Peter The Roman
Reverend Antonio Hernández IBA
Aron Jean-Marie Lustiger, cardinal and Archbishop of Paris, is this front-runner in the soon-to-be-held conclave to elect the next pope.


Having been raised and trained as a Catholic, I’ve always been fascinated by the Church hierarchy, especially the cardinals and the pope. Coming from an ancient Sephardic family, I’ve always been interested in all things Jewish. I’ve practiced both religions in my lifetime, and I have respect for them both. Now I am a Buddhist priest; yet metaphorically, like anyone who crosses the threshold of adulthood, I’ve left home but still love the family. To that end I scrutinize the news about Catholic and Jewish affairs. As horrid violence rends the land of Israel, threatening Judaism itself, as the present pope’s health deteriorates steadily with rumors abounding of his retirement, and as he struggles with child-molesting priests, both Judaism and Catholicism are very much on the world’s mind.

Several crackpots, mostly fundamentalist, anti-Semite Christian in origin, have been making a big deal of the "last" pope. According to various prophecies, we are in the days of the end of the papacy and the Catholic Church. The present pontiff, John Paul II, is claimed to be the second-to-the-last pope. Borrowing from certain old manuscripts, the cranks have written of the last pope, called "Peter the Roman". This is of more interest to the Catholic Church and the Jewish community than one might suppose-- for there is a powerful, well known cardinal who is rumored to be the top candidate for the Chair of Saint Peter. This man has come to light through no small event: he happens to be the son of Polish Jews, and if elected would be a converted "Jewish Peter" in Rome, just like St. Peter himself.

Aron Jean-Marie Lustiger, cardinal and Archbishop of Paris, is this front-runner in the soon-to-be-held conclave to elect the next pope. Cardinal Lustiger’s parents moved to France from Poland early in the 20th century. Later, young Aron had to be left with a Catholic family in order to protect him from the Nazis, while his parents were both dragged to Auschwitz. Only his father, who had served in the military, survived. During the war, Aron converted to Catholicism at the age of fifteen and took the name Jean-Marie. His parents, whom he had informed of his conversion, were horrified but gave in-- and the Church rewarded Jean-Marie richly. His meteoric rise to the cardinalate is little known in America, but well known among European Catholics and the American Catholic hierarchy. Today, Cardinal Lustiger is one of the pope’s closest friends. They are of the same generation, and the pope made sure to escalate Lustiger’s career rapidly.

He is also a man who will not, who cannot, forget his roots. Cardinal Lustiger, the son of liberal, reform-minded Jews, has stubbornly refused to eschew his heritage. The pope, a fellow Pole raised exclusively among Jews, always looks on Cardinal Lustiger smilingly-- even when the cardinal exclaims, "I am a Jew, whether anyone likes it or not!". One of the end results was a good lashing the cardinal got from the media in the mid-1990’s for his Zionist stance; the other end result was his becoming one of the Church’s most powerful cardinals. Yet the cardinal’s wish, first and foremost, is to heal the breach between Jews and Christians. Even his parents had discussions about this topic when Lustiger was but a child, and he later resumed the dialogue with grade school friends. He has kept the dialogue open ever since.

I, though a Buddhist priest, can easily empathize with what the cardinal has had to endure. My family, forced to the Catholic faith centuries ago, has been devout ever since. I still quiver slightly at the Majisterium of the Holy Roman Church. Yet as a Converso, a descendant of forcibly converted Spanish Jews, I can empathize with the stubborn exclamation, "I am a Jew!", whether anyone likes it or not, for I equally tremble at the very thought of the Jewish people. As I consider myself a maverick, the yarmulke has always been a cherished part of my Buddhist religious habit. As a convert to Buddhism, castigation from Christians is another torment I know well, and among my family no reference to it is permitted. When I look at Cardinal Lustiger I see a blood brother; even a physical resemblance exists between us.

It hurts deeply to read the things that are written about this good man. He is accused of being a mindless Zionist, of heresy (because he allegedly introduces "Jewish rites" into his Catholic practice), and worst of all, he is outwardly called the "shame" of the Jewish people. He was recently insulted publicly by a powerful rabbi, who accused him of cowardice and abandonment of his people. Certainly one may wonder how strong the cardinal’s convictions were at the time he converted, but this is moot. According to Jewish law, Aron was a man at the time he decided his fate. According to Jewish law, a man’s decision must stand-- and he has said he knows will always be a Jew no matter what. Now the cardinal stands, both for the Catholic Church and for the Jewish people. He stands for peace, between religions and between the nations, and he does so with supernatural courage.

Everyday he has to face many who believe he is a threat. The lunatic Christian fringe believes Cardinal Lustiger is more than that: they consider him the Antichrist. Indeed-- the Antichrist who offered his life in exchange for the war’s end. The Antichrist who then gave his entire life to the service of others. The Antichrist who practices his Christianity by acknowledging his Jewish roots. The Antichrist who has the courage to proclaim what he really believes. The Antichrist who rushes to support human rights. The Antichrist who trembles beneath the Lord. The Antichrist who wants only peace-- and has begged God to let him die before the pope does, so that he will not have to run the risk of filling the Shoes of the Fisherman. The Antichrist who is a brave man of action and service, yet still pines for his mother, long since perished in the ovens of Auschwitz. That, my friends, is an Antichrist I’ll take any day.

© Reverend Antonio Hernández IBA June 2002
*Independent Buddhists of America

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