The theatrical release in France of Stay a while, in which the famous French-Moroccan comedian tells of how Our Lady accompanied him on a long journey of conversion, was accompanied by controversy especially in the Jewish world. The value of Lourdes and the example of Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, also a converted Jew. The appeal to Catholics: do not be shy with your faith.
The recent news that the famous Jewish actor and stand-up comedian Gad Elmaleh, Franco-Moroccan, decided to become a Catholic, caused quite a stir. As is the announcement that his new film chronicles his spiritual journey as a converted Jew preparing for Christian baptism. Stay a while (Stay a while) released in France on November 16, is an autobiographical film in which Elmaleh, 51, and his parents play their part in “a mixture of fiction and reality”, as he himself explained. The popular actor hopes his “religious coming out” will encourage his audience to reflect on the fundamental issues of faith, roots and intergenerational communication. But looking at the first reactions to his attempt to champion the cause of religious tolerance, the road appears to be anything but smooth.
Already before the release of his film, the controversy over the conversion of Gad Elmaleh he had divided French public opinion into supporters and opponents, especially in the Jewish world for which he was a model. There is a hard core loath to lose the image of the talented entertainer once called “the funniest man in France”; the man who left Morocco to find fame and fortune; who above all became part of the royal family of Monaco through his relationship with Charlotte Casiraghi, daughter of Princess Caroline, with whom he had a son, Rafael. At the same time, the person who according to Elmaleh brought him to the Christian faith remains mysterious to his critics: the Virgin Mary. «She is the reason I love Catholicism – says she-she, she is my most beautiful love now», the real «star of the film».
In an interview with the French newspaper Le Figaro, Gad Elmaleh, born a Berber Jew, enthusiastically recounts how he met the mother of Christ for the first time: «I discovered the Blessed Virgin by chance, as a child, at Notre Dame de Lourdes in Casablanca. Going against my parents’ directions, because their faith forbids it [entrare in una chiesa cristiana], I pushed open the church door and found myself face to face with a gigantic statue of the Blessed Virgin who looked me straight in the eye. It wasn’t a vision, just a simple statue, but I was petrified. Bursting into tears with emotion, I hid for fear of being discovered by my family, for fear of curses and superstition. It remained my secret throughout my childhood. Since then, after having received a miraculous medal from Mary, I am convinced that I have been under the protection of the Virgin for a long time, I wear it as protection”.
Then in July 2020, he was “deeply affected” by a poor peasant girl who had Marian apparitions and who was declared a saint in 1933. Elmaleh was in fact invited to co-produce the musical “Bernadette of Lourdes”. He says: «I’m just a comedian and even though I’m of the Jewish faith I try to understand all beliefs. The story of Bernadette It moved me. She spoke to me. It is not just a story, it is a modern testimony on the revealed Word, on faith, on the truth that cannot leave anyone indifferent, whatever their religion may be”. Furthermore «I have discovered people, families who, every year, dedicate their time and their hearts to the sick. I have seen my son’s generation reach out to fragile people. Young people open to the world, in a place full of people in difficulty. I want to emphasize this. In a world where we are closed, where social networks corrode our days, these young people involved in contact with others testify to universal values. All this touches me enormously and moves me », she repeats.
But there are others who inspired Elmaleh “on the way”. First, the writings of Jean-Marie Lustiger (1926-2007), cardinal former archbishop of Paris who, like him, experienced the same tug of war between the Jewish faith of his family heritage and the attraction for the Catholic religion. The cardinal was born Aron Lustiger into an Ashkenazi Jewish family who emigrated from Poland to France. He converted to the Catholic faith at the age of 14. At his funeral, the “Kaddish”, the Jewish prayer for the mourners, was recited. It is in honor of him that Elmaleh chose her first name: Jean-Marie.
Another important figure he mentions is the Cardinal Robert Sarah, former prefect in the Vatican of the Congregation for Divine Worship. They met at the sanctuary of Paray-le-Monial, at the Sénanque Abbey, where Elmaleh visits from time to time. «I am no stranger to spirituality, to faith, to personal journeys, to intimate research. But there are moments – he confides – when I need to be with people who experience something pure, a truth without artifice. This allows me to re-establish myself in relation to what I live, to notoriety, to the world in which we find ourselves».
But when asked in an interview with Le Pèlerin self Stay a while also has a message for Catholics, Elmaleh noted how shy Catholics are towards Muslims and Jews. “I tell them that it is their responsibility to convey the message of the Good News and no one else’s. Christian values are great! Just read the Gospels. I often wonder why Catholics are so discreet – sometimes full of complexes – or self-censor their faith,” he replied.
Evidently many Catholics have lost awareness which Elmaleh instead discovered: the promise of eternal life. In fact, a phrase from the Gospel resounds in the film: “And whoever has left, because of my name, houses, brothers, sisters, a father, a mother, children or land, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life” (Mt 19.29). And Elmaleh says: «I love this phrase so much! It’s wisdom.”