Saint Edith Stein

This past Thursday, my Postulant brothers and I visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. This was my first visit and I was greatly moved by the exhibition. It was all at once frightening, heartbreaking, depressing, and infuriating. Today we celebrate the feast day of St. Edith Stein, or St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross – one of the victims of that darkest time in our history.

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Born into an observant Jewish family in 1891, Edith was an exceptionally brilliant scholar. She studied at the University of Gottingen and the University of Freiburg, where she got her Ph.D. at age 25, summa cum laude. She worked and studied with the leading philosophers of the time, including Edmund Husserl and Martin Heiddeger, and her research concerned issues as wide ranging as phenomenology, anthropology, and women’s issues – in particular what would now be referred to as new-feminism. Edith’s research and writings rank her among some of the greatest female philosophers of the 20th century.

Despite having become an atheist in her teenage years, Edith experienced a famous conversion to Catholicism in 1921 after having read the autobiography of St. Teresa of Ávila. She was baptized on January 1, 1922, the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus. Of her conversion, she later wrote, “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.

The 1920’s and 1930’s saw the alarming diminishment of the status of Jews in Germany and, after Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor of Germany and the rise of the Third Reich in 1933, Edith wrote a prescient, eerily prophetic letter to Pope Pius XI requesting him to denounce the rising wave of anti-Semitism:

Holy Father!

As a child of the Jewish people who, by the grace of God, for the past eleven years has also been a child of the Catholic Church, I dare to speak to the Father of Christianity about that which oppresses millions of Germans. For weeks we have seen deeds perpetrated in Germany that mock any sense of justice and humanity, not to mention love of neighbor. For years the leaders of National Socialism have been preaching hatred of the Jews. Now that they have seized the power of government and armed their followers, among them proven criminal elements, this seed of hatred has germinated. The government has only recently admitted that ex- cesses have occurred. To what extent, we cannot tell, because public opinion is being gagged. However, judging by what I have learned from personal relations, it is in no way a matter of singular exceptional cases. Under pressure from reactions abroad, the government has turned to “milder” methods. It has issued the watchword “no Jew shall have even one hair on his head harmed.” But through boycott measures–by robbing people of their livelihood, civic honor and fatherland–it drives many to desperation; within the last week, through private reports I was informed of five cases of suicide as a consequence of these hostilities. I am convinced that this is a general condition which will claim many more victims. One may regret that these unhappy people do not have greater inner strength to bear their misfortune. But the responsibility must fall, after all, on those who brought them to this point and it also falls on those who keep silent in the face of such happenings.

Everything that happened and continues to happen on a daily basis originates with a government that calls itself “Christian.” For weeks not only Jews but also thousands of faithful Catholics in Germany, and, I believe, all over the world, have been waiting and hoping for the Church of Christ to raise its voice to put a stop to this abuse of Christ’s name. Is not this idolization of race and governmental power, which is being pounded into the public consciousness by the radio, open heresy? Isn’t the effort to destroy Jewish blood an abuse of the holiest humanity of our Savior, of the most blessed Virgin, and the Apostles? Is not all this diametrically opposed to the conduct of our Lord and Savior, who, even on the cross, still prayed for his persecutors? And isn’t this a black mark on the record of this Holy Year which was intended to be a year of peace and reconciliation?

We all, who are faithful children of the Church and who see the conditions in Germany with open eyes, fear the worst for the prestige of the Church, if the silence continues any longer. We are convinced that this silence will not be able in the long run to purchase peace with the present German government. For the time being, the fight against Catholicism will be conducted quietly and less brutally than against Jewry, but no less systematically. It won’t take long before no Catholic will be able to hold office in Germany unless he dedicates himself unconditionally to the new course of action.

At the feet of your Holiness, requesting your apostolic blessing,

Dr. Edith Stein, Instructor at the German Institute for Scientific Pedagogy, Münster in Westphalia, Collegium Marianum.

The Pope never responded. It was only in 1937, with the mildly worded Mit Brennender Sorge, that an encyclical would be issued condemning Germany’s treatment of the Catholic Church and the Nazi theories of racial superiority. The condemnation of anti-Semitism and the Nazis’ programs of persecution and violence against Jews were never explicitly mentioned.

Despite this silence in the face of such happenings, Edith Stein entered religious life as a Discalced Carmelite nun, in the convent in Cologne. She took the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, after the great founder. Her entrance into Carmel was not so that she could escape her life, her Jewishness… but rather, as she wrote, “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… 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.

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Because of the increasing violence against Jews in Germany, the prioress of the Carmelite Convent in Cologne smuggled Edith into a Carmelite Convent in Echt, in the Netherlands in 1939. The years spent in Echt saw some of her most famous works, including Kreuzeswissenschaft or The Science of the Cross, her masterpiece analysis of the writings of St. John of the Cross.

In August 2nd, 1942, the Gestapo stormed into the chapel of the convent and arrested Edith Stein and her sister Rosa, who had also converted. Edith’s last words in the convent were, “Come Rosa, we are going for our people.” The two were deported to Auschwitz on August 7th and were gassed two days later on August 9th, 1942 – 72 years ago this very day.

Today, when we read the newspaper or watch the news, we are constantly bombarded with horror stories of atrocities committed to whole groups of people in the name of nationalism, religion, and capitalism. While we no longer have the same systematic, mechanized killings of Auschwitz, Dachau, Buchenwald, and Bergen-Belsen, the crimes against humanity today are just as pernicious – because they happen in all corners of the world. We only need to think of the conflict in Ukraine and Russia, in the Middle East, especially between Israel and Palestine, the violence perpetrated by ISIS against Muslims and Christians alike, as well as our own government’s callous and un-Christian policies towards the poor, immigrants, and refugees.

In today’s world, it is very easy to lose sight of Christ, to forget that despite all of the horrible things we do to each other: the wars, school shootings, xenophobia, genocide, discrimination, and oppression – that God does not abandon us. The Psalm today says “The LORD is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of distress. They trust in You who cherish Your name, for You forsake not those who seek You, O LORD.” (Psalm 9:8-13)

For me, these issues of peace, human rights, and social justice must be mete out with faith that in the end, justice, goodness, and righteousness will prevail because God does not forsake those who seek Him. However, these issues must also be mete with action.

St. Edith Stein wrote, “Every time I feel my powerlessness and inability to influence people directly, I become more keenly aware of the necessity of my own holocaust.” While we may not be called to martyrdom and while we, as individuals will not solve the crisis in Gaza or enact legislation to grant asylum for immigrant children, we as Franciscans are called to stand in solidarity with those who are persecuted and oppressed and to use our voice to fight for justice.

In today’s Gospel reading from Matthew 17:14-20, we are reminded that if we “have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” And so with our faith firmly rooted in Christ, we pray that our voice will resonate to assuage the cries of the poor, because as we learned at the Holocaust Museum, our choices matter and to fail to speak up is to collaborate – because silence is complicity.


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