A 96 year old Cardinal just passed away – Roger Etchegaray, for many years one of the most important figures in the Vatican. He was a trusted confidante of Pope John Paul II, who sent him on specially sensitive missions, such as negotiating with Sadam Hussein in an attempt to prevent the gulf war. More importantly for the present post, he was a true friend of the Jewish people, who deeply appreciated Judaism and its integrity, long before it became the norm in Catholic teaching. Etchegaray, born in 1922, discovered Jews and Judaism long before the Church changed its teachings on Judaism in the celebrated 1965 document Nostra Aetate. He took great pride at his first priestly gown being prepared by a Jewish tailor. He celebrated a close personal relationship with the Jewish writer Emmanuel Eydoux. It was, so he told me, an intimate friendship that covered matters of life as well as issues of faith. He was at the forefront of establishing Jewish-Christian relations in France, as Archbishop of Marseille, where he established friendships with local Jewish, as well as Muslim leaders. He visited synagogues, long before it became the bon ton of interfaith relations.
What was Etchegaray’s secret? How did he gain the trust of so many, making him a trusted confidante? How did he become so deeply engaged in friendships with Jews and in appreciating Judaism? The key, I believe is the simplicity and transparency of his heart. He was one of the most moving people I have ever met. No one could fail to be impressed by his open heart, capacity for human connection, engagement and sincerity. His humanity was deep and transparent, a foundation for his spiritual life and theological reflection. From that basic humanity he could communicate with all, regardless of status or faith, with a directness that went beyond any representative role he may have been playing. His humanity was at the same time also a quest for discovering God and the spirit in the other. As he told me, he always sought the image of God in the other. Few are able to realize, in an integrated way, an awareness of the divine and an openness to the other in the fullness of his or her humanity. Cardinal Etchegaray was a master of this art, in all simplicity and transparency. Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau in conversation once singled him out as a model of a churchman he admired.
Etchegaray on Friendship
My wife Therese and I used to visit the Cardinal whenever we could, during periodic visits to Rome. It was always a highlight of our visit to the city, an exposure to goodness and kindness coupled with wisdom and understanding. In preparation for a meeting of world religious leaders on the theme of friendship I interviewed him on his experiences as someone who practiced friendship with members of other faiths. The French interview is available here.
Even those who do understand French can get a glimpse of the man and his way of being and relating to others. During the interview he offered his understanding of friendship as a way of encountering God in the other. I asked him whether he felt that his friendships with Jews could be as profound as his friendships with Christians, who share his faith. He replied saying he did not rank or compare friendships. They were all real, effectively rising above faith distinctions. In true Christian form, when I asked him how he resolved that with the fact, acknowledged by him, that one naturally shares more with people with whom one has a common faith, he replied – it’s a mystery.
Cardinal Etchegaray came on several visits to Jerusalem, as a representative of Pope John Paul II. He was also with him during the latter’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land, during the Jubilee year 2000. Those who scrutinize the images taken at the Western Wall during the Pope’s visit, will see Etchegaray is one of two cardinals who accompanied him. Jerusalem meant everything to Etchegaray. He would say he had two homes. Where he was born in Basque country and Jerusalem. Here is a prayer he composed for Jerusalem.
A Parting Visit
Therese and I visited him 9 months ago. We knew it would be the last time we saw him. We found an ailing man, confined to his comfortable chair, unable to move. But the sweetness of spirit, simplicity and smile were unchanged. He would close his eyes periodically and we thought we lost him. No sooner was prayer mentioned than a new force came upon him, his eyes opened, and with a light in his eyes, he affirmed – “Oui. La priere”. I doubt he knew who I was or where he knew me from. His memory was failing. But he knew I was a rabbi from Jerusalem, and that was all he needed to know. As we were leaving, he seized my hand, placed it on his head and said: Rabbi, bless me. May his memory continue to be a blessing for lovers of God and for friends across religions.