The « Jérôme Lejeune, a discovery for life » exhibition will be stopping in Lyon from the 24th to the 3rd December. Monseigneur Philippe Barbarin, archbishop of Lyon, will be inaugurating the exhibition. Today, he goes over the heritage left by Jérôme Lejeune and the ethical challenges that our society is faced with.
From April 2014(death of Jérôme Lejeune) to April 2015 (creation of the Jérôme Lejeune Foundation), the Jérôme Lejeune Foundation is celebrating “20 years of scientific and ethical challenges”. As part of the celebration, an exhibition, “Jérôme Lejeune, a discovery for life” is being organized in several towns in France. It will be presented in Lyon from November 24th to December 3rd. You will be inaugurating it on December 23rd. For you, who was Jérôme Lejeune ?
I first knew Jérôme Lejeune within a family context. I remember one Sunday; both our families had got together along with a third one. Some of the time, there were separate groups, the children on one side and the adults on the other, and some of the time there were nice moments all together. We talked and liked listening to him, but we also sang. He must have liked music; I seem to remember him playing the guitar to accompany the signing. For one of his daughter’s weddings, he had worked with a small group of people on the Messiah’s Alleluia from Haendel to sing it at the end of mass … What an accomplishment! We didn’t really see him as “the Professor”, even though we knew very well who we were talking to.
One of my brothers met up with him much later at a consultation when one of his children was born with a disability. I kept in touch with his wife and a couple of his children, and developed a true friendship with one of them… It is probably for that reason that for his 10th death anniversary, in the spring of 2004, after having asked for Cardinal Lustiger’s agreement, his family asked me to celebrate mass for him at Notre-Dame’ cathedral in Paris. This year, I was very happy to do it again for his 20th anniversary in the primatial church of Saint John in Lyon.
What dimension of Jérôme Lejeune is the most useful to us today: the scientist who discovered Down Syndrome or the geneticist who devoted his life looking for a treatment for intellectually disabled people? The defender of life, doctor from Hippocrates’ school, and who, as such, refused to eliminate the life of human beings once they had been conceived? Or the believer, friend of Pope John Paul II and 1st president of the pontifical academy for life?
Why choose between these three essential aspects of his personality? The testimony of a scientists who believes in God always makes an impression. I noticed that it is very important for the youth, especially for students. Recently, I read a survey that explained that the proportion of scientists who believe in God was the same in the year 2000 as it was in 1900 (around 40%). People often try to oppose science to faith and conversely. In my opinion, there is no fundamental antagonism between the two. At the most, one can be confronted with battles over frontiers which come from the narrow mindedness of certain scientists or theologians or their tendency to see themselves as almighty. If a person has a just idea of the work he accomplishes, he respects the work of others and easily recognises that other people have different approaches. A few years ago, during a meeting in Lourdes, I heard Professor Montagnier, who calls himself a non-believer, come out with this marvellous sentence: It is often said that medicine performs miracles; I don’t see why we shouldn’t let heaven do some too.”
Undeniably, faith in a God, both creator and father, which leads to a greater respect of life was as essential for Professor Lejeune as it was also for John Paul II. Their friendship went back years and counted other people such as Wanda Poltawska, a Polish women, who was also a doctor and worked a lot with John Paul II. It is known that before the attack on May 13th, 1981 on St Peter’s square, the pope had just been to lunch with Jérôme Lejeune and that, in 1997, when he came to Paris for the WYD, he went and prayed on his tomb with all Jérôme Lejeune’s family.
He died of his disease shortly after being appointed first president of the Pontifical Academy for Life. The example of his perseverance in research is a stimulation for us all. Until the very end, he wanted to find a way to treat and cure Down Syndrome. He gave everyone a good example of courage. He never accepted to give in to the latest fashion and chose the respect of his faith and convictions over the honours of this world. If I might say, all this encourages us to put our life back in order.
Abortion, embryo manipulation, prenatal selection, the procreation industry, euthanasia: for the last 40 years in France, political leaders have contributed to the development of a culture which gets rid of undesirable people. In France, it seems that the only forces provided to denounce these ethical and medical excesses come from the Christians. Do you agree with this statement ?
Yes, it is a slippery slope. But one must admit that eugenics is a temptation which has been present at all times throughout history. As many others, probably, I was sad to hear about Alexis Carrel’s tendency towards eugenics, of whom I had liked the famous book “L’homme, cet inconnu”. Recently, I read a very well written and very sad publication from Pr. Joseph Verlinde, in which he shows how eugenics has always been present and in many schools of thoughts.
Is fighting against all this only for Christians? Thanks to God, I see it isn’t. Having often had the opportunity to talk with Jews and Muslims and even atheists about the subject, including during public conferences or in front of the media, I often felt these non-Christians and non-believers had a deep respect for human life. When he was president of the Rhône Alpes’ CRCM (regional council for the Muslim Cult), Professor A. Gaci once said to me: “I am ready to sign any text you write on these subjects.” However, it is true that I heard him conclude the talks from the representatives of the various religions with this sentence: “Even if I can never agree with it, the only church which has a coherent point of view, it the Catholic Church.”
What message would you like to give to Christians who are discouraged by the hold that this death culture, which is expressed by most promoters and shapes people’s opinion although it destroys society, families, and people, has on society?
I will start off by saying that such a disruption disturbance is certainly the consequence of great sufferings, more or less conscious, and that one must take time to listen to them and understand them instead of repeating and reaffirming principles which will only make things worse. I will also add that discouragement is not only a sin in itself but also leads people to become cowards and give up… The Lord did not ask us to convince or to win. He didn’t promise we would succeed. He asked us to love everybody, as he did (and it is truly a commandment which is more than we can manage if he doesn’t come and live within us). And he gave us these instructions – words which were, actually, his last ones on earth: “You shall be my witnesses”, and just before: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you.”(Act1, 8). Each generation therefore has the interior “equipment” necessary to face each situation that arises. Societies and civilisations have gone astray many times throughout history, but there is no chance that God will give up on us. It is our duty to do everything we can to remain in his hand.
On Sunday 25th January, 2015 will be the 10th March For Life. The goal is to maintain the consciousness, in France, of the importance of the respect of fragile human life as an essential principal of our society. In the view of what is currently going in in politics, this mobilisation cannot put euthanasia aside this year. Is there a message of mobilization you would like to share for January 25th?
This demonstration still has a great symbolic importance, and has more effect than one imagines. It reminds people of the fact that suppressing a human life which has just begun is deeply unjust and a very serious act. This year being the 50th anniversary of the closure of the Second Vatican Council, one cannot forget how clearly the constitution Gaudium est Spes expressed itself on the subject. It is not a question of judging people who have had (or taken part in) an abortion. God knows their heart and they know that he always offers his mercy, but last year when I heard that now a page has been turned, that the Veil Law and situations of distress were done with, and that anyone had the right to dispose of their body, I decided to take part in the “Walk For Life”.
I haven’t checked whether my pastoral obligations will enable me to be present for the one of 2015, but the question of euthanasia and the accompaniment of all those who have reached the end of their life is an essential issue that is very messed up throughout the whole of Europe today. Concerning that issue, we also have a message to give out. I am thinking about John Paul II’s last months, at the beginning of 2005. Until the very end, he remained conscious of his situation. In February, he accepted to receive a tracheostomy so as not to choke to death but I was told that the following month he refused a gastrectomy. When the time has come to leave, why be afraid? We are all loved and waited for!