Jean-Marie Lustiger, who was born into a Jewish family but died a cardinal in the Catholic church, answered with an emphatic “Yes.”
But others – the chief rabbi of Paris, Pope John Paul II, and his own father – insisted just as firmly over the years that Lustiger could not be both and would have to choose.
Lustiger’s unique, compelling story is the subject of a fascinating new French film called “The Jewish Cardinal.” The Charlotte Jewish Film Festival is showing it at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Temple Israel, 4901 Providence Road. The $10 tickets can be purchased here and at Temple Israel an hour before showtime.
Lustiger, played in the film by actor Laurent Lucas, lived a life of duality and turbulence.
1926: Born Aaron Lustiger, the son of Polish Jews who had emigrated to France.
1940: Converts to Catholicism at 13, is baptized and takes the name Jean-Marie.
1943: Mother Gisèle is murdered at Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp.
1954: Ordained a Catholic priest.
1981: Named archbishop of Paris by Pope John Paul II.
1987: In negotiations with the Jewish community, paves the way for the departure of Carmelite nuns who had built a convent at Auschwitz.
2007: Just before Lustiger’s funeral Mass at Notre Dame Cathedral, his cousin recites the Kaddish – the Jewish prayer that praises God while mourning the dead – in front of the portal of the cathedral.
The film portrays the Jewish cardinal with sympathy, but also shows his rough edges. Lustiger often erupts – with anger, passion and anguish.
Visiting Auschwitz for the first time, the Catholic prelate is overcome with grief for his murdered mother. He drops to his knees, sobbing, but finds he cannot say his Christian prayers to God. Instead, he keeps repeating her name and death date.
French director Ilan Duran Cohen has acknowledged in interviews – and in the film’s credits – that “The Jewish Cardinal” takes liberties with the facts. I suspect, for example, that the film’s well-written shouting matches between Lustiger and Pope John Paul II didn’t necessarily play out the way they’re presented.
Still, showing this film to a religious audience amounts to a gutsy move by the film festival.
Some Catholic viewers may bristle at how the pope comes across. Some Jewish viewers may feel uncomfortable when Lustiger tells the chief rabbi of Paris that he’s just as Jewish.
“The Jewish Cardinal” is the kind of film viewers of both religions will want to talk about afterward. So a panel discussion will follow Wednesday’s screening. The participants: Rabbi Murray Ezring of Temple Israel; Mark King, a deacon at St. Gabriel Catholic Church; and Danny Trapp, the new executive director of interfaith Mecklenburg Ministries.