Today, August 9, is the Memorial of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, also known as St. Edith Stein.
Edith Stein was born in Breslau, Poland on October 12, 1891, the eleventh child of a devout Jewish family. Her father died when she was young, but her mother committed herself to and succeeded in giving her children an excellent education. While Edith admired her mother’s religious devotion, even as a young girl she abandoned her Jewish faith and became an agnostic and then an atheist.
Stein studied philosophy at the University of Freiburg in Germany and became an assistant to the renowned 20th century philosopher Edmund Husserl. She wrote her doctoral dissertation on Empathy and, although she passed her doctoral examination with distinction, she was denied a professorship because she was a woman.
Over the summer holiday of 1921, Stein read the biography of St. Teresa of Avila, the great Carmelite reformer, saint and Doctor of the Church. This inspired her conversion to Catholicism and a desire to enter Carmel. She was baptized on January 1, 1922 and took a position teaching at a Dominican school. In 1932, she lectured at the Catholic-affiliated Institute for Scientific Pedagogy in Munster, but antisemitic laws passed by the National Socialists forced her resignation. In 1933, she wrote a letter to Pope Pius XI denouncing Nazism and asking that the Pope speak out against the racist policies and atrocities of the Nazis:
“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 which 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. … 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 the 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.”
Stein’s letter did not receive an answer, nor is it certain the Holy Father saw it. But, in 1937, Pius XI issued Mit brennender Sorge (With Burning Anxiety), in which he condemned antisemitism, criticized National Socialism, and delineated violations by the Nazis of the 1933 Concordat between Germany and the Catholic Church.
Stein entered the Discalced Carmelite monastery of Our Lady of Peace at in Cologne-Lindenthal in October, 1933. She took the religious name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. She was soon transferred with her sister, Rosa, also a convert and an extern sister of the order, to the monastery in Echt, Netherlands to get them farther from the Nazis. Here Sr. Teresa Benedicta became even more devoted to her spiritual life and the Carmelite rule, while she taught Latin and philosophy to the sisters and continued to write philosophy, attempting to fuse the philosophies of Aquinas, Scotus, and Husserl and reflecting on the mysticism of St. John of the Cross.
In June,1939 she wrote:
“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.”
The Nazis invaded and conquered the Netherlands in May, 1940. On July 20, 1942 the bishops of the Netherlands had read in churches throughout the country their statement condemning Nazi racism. In retaliation, the Nazis rounded up all Jewish converts to Catholicism, who formerly had been spared, and transferred them to concentration camps. Sr. Teresa Benedicta and Rosa were arrested at their monastery on August 2, 1942 and eventually deported to Auschwitz where they were likely killed with others in a gas chamber on August 9, 1942.
Pope St. John Paul II beatified Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross on May 1, 1987 and canonized her a martyr of the Church on October 11, 1998.
“The innermost essence of love is self-offering. The entryway to all things is the Cross.” St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.