Witness protection

I never heard Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger speak, nor have I read any of his books. I’m not even convinced that I could identify a picture of him. But when I heard that he died, it really affected me.

The retired cardinal archbishop of Paris came to the Catholic faith from Judaism. Aaron was 14 at the time, and took the name Jean-Marie. Two years later, in 1942, his mother was deported to Auschwitz joining the millions of those who lost their lives in the Shoah or Holocaust.

I’m sure, even though I don’t really know, that Jean-Marie Lustiger was a gifted student. No doubt he earned several degrees. As a priest, I would imagine that Father Lustiger was well thought of by the students he served as chaplain, and by people at the local parish he pastored for 10 years. Obviously, his personal qualities and gifts gained the attention of his superiors. And when he was ordained bishop, I would guess that despite his beginnings outside the Church, no one who knew him was surprised.

When I was 14, I volunteered as a candy striper at a Jewish nursing home. There, I met many residents who had been prisoners at various Nazi concentration camps. They still had numbers tattooed on their arms. Practically nothing was ever said about it. Still, they were witnesses. The discomfort seeing those numbers brought me caused me to reflect on the most basic human questions. Why do the innocent suffer? How could anyone do such terrible things to another? Where was the courage to oppose such evil?

Losing the generation of people who were personally and directly affected by Nazism makes me sad. It disturbs me to realize that to my children, the horrors of the 20th century are just history. They are not much more connected to it than they are to the Napoleonic Wars. I guess when it really comes down to it, I don’t want to live in a world where there isn’t someone who remembers. Perhaps it is because I am beginning to understand how easy it is to forget, and how tempting it is to move on.

As the victims of the Holocaust and their children depart this world, I wonder what will happen to the lessons we were supposed to learn from history? Without witnesses, how will we keep from repeating those same tragedies? Without those who know the depths of what “Never again!” really means, how can we go on believing that our world will not cross that same threshold of terror again?

Sadly, we are not at a loss for more recent instances of genocide. New generations of witnesses are speaking and will continue to speak the same terrible truths in different accents, colors, and languages. And we will need to listen as they recount how they found faith in the darkness, hope in despair, and the love of God in the midst of the storm of hatred wielded against them.

To me, Cardinal Lustiger’s passing is more symbolic than personal. At 80, he was part of a generation who suffered and witnessed some of the greatest evil mankind has managed to muster. He knew the price of hatred, and the destruction that comes from the arrogant will to power. He lived his life in the wake of all that, and in a way that told his story in an eloquence beyond words. With that life, Jean-Marie Lustiger served the dignity of the human person. And despite the challenge to hope and goodness the last century brought to all of us, he brought others to faith in the One who is hope, and from whom all good things come.

Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a wife and mother of eight children, and a disciple of the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales. She is an author, speaker, musician and serves as Faith Formation Coordinator at St. Maria Goretti Parish in Lynnfield.