AUGUST 9, 2011 – ST EDITH STEIN : DEUT 31:1-8 ; MT 18:1-14

 

When the Catholic Church declared that Edith Stein was to be honored as a saint and venerated as a virgin and martyr, John Paul II, who was in office as Pope, surely expected some criticism. He did not have to wait long to hear it! For she was put to death by the Nazis, not because she was a Carmelite nun who had lived for some years with the name Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, but rather because she was a Jewess. Some Jewish leaders protested her canonization at the time, maintaining that she should be remembered as a Jewish victim of the holocaust rather than as a Catholic martyr. The facts in any case, lent support to their objections when viewed from the outside. For Sister Teresa Benedicta was sent to the gas chamber at Auschwitz, along with some hundreds of Catholic priests and religious of Jewish descent in retaliation for the public protest of the Dutch bishops against the Nazi’s pogrom of the Jews in the recently occupied Netherlands.

 

Pope John Paul, however, was not the man to be intimidated by public criticism, even when it came from Jews for whom he had a personal regard. After all, one of his close friends in Poland was a Jew whose friendship he cherished during the German occupation of his country when such association was dangerous. I suspect that the argument supporting her canonization as a Catholic martyr might include some such considerations as the fact that the Jews were chosen by God as a people. Their religion is rooted in that choice so that as Jews they stand in a special relation to a divine plan and destiny. Our Catholic faith was founded by Jesus, the Jewish son of a Jewish mother, and was propagated by such believing Jews as Peter, Paul, Andrew, John, James and the rest. From earliest times, the Church has considered the Jewish Scriptures to be the truly inspired word of God and its adherents to be destined, in the Lord’s Providence, to accept Christ Jesus as their Savior and to enter the one Church. To hate and kill the Jews as such is, in fact, to murder out of hatred for God’s plan. In the case of Edith Stein, there is still a stronger reason for canonizing her as a Catholic Martyr. Her death and that of the hundreds of other Jewish Catholic religious and priests was intended as an attack on the Catholic Church in retaliation for the Dutch Bishops’ protest against the Nazi policy of killing the Jews.

 

When in 1942 the soldiers came to the Carmel monastery where Sister Teresa Benedicta and her blood sister were living, to arrest them, it was no surprise. The two of them were very conscious of being in danger. Upon being summoned to be taken in custody, Teresa Benedicta encouraged her sister with words that make it clear she offered her life as a sacrifice to God freely and willingly in solidarity with God’s chosen people. “Come”, she said, “let us go and give our life for our people.” Her acceptance of death was a deliberate choice that by her courageous faith she made an act of worshipful service to God. By her dispositions that she had cultivated day by day in her selfless life as a Carmelite nun she made her death an act of witness of her Catholic faith, and so she is justly celebrated as a martyr to the true faith.

 

In today’s Gospel Jesus makes it clear that the decisive issue for each of us is our inner dispositions and in particular depends on a trusting and loving attitude toward God that comes to characterize our way of living and dying. :”Unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Edith Stein was a brilliant and learned thinker whose teaching and writings continue to influence thoughtful men and women. She was an insightful commentator on the profoundly mystical writings of Saint John of the Cross. But it is above all for the simple and trusting faith with which she dedicated herself to the cloistered life of a Carmelite and the courageous love that enabled her to offer her life on behalf of her people that she is honored in this liturgy not only as a virgin but as a martyr, that is to say, a loving witness to the Savior’s care for his people.

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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