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus is true worship, Aaron Jean-Marie Lustiger became a blessing for the world.
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.