St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein)
“Let go of your plans. The first hour of your morning belongs to God.” –St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross
“We bow down before the testimony of the life and death of Edith Stein, an outstanding daughter of Israel and at the same time a daughter of the Carmelite Order, Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, a personality who united within her rich life a dramatic synthesis of our century. It was the synthesis of a history full of deep wounds that are still hurting … and also the synthesis of the full truth about man. All this came together in a single heart that remained restless and unfulfilled until it finally found rest in God.” –St. Pope John Paul II (May 1, 1987)
Edith Stein was born in Breslau, Germany, on October 12, 1891, the youngest of 11, while her family was celebrating Yom Kippur. Being born on this important Jewish feast helped make this youngest child very precious to her mother, who considered it a foreshadowing. Edith’s father, who ran a timber business, died when she had only just turned two. Her mother, a very devout, hard-working, strong-willed, and truly wonderful woman, now had to fend for herself and to look after the family and their large business. However, she did not succeed in keeping up a living faith in her children. Edith lost her faith in God when she was about 14 years old. “I consciously decided, of my own volition, to give up praying,” she said. Although she no longer believed in God, she did not discuss her beliefs with her family and continued to attend religious services. Stein soon came to terms with her new ideas and decided to devote her life to teaching and the pursuit of the truth. She returned to Victoria School and completed her coursework in hopes of attending college.
As a child, Stein was known for her intelligence and sense of humor—she would often recite poetry and make clever remarks. But she disliked her reputation as “the smart one” of the family and began to develop a more quiet nature in her early school days. She attended the Victoria School in Breslau, where she not only began classes early, but quickly became the top student in her grade. Her love of learning extended to her hours at home as well, where she spent much of her free time reading.
In 1911 she passed her school-leaving exam with flying colors and enrolled at the University of Breslau to study German and history, though this was a mere “bread-and-butter” choice. Her real interest was in philosophy and in women’s issues. She became a member of the Prussian Society for Women’s Franchise. “When I was at school and during my first years at university,” she wrote later, “I was a radical suffragette. Then I lost interest in the whole issue. Now I am looking for purely pragmatic solutions.”
In 1913, Edith Stein transferred to Gottingen University, to study under the mentorship of Edmund Husserl. She became his pupil and teaching assistant, and he later tutored her for a doctorate. At the time, anyone who was interested in philosophy was fascinated by Husserl’s new view of reality, whereby the world as we perceive it does not merely exist in a Kantian way, in our subjective perception. His pupils saw his philosophy as a return to objects: “back to things”. Husserl’s phenomenology unwittingly led many of his pupils to the Christian faith. In Gottingen Edith Stein also met the philosopher Max Scheler, who directed her attention to Roman Catholicism. Nevertheless, she did not neglect her “bread-and-butter” studies and passed her degree with distinction in January 1915, though she did not follow it up with teacher training.
“I no longer have a life of my own,” she wrote at the beginning of the First World War, having done a nursing course and gone to serve in an Austrian field hospital. This was a hard time for her, during which she looked after the sick in the typhus ward, worked in an operating theatre, and saw young people die. When the hospital was dissolved in 1916, she followed Husserl as his assistant to the German city of Freiburg, where she passed her doctorate summa cum laude (with the utmost distinction) in 1917, after writing a thesis on “The Problem of Empathy.”
Stein’s interest in Catholicism increased in 1917 which led her to read the New Testament. She was convinced that she believed in God and the divinity of Jesus Christ, but did not convert to Catholicism until 1921. During a stay at a girl’s school in Speyer, Germany, Stein was encouraged by the Jesuit priest and philosopher Erich Przywara not to abandon her academic work. At his urging, she began a German translation of a Latin work on truth by St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274). Through her study of Aquinas and her discussions with Przywara, she was convinced that she could serve God through a search for truth. Her writing and translations became popular, and Stein was invited to lecture for a number of groups on religious and women’s issues in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria.
During this period she went to Frankfurt Cathedral and saw a woman with a shopping basket going in to kneel for a brief prayer. “This was something totally new to me. In the synagogues and Protestant churches I had visited, people simply went to the services. Here, however, I saw someone coming straight from the busy marketplace into this empty church, as if she was going to have an intimate conversation. It was something I never forgot.” When Reinach fell in Flanders in November 1917, Edith went to Göttingen to visit his widow. The Reinachs had converted to Protestantism. Edith felt uneasy about meeting the young widow at first, but was surprised when she actually met with a woman of faith. “This was my first encounter with the Cross and the divine power it imparts to those who bear it … it was the moment when my unbelief collapsed and Christ began to shine his light on me—Christ in the mystery of the Cross.” Later, she wrote: “Things were in God’s plan which I had not planned at all. I am coming to the living faith and conviction that, from God’s point of view, there is no chance and that the whole of my life, down to every detail, has been mapped out in God’s divine providence and makes complete and perfect sense in God’s all-seeing eyes.”
In the Fall of 1918, Edith Stein gave up her job as Husserl’s teaching assistant. She wanted to work independently. It was not until 1930 that she saw Husserl again after her conversion, and she shared with him about her faith, as she would have liked him to become a Christian, too. Then she wrote down the amazing words: “Every time I feel my powerlessness and inability to influence people directly, I become more keenly aware of the necessity of my own holocaust.” Edith Stein wanted to obtain a professorship, a goal that was impossible for a woman at the time. Husserl wrote the following reference: “Should academic careers be opened up to ladies, then I can recommend her whole-heartedly and as my first choice for admission to a professorship.” Later, she was refused a professorship on account of being Jewish.
Back in Breslau, Edith Stein began to write articles about the philosophical foundation of psychology. However, she also read the New Testament, Kierkegaard, and Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. She felt that one could not just read a book like that, but had to put it into practice. In the summer of 1921, she spent several weeks in on the country estate of Hedwig Conrad-Martius, another pupil of Husserl’s. Hedwig had converted to Protestantism with her husband. One evening Edith picked up an autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila and read it all night. “When I had finished the book, I said to myself, ‘This is the truth.’” Later, looking back on her life, she wrote: “My longing for truth was a single prayer.”
On January 1, 1922, Edith Stein was baptized. It was the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus, when Jesus entered into the covenant of Abraham. Edith Stein stood by the baptismal font, wearing Hedwig Conrad-Martius’ white wedding cloak. “I had given up practicing my Jewish religion when I was a 14-year-old girl and did not begin to feel Jewish again until I had returned to God.” From this moment on she was continually aware that she belonged to Christ not only spiritually, but also through her blood. At the Feast of the Purification of Mary—another day with an Old Testament reference—she was confirmed by the Bishop of Speyer in his private chapel. After her conversion she went straight to visit her mother in Breslau: “Mother,” she said, “I am a Catholic.” The two women cried. Hedwig Conrad Martius wrote: “Behold, two Israelites indeed, in whom is no deceit!” (cf. John 1:47).
Immediately after her conversion she wanted to join a Carmelite convent. However, her spiritual mentors, Vicar-General Schwind of Speyer and Erich Przywara SJ, stopped her from doing so. Until Easter 1931 she held a position teaching German and history at the Dominican Sisters’ school and teacher training college of St. Magdalen’s Convent in Speyer. At the same time she was encouraged by Arch-Abbot Raphael Walzer of Beuron Abbey to accept extensive speaking engagements, mainly on women’s issues. “During the time immediately before and quite some time after my conversion I … thought that leading a religious life meant giving up all earthly things and having one’s mind fixed on divine things only. Gradually, however, I learnt that other things are expected of us in this world… I even believe that the deeper someone is drawn to God, the more he has to ‘get beyond himself’ in this sense, that is, go into the world and carry divine life into it.”
She worked enormously hard, translating the letters and diaries of Cardinal Newman from his pre-Catholic period as well as Thomas Aquinas’ Quaestiones Disputatae de Veritate. The latter was a very free translation, for the sake of dialogue with modern philosophy. Erich Przywara also encouraged her to write her own philosophical works. She learnt that it was possible to “pursue scholarship as a service to God… It was not until I had understood this that I seriously began to approach academic work again.” To gain strength for her life and work, she frequently went to the Benedictine Monastery of Beuron to celebrate the great festivals of the Church year.
In 1931 Edith Stein left the convent school in Speyer and devoted herself to working for a professorship again, this time in Breslau and Freiburg, though her endeavors were in vain. It was then that she wrote “Potency and Act,” a study of the central concepts developed by Thomas Aquinas. Later, at the Carmelite Convent in Cologne, she rewrote this study to produce her main philosophical and theological work, “Finite and Eternal Being.” By then, however, it was no longer possible to print the book. In 1932 she accepted a lectureship position at the Roman Catholic division of the German Institute for Educational Studies at the University of Munster, where she developed her anthropology. She successfully combined scholarship and faith in her work and her teaching, seeking to be a “tool of the Lord” in everything she taught. “If anyone comes to me, I want to lead them to Him.”
In 1933 darkness broke out over Germany. “I had heard of severe measures against Jews before. But now it dawned on me that God had laid His hand heavily on His people, and that the destiny of these people would also be mine.” The Aryan Law of the Nazis made it impossible for Edith Stein to continue teaching. “If I can’t go on here, then there are no longer any opportunities for me in Germany,” she wrote; “I had become a stranger in the world.” The Arch-Abbot of Beuron, Walzer, now no longer stopped her from entering a Carmelite convent. While in Speyer, she had already taken a vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience. In 1933 she met with the prioress of the Carmelite Convent in Cologne. “Human activities cannot help us, but only the suffering of Christ. It is my desire to share in it.”
Edith Stein went to Breslau for the last time, to say good-bye to her mother and her family. Her last day at home was her birthday, which was also the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles. Edith went to the synagogue with her mother. It was a hard day for the two women. “Why did you get to know it [Christianity]?” her mother asked, “I don’t want to say anything against Him. He may have been a very good person. But why did He make Himself God?” Edith’s mother cried. The following day Edith was on the train to Cologne. “I did not feel any passionate joy. What I had just experienced was too terrible. But I felt a profound peace in the safe haven of God’s will.” From now on she wrote to her mother every week, though she never received any replies. Instead, her sister Rosa sent her news from Breslau.
Edith joined the Carmelite Convent of Cologne on October 14, 1933, and her investiture took place on April 15, 1934. The Mass was celebrated by the Arch-Abbot of Beuron. Edith Stein was now known as Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. In 1938 she wrote: “I understood the cross as the destiny of God’s people, which was beginning to be apparent at the time. I felt that those who understood the Cross of Christ should take it upon themselves on everybody’s behalf. Of course, I know better now what it means to be wedded to the Lord in the sign of the cross. However, one can never comprehend it, because it is a mystery.” On April 21, 1935, she took her temporary vows. On September 14, 1936, the renewal of her vows coincided with her mother’s death in Breslau. “My mother held on to her faith to the last moment. But as her faith and her firm trust in her God … were the last thing that was still alive in the throes of her death, I am confident that she will have met a very merciful judge and that she is now my most faithful helper, so that I can reach the goal as well.”
When she made her eternal profession on April 21, 1938, she had the words of St. John of the Cross printed on her devotional picture: “Henceforth, my only vocation is to love.” Her final work was to be devoted to this author. Edith Stein’s entry into the Carmelite Order was not escapism. “Those who join the Carmelite Order are not lost to their near and dear ones, but have been won for them, because it is our vocation to intercede to God for everyone.” In particular, she interceded to God for her people: “I keep thinking of Queen Esther who was taken away from her people precisely because God wanted her to plead with the king on behalf of her nation. I am a very poor and powerless little Esther, but the King who has chosen me is infinitely great and merciful. This is great comfort.” (October 31, 1938).
While in the Cologne convent, Edith Stein had been given permission to start her academic studies again. Among other things, she wrote, “The Life of a Jewish Family” (that is, her own family), which tried to show the similar human experiences of Jews and Christians in their daily lives. “I simply want to report what I experienced as part of Jewish humanity,” she said, pointing out that “we who grew up in Judaism have a duty to bear witness … to the young generation who are brought up in racial hatred from early childhood.” In 1933, she attempted to combine the thoughts of Husserl and Aquinas in her book, “Finite and Eternal Being,” completed in 1936. Under the anti-Jewish laws in effect then, however, the book was refused for publication and was not printed until 1950.
On November 9, 1938, the anti-Semitism of the Nazis became apparent to the whole world. Synagogues were burnt, and the Jewish people were subjected to terror. Edith commented, “I never knew that people could be like this, neither did I know that my brothers and sisters would have to suffer like this. … I pray for them every hour. Will God hear my prayers? He will certainly hear them in their distress.” The prioress of the Carmelite Convent in Cologne did her utmost to take Sr. Teresa abroad. On New Year’s Eve 1938, she was smuggled across the border into the Netherlands to the Carmelite Convent in Echt in the Province of Limburg. This is where she wrote her will on June 9, 1939: “Even now I accept the death that God has prepared for me in complete submission and with joy as being His most holy will for me. I ask the Lord to accept my life and my death … so that the Lord will be accepted by His people and that His Kingdom may come in glory, for the salvation of Germany and the peace of the world. I beg the Lord to take my life and my death … for all concerns of the sacred hearts of Jesus and Mary and the holy Church, especially for the preservation of our holy Order, in particular the Carmelite monasteries of Cologne and Echt, as atonement for the unbelief of the Jewish People, and that the Lord will be received by His own people and His kingdom shall come in glory, for the salvation of Germany and the peace of the world, at last for my loved ones, living or dead, and for all God gave to me: that none of them shall go astray.”
Stein’s move to Echt prompted her to be more devout and an even greater subscriber to the Carmelite lifestyle. After having her teaching position revoked by the implementation of the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, Stein quickly eased back into the role of instructor at the convent in Echt, teaching both fellow sisters and students within the community Latin and philosophy. After the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands in May 1940, Edith’s fellow sisters would later recount how she begin “quietly training herself for life in a concentration camp, by enduring cold and hunger.” Even prior to the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, Stein believed she would not survive the war, going as far to write the Prioress to request her permission to “allow me to offer myself to the heart of Jesus as a sacrifice of atonement for true peace.”
In Echt, Edith Stein hurriedly completed writing, “The Church’s Teacher on Mysticism and the Father of the Carmelites, John of the Cross, on the Occasion of the 400th Anniversary of His Birth, 1542-1942.” In 1941 she wrote to a friend, who was also a member of her order: “One can only gain a knowledge of the Cross if one has thoroughly experienced the Cross. I have been convinced of this from the first moment onwards and have said with all my heart, ‘Ave, Crux, Spes unica’ (‘I welcome you, Cross, our only hope’).” Her study on St. John of the Cross is officially entitled, “The Science of the Cross.”
In 1942 the Nazis began removing Jews from the Netherlands, and Edith and her sister Rosa urgently applied for Swiss visas in order to transfer to a convent in Switzerland. Her sister was unable to secure the visa, however, and Stein refused to leave without her. On July 20, 1942, the Dutch Bishops’ Conference had a public statement read in all the churches of the nation condemning Nazi racism. In a retaliatory response on July 26, the Reichskommissar of the Netherlands, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, ordered the arrest of all Jewish converts who had previously been spared. On August 2, 1942, while they were in the chapel with their fellow nuns, Edith and her sister Rosa were arrested by Nazi troops and transported to a concentration camp at Amersfoort and Westerbork in the Netherlands for a few days before being sent on to the Auschwitz camp in Poland. While at Westerbork, a Dutch official was so impressed by her sense of faith and calm that he offered her an escape plan. Stein vehemently denied his assistance, stating, “If somebody intervened at this point and took away my chance to share in the fate of my brothers and sisters, that would be utter annihilation.”
On August 7th, early in the morning, Sr. Teresa and her sister Rosa, along with 987 other Jews, were deported to Auschwitz. On August 9th they were gassed, and either placed in mass graves on the site or cremated. She was 50 years old. Her last words to be heard before being taken away from the convent in Echt were addressed to Rosa, “Come, we are going for our people.” Professor Jan Nota, who was greatly attached to her, wrote later, “She is a witness to God’s presence in a world where God is absent.”
When Edith Stein was beatified in Cologne on May 2, 1987, the Church honored “a daughter of Israel,” as St. Pope John Paul II put it, who, as a Catholic during Nazi persecution, remained faithful to the Crucified Lord Jesus Christ and, as a Jew, to her people in loving faithfulness.”
“For the honor of the Blessed Trinity, the exaltation of the Catholic faith and the fostering of the Christian life, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, and our own, after due deliberation and frequent prayers for the divine assistance, and having sought the counsel of our Brother Bishops, we declare and define that Bl. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Edith Stein, is a saint and we enroll her among the saints, decreeing that she is to be venerated in the whole Church as one of the saints.”
With the above words, pronounced in Latin on Sunday, October 11, 1998, at a solemn concelebration in St Peter’s Square, Pope John Paul II canonized St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Edith Stein, a Jewish philosopher, convert to the Catholic faith, Carmelite nun and martyr at Auschwitz.
Below we present the the homily that Pope John Paul delivered at the Canonization Mass:
1. “Far be it from me to glory except in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal 6: 14). St Paul’s words to the Galatians, which we have just heard, are well suited to the human and spiritual experience of Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, who has been solemnly enrolled among the saints today. She, too, can repeat with the Apostle: Far be it from me to glory except in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Cross of Christ! Ever blossoming, the tree the Cross continues to bear new fruits of salvation. This is why believers look with confidence to the Cross, drawing from its mystery of love the courage and strength to walk faithfully in the footsteps of the crucified and risen Christ. Thus the message of the Cross has entered the hearts of so many men and women and changed their lives. The spiritual experience of Edith Stein is an eloquent example of this extraordinary interior renewal. A young woman in search of the truth has become a saint and martyr through the silent workings of divine grace: Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, who from heaven repeats to us today all the words that marked her life: “Far be it from me to glory except in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ”.
2. On 1 May 1987, during my Pastoral Visit to Germany, I had the joy of beatifying this generous witness to the faith in the city of Cologne. Today, 11 years later, here in Rome, in St Peter’s Square, I am able solemnly to present this eminent daughter of Israel and faithful daughter of the Church as a saint to the whole world. Today, as then, we bow to the memory of Edith Stein, proclaiming the indomitable witness she bore during her life and especially by her death. Now alongside Teresa of Avila and Thérèse of Lisieux, another Teresa takes her place among the host of saints who do honor to the Carmelite Order. Dear brothers and sisters who have gathered for this solemn celebration, let us give glory to God for what he has accomplished in Edith Stein.
3. I greet the many pilgrims who have come to Rome, particularly the members of the Stein family who have wanted to be with us on this joyful occasion. I also extend a cordial greeting to the representatives of the Carmelite community, which became a “second family” for Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. I also welcome the official delegation from the Federal Republic of Germany, led by Helmut Kohl, the outgoing Federal Chancellor, whom I greet with heartfelt respect. Moreover, I greet the representatives of the states of North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate and the Mayor of Cologne. An official delegation has also come from my country, led by Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek. I extend a cordial greeting to them. I would particularly like to mention the pilgrims from the Dioceses of Wroclaw (Breslau), Cologne, Münster, Speyer, Kraków and Bielsko-Zywiec who have come with their Cardinals, Bishops and pastors. They join the numerous groups of the faithful from Germany, the United States of America and my homeland, Poland.
4. Dear brothers and sisters! Because she was Jewish, Edith Stein was taken with her sister Rosa and many other Catholic Jews from the Netherlands to the concentration camp in Auschwitz, where she died with them in the gas chambers. Today we remember them all with deep respect. A few days before her deportation, the woman religious had dismissed the question about a possible rescue: “Do not do it! Why should I be spared? Is it not right that I should gain no advantage from my Baptism? If I cannot share the lot of my brothers and sisters, my life, in a certain sense, is destroyed”. From now on, as we celebrate the memory of this new saint from year to year, we must also remember the Shoah, that cruel plan to exterminate a people–a plan to which millions of our Jewish brothers and sisters fell victim. May the Lord let His face shine upon them and grant them peace (cf. Nm 6: 25f.). For the love of God and man, once again I raise an anguished cry: May such criminal deeds never be repeated against any ethnic group, against any race, in any corner of this world! It is a cry to everyone: to all people of goodwill; to all who believe in the Just and Eternal God; to all who know they are joined to Christ, the Word of God made man. We must all stand together: human dignity is at stake. There is only one human family. The new saint also insisted on this: “Our love of neighbor is the measure of our love of God. For Christians and not only for them no one is a “stranger’. The love of Christ knows no borders”.
5. Dear brothers and sisters! The love of Christ was the fire that inflamed the life of St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Long before she realized it, she was caught by this fire. At the beginning she devoted herself to freedom. For a long time Edith Stein was a seeker. Her mind never tired of searching and her heart always yearned for hope. She traveled the arduous path of philosophy with passionate enthusiasm. Eventually she was rewarded: she seized the truth. Or better: she was seized by it. Then she discovered that truth had a name: Jesus Christ. From that moment on, the incarnate Word was her One and All. Looking back as a Carmelite on this period of her life, she wrote to a Benedictine nun: “Whoever seeks the truth is seeking God, whether consciously or unconsciously”. Although Edith Stein had been brought up religiously by her Jewish mother, at the age of 14 she “had consciously and deliberately stopped praying”. She wanted to rely exclusively on herself and was concerned to assert her freedom in making decisions about her life. At the end of a long journey, she came to the surprising realization: only those who commit themselves to the love of Christ become truly free. This woman had to face the challenges of such a radically changing century as our own. Her experience is an example to us. The modern world boasts of the enticing door which says: everything is permitted. It ignores the narrow gate of discernment and renunciation. I am speaking especially to you, young Christians, particularly to the many altar servers who have come to Rome these days on pilgrimage: Pay attention! Your life is not an endless series of open doors! Listen to your heart! Do not stay on the surface, but go to the heart of things! And when the time is right, have the courage to decide! The Lord is waiting for you to put your freedom in His good hands.
6. St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross was able to understand that the love of Christ and human freedom are intertwined, because love and truth have an intrinsic relationship. The quest for truth and its expression in love did not seem at odds to her; on the contrary she realized that they call for one another. In our time, truth is often mistaken for the opinion of the majority. In addition, there is a widespread belief that one should use the truth even against love or vice versa. But truth and love need each other. St Teresa Benedicta is a witness to this. The “martyr for love,” who gave her life for her friends, let no one surpass her in love. At the same time, with her whole being she sought the truth, of which she wrote: “No spiritual work comes into the world without great suffering. It always challenges the whole person”. St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross says to us all: Do not accept anything as the truth if it lacks love. And do not accept anything as love which lacks truth! One without the other becomes a destructive lie.
7. Finally, the new saint teaches us that love for Christ undergoes suffering. Whoever truly loves does not stop at the prospect of suffering: he accepts communion in suffering with the One he loves. Aware of what her Jewish origins implied, Edith Stein spoke eloquently about them: “Beneath the Cross I understood the destiny of God’s People…. Indeed, today I know far better what it means to be the Lord’s bride under the sign of the Cross. But since it is a mystery, it can never be understood by reason alone.” The mystery of the Cross gradually enveloped her whole life, spurring her to the point of making the supreme sacrifice. As a bride on the Cross, Sr. Teresa Benedicta did not only write profound pages about the “science of the Cross.” but was thoroughly trained in the school of the Cross. Many of our contemporaries would like to silence the Cross. But nothing is more eloquent than the Cross when silenced! The true message of suffering is a lesson of love. Love makes suffering fruitful and suffering deepens love. Through the experience of the Cross, Edith Stein was a
8. “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (Jn 4: 24). Dear brothers and sisters, the divine Teacher spoke these words to the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. What He gave to His attentive listener, we also find in the life of Edith Stein, in her “ascent of Mount Carmel”. The depth of the divine mystery became perceptible to her in the silence of contemplation. Gradually, throughout her life, as she grew in the knowledge of God, worshiping Him in spirit and truth, she experienced ever more clearly her specific vocation to ascend the Cross with Christ, to embrace it with serenity and trust, to love it by following in the footsteps of her beloved Spouse: St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross is offered to us today as a model to inspire us and a protectress to call upon. We give thanks to God for this gift. ble to open the way to a new encounter with the God of Abraham, Isaac. and Jacob–the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faith and the Cross proved inseparable to her. Having matured in the school of the Cross, she found the roots to which the tree of her own life was attached. She understood that it was very important for her “to be a daughter of the chosen people and to belong to Christ not only spiritually, but also through blood”.
May the new saint be an example to us in our commitment to serve freedom, in our search for the truth. May her witness constantly strengthen the bridge of mutual understanding between Jews and Christians. St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, pray for us! Amen.
Susanne Batzdorff is a niece of St. Teresa Benedicta (Edith Stein). Mrs. Batzdorff now lives in Santa Rosa, Calif. The article below originally appeared in the February 13, 1999, issue of America with the title “Catholics and Jews: Can We Bridge the Abyss?”
My aunt, Edith Stein, had been beatified on May 1, 1987, in Cologne, and I was writing with that event fresh in my mind. Frankly, I had not expected that the church would proceed so quickly to the canonization of Edith Stein, who is also known as Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, the name she received when she became a Carmelite nun in 1933.
When it became clear that the canonization ceremony would happen in my lifetime, I was once again confronted with the questions: Should I attend? How would this experience differ from that of the beatification? As it turned out, the canonization in Rome last October was similar to the beatification in some ways, but different in others. For the citizens of Cologne, a papal visit was a unique event, and on that May day in 1987 it seemed as if the whole city had turned out to take part and rejoice. In Rome, however, canonizations, especially under the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, are frequent—averaging 14 each year—and the city takes these events in stride.
In Cologne, on the day following the beatification, bookstore windows were full of books by and about Edith Stein. In Rome there was none of that. The Cologne event was mostly a German happening, whereas in Rome it was an international event. Many delegations had come from abroad, with large banners declaring their places of origin. The Pope greeted these groups of pilgrims in their own native languages, and they applauded enthusiastically.
As for Edith Stein’s family, the turnout was much larger this time. Twenty-one family members attended the beatification. At the canonization there were 97, representing three generations. It was sobering to realize that on that day of the canonization Aunt Edith would have been 107 years old if she had lived. Among the very few people present who had actually known and could remember her were two nieces and one nephew.
The settings of the two ceremonies were also different. In Cologne, it had been a sports stadium; in Rome, it was the historic St. Peter’s Square. As some reporters noted, the ceremony in the square was observed from the basilica’s heights by gigantic statues of the apostles—“The Jews who had founded the original church, witnessing another Jew being received into the community of saints of the church.”
From our seats we had a close look at the Pope as he entered the square. Illness and the burdens of his office in the 11 years since our last encounter had taken a visible toll on him. We were saddened by this decline in his health and vigor. In those 11 years since the beatification, I have translated texts by and about Edith Stein, and have myself written and spoken about her life and work. I have also tried to create better understanding between the Jewish and Catholic communities. It is a complex task.
During the two weeks prior to our departure for Rome last autumn, I was besieged by the media. Radio, television and various newspapers asked searching questions that once again challenged me. Some reporters even remembered statements I had made in 1987 and 1988. “Have you changed your mind?” they now asked. “Do you feel that the church has made progress since then?” “Do you feel honored, glad, angry?” My response is complicated. To be invited to the canonization of Edith Stein as one of her closest relatives undoubtedly constitutes an honor, but it stirs up painful remembrances of the past.
In the months preceding the canonization, I had occupied myself intensely with the past. Shortly before leaving for Rome I had read some thought-provoking statements by Jews and Catholics about the role of Edith Stein, either as a bridge for interreligious understanding or, conversely, as a hindrance to such efforts. Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ episcopal moderator for Catholic-Jewish relations, quoted reassuringly from a 1987 “Advisory to the Nation’s Catholics”: “In no way can the beatification of Edith Stein be understood by Catholics as giving impetus to unwarranted proselytizing among the Jewish community. On the contrary, it urges us to ponder the continuing religious significance of Jewish traditions with which we have so much in common, and to approach Jews not as potential ‘objects’ of conversion but rather as bearers of a unique witness to the Name of the One God, the God of Israel.”
The Cardinal then quoted a comment made by Rabbi Daniel Polish in his contribution to a volume of essays that first appeared in Germany in 1990, Never Forget: Christian and Jewish Perspectives on Edith Stein (1998). In his essay Rabbi Polish wrote: “While we cannot embrace the notion that Edith Stein will serve as a bridge [between Jews and Catholics], we can see the occasion of her canonization as opening a door to significant discourse.”
I had myself “given birth” to two books about Edith Stein. I served as editor and translator of the English language edition of Never Forget, the collection mentioned above. I also wrote Aunt Edith: The Jewish Heritage of a Catholic Saint (1998). The concluding chapter of the latter, “In the Spirit of Catholic-Jewish Understanding,” is an attempt to update the status of the difficult Catholic-Jewish relationship from what it was in 1987 and even to attempt a prediction of the future by observing the present trajectory.
My awareness of being Jewish dates back to the 1920’s, when I was in first grade. The school in Germany that I attended was publicly supported but under Catholic auspices. A crucifix hung in every classroom, and the school day began with prayers. One day my teacher called me to her desk and told me that my parents had requested that I be dispensed from making the Sign of the Cross and joining in class prayers. I was somewhat puzzled, but no further explanation was offered. Obediently, I henceforth refrained from crossing myself and participating in prayer. I was also excused from the religion classes, in which all my classmates learned about the Christian faith. Our classroom was decorated with many colorful scenes from the life of Jesus, of which I knew nothing.
About this time I became friends with another little girl in my class. One day she met me after religion class, dissolved in tears. When I asked the cause of her distress, she told me that she had just learned that the Jews killed Jesus. She knew that I was a Jew, and she did not want to believe that I was such a wicked person. Naïve as I was, I tried to comfort her by saying that I knew nothing about this, that neither I nor anyone in my family had ever killed anyone. I assured her that she must have misunderstood something. It was my first encounter with anti-Jewish teaching in the framework of Christian religious instruction. Fortunately, this kind of instruction ended more than 40 years later with the changes introduced since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
In the Spring of 1933, when, because of her Jewish birth, my Aunt Edith had been dismissed from her teaching position in Münster and was thinking about her future, she conceived a bold plan: She would seek an audience with Pope Pius XI and plead with him to issue an encyclical denouncing anti-Semitism. Her efforts were nobly, but perhaps a bit naïvely, conceived. She was informed that this was a holy year, and for that reason the crowds making pilgrimages to Rome were so large that there was no prospect that Edith Stein could be received by the Pope in a private audience. The best she could hope for was to be admitted as part of a small group. She decided that would not serve her purpose and instead sent a letter to the Pope in which she set forth her plea in detail. As far as I know, this letter is still among the sealed documents of the Vatican; we only have her own description of this incident: “I know that my letter was delivered to the Holy Father unopened; some time thereafter I received his blessing for myself and for my relatives. Nothing else happened. Later on, I often wondered whether this letter might have come to his mind once in a while. For in the years that followed, that which I had predicted for the future of the Catholics in Germany came true step by step.”
When on Oct. 11, 1998, we were admitted to a private audience with Pope John Paul II, it was a bittersweet reminder of Aunt Edith’s vain attempt to gain a similar private audience with Pius XI in the spring of 1933. An opportunity to give the Pope a very urgent message that might have had historic consequences had been allowed to slip by. Was it really important for me, a Jewish relative of Aunt Edith, to have a three-minute conversation with the present Pope? I am not sure. At any rate, I used my private moment with him to give him my book as a gift—my loving tribute not just to Edith but to the memory of my relatives and our family life in the Breslau that used to be.
In her desire to bring about better understanding between Christians and Jews, Edith Stein was ahead of her times. Sadly enough, it took the horrors of the Shoah, the Holocaust, to bring about the far-reaching changes that began with Pope John XXIII’s decision to convene in 1962 the Second Vatican Council, from which those profound changes flowed. Edith Stein was only one of the millions who were killed because they were Jews. In her plea to Pope Pius XI, she spoke for the people from whom she was descended.
Neither Edith Stein’s letter nor the arguments of other, more prominent personages impelled Pope Pius XI to issue an encyclical condemning anti-Semitism. It is often said that his encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge, published in 1937, was a response to Edith Stein’s plea. This document, however, was not issued until four years after she wrote her letter, and it did not mention the Jews. When the Pope charged John LaFarge, S.J., and two other Jesuits to draft an encyclical on the topic Edith Stein had mentioned in the spring of 1933, that document was long in the making. The encyclical was never issued, and its draft became widely known only in 1997. It has recently been revealed how circuitous the road toward this draft was, and the actual text shows that the prejudices of the past had not been shed by its authors. Jan H. Nota, a Dutch Jesuit who located and analyzed the text of this draft of Humani Generis Unitas (“The Unity of the Human Race”), as it was entitled, found so much outdated theology in the document that he said, “God be praised that this draft remained only a draft!”
Vatican II facilitated contact among the various branches of Christianity. Vatican II also opened a new relationship with the Jews through its “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions.” This document, published on Oct. 28, 1965, declares, “The church repudiates all persecutions against anyone” (No. 4).
With his facility in many languages and his willingness to travel the globe, even now, at the age of 78 and in ill health, Pope John Paul II has managed to build bridges where hitherto seemingly unbridgeable gulfs existed. He listens to Jewish concerns. Wherever he travels, he usually arranges a meeting with representatives of the local Jewish community. When controversy arose concerning the establishment of a Carmelite monastery adjacent to the death camp at Auschwitz, the Pope saw to it that a different site was chosen.
In 1993, John Paul II established diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Israel. In 1994, he sponsored at the Vatican a concert commemorating the Shoah. Earlier on, in 1986, he made a historic decision—he paid a visit to the great synagogue of Rome, the first pope ever to go there. On that occasion, he clearly condemned anti-Semitism and addressed the Jews as “our elder brothers.” He also recalled the deportations of the Jews of Rome during the Holocaust. These actions and statements of John Paul II have been welcomed in Jewish circles. They stand in sharp contrast to the policies of the Vatican during the rise of National Socialism.
On March 16, 1998, a 14-page document entitled “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah,” which had been 11 years in the making, was released by the Holy See. While it expresses remorse for the failings and transgressions of individual Catholics, this statement appears to absolve “the church” as an institution from any guilt in the Holocaust. It also draws a distinction between the “anti-Semitism” of the Nazis and the “anti-Judaism” found in general society. The initial Jewish reaction was mixed. However, Cardinal Edward Cassidy, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, in a speech before the American Jewish Committee in Washington, D.C., on May 15, 1998, clarified some points. He urged his listeners not to read this document in isolation from statements already issued by the episcopal conferences of several European countries and from those made by Pope John Paul II. Those who are working diligently in the field of Catholic-Jewish relations, people like Rabbi James Rudin and Dr. Eugene Fisher, associate director of the National Council of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, point out that this document, while imperfect, represents an important step along the road to greater openness. It ends with the following inspiring message:
“We pray that our sorrow for the tragedy which the Jewish people has suffered in our century will lead to a new relationship with the Jewish people. We wish to turn awareness of past sins into a firm resolve to build a new future in which there will be no more anti-Judaism among Christians or anti-Christian sentiment among Jews, but rather a shared mutual respect, as befits those who adore the one Creator and Lord and have a common father in faith, Abraham.”
In general, however, Jewish leaders expressed disappointment and dismay with the statement. They noted that members of the Catholic hierarchy in Germany, France, and Poland have issued statements that go much further in accepting responsibility for the failures of the Church in the Nazi era than this Vatican document does. Jewish voices are also calling for an opening of the Vatican archives to permit access to documents pertinent to the Holocaust, so that the full truth can be ascertained.
It is clear to me then that the debate about Edith Stein today focuses on this question: Is she a figure for reconciliation or a figure of controversy in the Catholic-Jewish dialogue and an impediment to the effort at rapprochement? This question comes up every time the name of Edith Stein is in the news. It has been hotly debated and argued even among her relatives. There is something troubling to those of us who are Jewish regarding, as a symbol for Jews, a woman who turned away from Judaism and embraced Christianity. But let me cite again Cardinal Keeler’s insightful statement: “Her intellectual and spiritual journey, from which Catholics have so much to learn, is presented as her own, a model for Catholics, not a model for Jews.”
In her own family, Edith was only one of four siblings who fell victim to the Nazis. Moreover, to speak of Edith Stein’s going to her death “for her people” poses a problem for Jews. Christians consider the death of Jesus to have been redemptive. By his sacrifice, He atoned for the sins of the people. In contrast, my Aunt Edith was killed alongside millions of Jews. Her suffering and death could not save the others. It was a death she did not choose, could not choose, and could not have avoided. It was a death that did not stop the killing of others and did not give a religious meaning to the slaughter. It was a fact that Edith Stein died in solidarity with “her people.” Even though she had left the Jewish fold, she was finally, in an ironic twist, reunited with them in death. She was resigned to that fate, but she had no control over it. It was rather due to the Nazis’ definition of who is a Jew. It was because she was born Jewish, of Jewish parentage, that she became a “Martyr in Auschwitz.”
In a small way, the family of Edith Stein mirrors the whole human family. Just as the members of the Stein family could come together for the canonization despite their different backgrounds and beliefs, so Jews and Christians can come together in an atmosphere of peace and good will. They can open a dialogue to reach some understanding and find a way to bridge their differences. In the confines of the extended Stein family, we find various religious allegiances represented. At times our discussions can become quite heated, but we respect each other’s right to differ. After the political upheavals that scattered us in all directions, we refuse to allow ideological or religious differences to tear us apart. Our basic entity as family must remain a unifying principle.
Christians and Jews have already come a long way toward closer rapprochement and better understanding, but our work is not finished. We must learn about each other’s beliefs and ideology with open minds and mutual respect, conceding to each other the right to be different, to worship in our own ways.
One final word about forgiveness. The Jewish people cannot forgive the perpetrators of the Holocaust or those who stood by in silence. The survivors cannot forgive the death of the victims. We can, however, listen to the mea culpa of those who are truly repentant and leave forgiveness to God. If we examine our past and admit our mistakes honestly, we can go forward confidently and work together for common goals. And with God’s blessing we can go about the task of tikkun olam—repairing the world.