“Is the Pope Catholic?” asks the rhetorical question. The answer is so obvious it is not even worth giving. But, in fact, a few years ago, a Jew did almost become Pope. And the man who almost became Pope still considered himself a Jew. His name was Jean-Marie Lustiger and this is his story.

In 1926, Aaron Lustiger was born to Polish immigrant parents in Paris who ran a hat and drapery shop in the southern neighborhood of Montparnasse. The family was Jewish and as a child Lustiger’s parents kept him indoors during Christian festivals in order to protect him from Christianity. They also reminded him of his roots, and that his grandfather had been a rabbi in Silesia, although the family itself was not particularly practicing.

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Religion came to Lustiger after he had been sent from Paris to the town of Orléans in order to escape the Nazi troops that had invaded France. There, 80 miles south of his hometown, the Lustigers often spent time at a Catholic family’s house. At the age of 14—a year after he would have been bar mitzvahed into the Jewish faith—Lustiger snuck into the cathedral in Orléans on Holy Thursday.

Once inside he found the building ablaze with flowers and candles. When he came in the next day, on Good Friday, the cathedral was laid bare to mark the loss of Jesus Christ. Lustiger found this—Christ’s presence so closely followed by his absence— especially touching. (Perhaps this makes sense psychologically for a child on the run, who had seen his home disappear overnight.) Lustiger decided he wanted to be baptized; from now on he would be called Jean-Marie rather than Aaron.

Explaining his decision to his parents was almost like coming out as gay to fundamentalist Christians in the 1940s—Lustiger described it as “unbearably painful.” Indeed his mother and father were so upset that they called in a rabbi to dissuade him. But the rabbi proved ineffectual, and 14-year-old Lustiger was adamant. And as he saw it, he had not renounced his Jewishness by becoming Christian. Although he had found a new religion, he never denied his Jewishness or indeed saw himself as anything other than a Jew (who was Christian). To say he was not Jewish, Lustiger argued, was “like denying my father and mother, my grandfathers and grandmothers.”

It may have been expedient to be a Christian rather than a Jew in France at the time of the Nazi occupation—76,000 Jews were deported to concentration camps from France—but Lustiger’s was no conversion of convenience. Indeed baptism and/or conversion would not save a Jew from Nazism and its racial doctrine—the experience of writer Irène Nemirovsky in France is just one of many examples of this.

Anti-Jewish measures in France were swift and devastating. Lustiger’s parents had to wear the yellow Star of David while he lived in hiding in Orléans. But Orléans was not in the “free” unoccupied part of southern France and as the situation worsened most of the family fled to the free zone. Most, however, but not all. Without a source of income Lustiger’s mother returned to Paris to take care of the family’s shop. There she was arrested by either German Nazis or their French collaborators and deported to Auschwitz, where Gisèle-Léa Lustiger was murdered in 1943.

But her son did survive the war, and 14 years after he set foot inside the cathedral at Orléans he became a priest (although his father had tried to have the Chief Rabbi of Paris annul his conversion in 1945). Yet although he survived, Lustiger would be forever haunted by his mother’s death. As a survivor, Lustiger constantly mourned his Jewish family members who had been murdered in the Holocaust. On his mother’s every yahrzeit—the anniversary of her death—Lustiger would say Kaddish. Here was a Catholic priest saying Kaddish in Aramaic for his murdered Jewish mother. When in 1983 he first visited Auschwitz, the site of her death, he knelt in the grass in robes and scarlet skullcap and wept.

Lustiger rose up quickly within the church. Within the space of four years, he went from being bishop of Orléans in 1979, to archbishop of Paris in 1981, and then to cardinal in 1983. Although he progressed through the ranks rapidly, he was not a strict man; indeed he broke with official church policy in the late 1980s, arguing for the use of contraceptives by those afflicted with AIDS. For his uncompromising views and indefatigable energy, he became known as “the bulldozer.”

A man who would not compromise his beliefs, Lustiger campaigned tirelessly against France’s anti-immigrant, often anti-Semitic and racist National Front party, calling its popularity at the polls “the greatest danger to our nation’s conscience.” He also railed against the effects of “savage capitalism” on society, well before the current financial crisis and debates about income inequality. Lustiger believed that a social cohesive society was one in which there was more equality rather than rampant me-first capitalist consumption.

Pope_John_Paul_II

While he ascended to the highest ranks of the Catholic Church—and was even cited as a possible replacement for his good friend Pope John Paul II—Lustiger never forgot his Jewish past. He had a Jewish sensibility, sense of humor and mind. While he was a Catholic by conversion, he was a Jew by instinct. He told Jewish jokes, and taught himself Hebrew. He took off his priestly robes, put on a suit and kippa and went to the synagogue on the anniversary of his parents’ death. For him there was no contraction in being Jewish and Catholic—he believed that Jews had “to bring light to the nations [goyim],” so preaching Jesus was, to Lustiger, a Jewish mitzvah.

“I was born Jewish, and so I remain, even if that is unacceptable for many,” he said. “For me, the vocation of Israel is bringing light to the goyim. That is my hope and I believe that Christianity is the means for achieving it.”

He saw his Jewishness as an ethnic identity and felt solidarity with his people. So he strongly supported the State of Israel, even though the Vatican adopts a policy of neutrality, and he fought against the Church’s canonization of the anti-Semitic Queen Isabella of Castille because of her persecution and expulsion of the Jews in Spain. Alongside French Jewish organizations, Lustiger also helped to negotiate the disbanding of a Carmelite convent built at the concentration camp at Auschwitz.

Lastly, Lustiger ensured his departure from the world would pay homage to his Jewishness as well as his devout Christianity. For his funeral he arranged two rites. He asked a Jewish relative to read a Hebrew psalm and put a jar containing earth from the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem on his coffin, and for another cousin to recite Kaddish for him as he had every year for his mother. Only once these Jewish rites were performed did the Catholic part of the ceremony take place at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

Jean-Marie né Aaron Lustiger wrote his own epitaph, in which he describes how he felt at once Jewish and Catholic, and how he lived—as the Jew who almost became Pope:

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 Pope 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.

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