PARIS -- Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, the archbishop of Paris, says his parents, Polish Jews, were devastated when he decided to convert to Roman Catholicism at the age of 14.
"It was the most painful thing that could happen to them," Lustiger, 61, said in "Le Choix de Dieu" ("The Choice of God"), a book culled from 65 hours of interviews with two French writers.
"I was acutely aware of causing them intolerable pain. It tore me apart and I did it only because it was an inner necessity," he said.
Until now, Lustiger has said little of his past as young Aron Lustiger, grandson of a Polish rabbi and son of Jewish shopkeepers who immigrated to France in 1918.
He told interviewers Jean-Louis Missika and Dominique Wolton that he considers Christianity a natural extension of Judaism and never felt he was renouncing his origins or his faith.
Asked why he chose to seek the answers to his spiritual dilemma in Catholicism rather than in Judaism, he said, "Christianity is the fruit of Judaism. To be more clear, I believed in Christ, the messiah of Israel. Something that I had carried within me for years crystalized."
Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and 1986 Nobel Peace laureate, wrote in the newspaper Le Monde that the Jewish people lost in Lustiger a man who "surely would have contributed to the grandeur and fulfillment of their glory.
"Cardinal Lustiger . . . is convinced he did not leave his people . . . . For me, I maintain that for a Jew, salvation is possible only within his Jewishness," Wiesel wrote.
Like most Jewish immigrants between the wars, Lustiger's parents were eager for their children to integrate into French society. They were not religious, but the mother said blessings in the home and the father explained Jewish customs and holidays to Aron and his younger sister, who also later converted to Catholicism.
"The Judaism of my childhood was a sensitivity, a way of life, a social world, folklore and recipes for borsch and matzoh . . . . We knew the dietary laws even though we didn't follow them," Lustiger told his interviewers.
Lustiger discovered the Christian world on two trips to Germany where his father sent him to learn the language. Later, in 1940, when he was 14 years old, he found his way into the cathedral in Orleans, France.
"I stopped before the southern transept in front of an orderly mass of flowers and lights. I stayed a long time. I didn't know why I was there, nor why these things were happening inside me. I didn't understand the signification of what I was seeing," he said.
He said he returned the next day and was overwhelmed by a feeling of spiritual emptiness. "That's when I thought, I want to be baptized," he said.
His parents were inconsolable. "To them, it was something completely incomprehensible, crazy and unbearable."
His mother was deported from France in 1942, and died in the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz in Poland.
In 1946, when Lustiger entered the seminary to study for the priesthood, his father cut off his allowance and the two had no contact for two years.
Lustiger was ordained in 1954. Until 1969 his parish was the Sorbonne. After a short stint in a Parisian neighborhood church, Lustiger, as bishop, returned to Orleans to the same church in which he was baptized several decades earlier.
In 1981, Pope John Paul II named him archbishop of Paris, and in 1983, Lustiger was named a cardinal.