The Promise

Car­di­nal Jean-Marie Lustiger

  • Review
By – January 27, 2012

The Promise, a col­lec­tion of med­i­ta­tions on the Gospel of Matthew writ­ten by the late Car­di­nal Jean-Marie Lustiger, is actu­al­ly a state­ment of two promis­es. As such it artic­u­lates both the promise” of Israel as the Elect peo­ple of God, and the promise” that Jesus is fun­da­men­tal­ly their Redeemer and Savior.

Giv­en the ten­sion in the mutu­al promis­es, the fol­low­ing is prob­a­bly worth not­ing: two years ago, I attend­ed an inter­faith din­ner host­ed by a rab­bi at a kosher New York restau­rant. The group con­sist­ed most­ly of Catholic priests from France, includ­ing four car­di­nals. I spoke to the group on the sub­ject of my then forth­com­ing book, Moses and Jesus: A Con­ver­sa­tion,” whose premise is a fic­tion­al dia­logue between the two men that takes place in heav­en, the day after the cru­ci­fix­ion. In it, Moses open­ly ques­tioned Jesus’ Good News.”

Before I spoke, Car­di­nal Lustiger, the for­mer arch­bish­op of Paris, sat next to me, bedecked in his vest­ments. With con­sum­mate grace, he whis­pered in my ear, How does it, the strug­gle, turn out?” His Eng­lish was poor and my French non-exis­tent. So he asked his friend, an Amer­i­can rab­bi seat­ed near­by who too did not speak French, to trans­late strug­gle.” To my amaze­ment, he inquired in Yid­dish. It should not have been aston­ish­ing — His Emi­nence, after all, as I well knew, was born a Jew. Car­di­nal Lustiger had been raised by Catholic fos­ter par­ents and effect­ed his con­ver­sion some time after his moth­er was mur­dered in Auschwitz.

Remark­able, though, was the evi­dent ner­vous­ness with which he queried me as to how Jesus had fared in response to Moses’ fic­tion­al­ized chal­lenges to him over the prop­er mean­ing of Scrip­ture. It was almost as if Car­di­nal Lustiger had a foot in each camp — that he con­tin­ued to endure an inter­minable strug­gle with­in him­self. And, I came to know lat­er that, hav­ing antic­i­pat­ed his death last year, he had left instruc­tions that before his majes­tic funer­al at Notre Dame Cathe­dral, his cousin, a Holo­caust sur­vivor, would say kad­dish in his mem­o­ry out­side. The strug­gle continued!

Yes, Car­di­nal Lustiger seemed to know that two con­flict­ing covenants con­tin­ued to mar­i­nate with­in him. He was, thus, clear­ly aware that, in his words, cer­tain of The Promises pas­sages might seem dis­con­cert­ing or even exces­sive to Jew­ish read­ers, and cer­tain pas­sages dis­con­cert­ing or even exces­sive to Catholic read­ers.” True, His Emi­nence great­ly desired out­reach and encoun­ters with Jews and, in fact, made uncom­mon efforts to that end. To under­score the point, he reminds his read­ers that the Gospel of John memo­ri­al­ized Jesus’ teach­ing to a Samar­i­tan woman that Sal­va­tion is from the Jews.” 

But, make no mis­take, notwith­stand­ing Car­di­nal Lustiger’s thoughts of inner con­flict that he may have revealed in either per­son­al rever­ie or pri­vate allu­sions, his belief in Jesus and the Church, par­tic­u­lar­ly as artic­u­lat­ed in The Promise, were as strong and unyield­ing as Christianity’s world-chang­ing moment at Cal­vary. Yes, he was ever-mind­ful of the cul­tur­al import of his Jew­ish roots, but, unmis­tak­ably, for him, Jesus is the Way” and the only truth — truth” revealed both intel­lec­tu­al­ly and spir­i­tu­al­ly as The Promise.

But one can­not help but won­der. When I began to address the assem­bled priests at the din­ner two years ago, I sensed that I had cre­at­ed a minor ten­sion in the room by first explain­ing that I feared that my late grand­fa­ther, a refugee who escaped the anti-Semi­tism of East­ern Europe at the turn of the cen­tu­ry, might be look­ing down at this ecu­meni­cal” event with trep­i­da­tion. The ten­sion broke when I — look­ing upward — said, Not to wor­ry grand­pa; you and I are priests (kohan­im), as are these men. We’re in good com­pa­ny.” The Cardinal’s friend, the rab­bi who trans­lat­ed for him from Yid­dish, pri­vate­ly told me lat­er that evening: If you wor­ry about your grandfather’s thoughts this evening, con­sid­er the thoughts of the Cardinal’s late mother.”

I have, indeed, con­sid­ered them a num­ber of times. Just as I have con­sid­ered the mean­ing of Car­di­nal Lustiger’s com­ment in an ear­li­er vol­ume, Choos­ing God — Cho­sen by God (Ignatius Press, 1991), that he had been drawn to Catholi­cism, and had told his birth par­ents of his desire to be bap­tized some years before his moth­er was tak­en from him.

Was that the God’s hon­est” truth? Was it a trick that the mind plays on one? Was it an effort to make his deci­sion to con­vert seem more a choice than an oblig­a­tion imposed on him? Alas, it is hard to know.

Per­haps read­ing The Promise will help the read­er to decide for himself.

Joel Cohen is a for­mer pros­e­cu­tor, prac­tices white-col­lar crim­i­nal law at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP and teach­es Pro­fes­sion­al Respon­si­bil­i­ty at Ford­ham Law School. He has writ­ten Moses: A Mem­oir (Paulist Press, 2003) and David and Bathshe­ba: Through Nathan’s Eyes(Paulist Press, 2007).

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