SAINT TERESA BENEDICTA of the CROSS [EDITH STEIN] (1891-1942)
Religious sister and martyr – Patron saint of martyrs and Europe
Today, the Church honors Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, or more popularly known as Edith Stein, a martyr who died in the gas chambers at the Auschwitz Nazi concentration camp.
Born in 1891 in Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland) to a Jewish family, Edith was the youngest of eleven children. She was very intelligent as a child, eventually studying philosophy and receiving her doctorate at the age of twenty-five. Having lost interest in her Jewish faith at the age of fourteen, and witnessing the strength of faith in her Catholic friends, and aided by her scholastic studies, Edith began to develop an interest in Catholicism.
She began reading the New Testament and Saint Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. She felt that one could not just read about the faith, but had to put it into practice. In the summer of 1921, Edith picked up an autobiography of Saint Teresa of Avila and read this book throughout the night. Edith had written, “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. She 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.” From this moment on, she was continually aware that she belonged to Christ not only spiritually, but also through her blood – sharing the same Jewish heritage.
On the Feast of the Purification of Mary (February 2nd), Edith received the Sacrament of Confirmation; and, immediately afterwards, she desired to enter the Carmelite Order, but her spiritual mentors advised against it. She devoted the next several years to teaching, writing and speaking engagements. She successfully combined scholarship and faith in her work and her teaching, seeking to be a “tool of the Lord” in everything she taught. She once wrote, “If anyone comes to me, I want to lead them to Him [Jesus].”
In 1933, darkness broke out over Germany, and the Aryan law of the Nazis made it impossible for Edith to continue teaching because she was a Jew. She was now permitted to enter the Carmelite Order and professed her vows on April 15, 1934, taking the name of Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, living in the Carmelite convent in Cologne, Germany.
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. The Prioress of the Carmelite convent in Cologne did her utmost to take Sister Teresa Benedicta 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.
Sister Teresa Benedicta was arrested by the Nazi Gestapo on the August 2, 1942, while she was in the chapel with the other sisters. She was to report within five minutes, together with her sister Rosa, who had also converted and was serving at the Echt convent. Her last words to be heard in the convent in Echt were addressed to Rosa, “Come, we are going for our people.”
On August 7th, early in the morning, 987 Jewish prisoners were deported to Auschwitz, Poland. Edith, upon witnessing the sufferings inflicted upon the Jewish people, wrote: “I never knew that people could be like this [the Nazis], neither did I know that my brothers and sisters would have to suffer like this…I pray for them every hour.”
It was probably on August 9th that Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, her sister Rosa and many other Jewish men and women were gassed, their remains being burned in the ovens. It was noted by Professor Jan Nota who was greatly attached to her, and who wrote after her death, “She is a witness to God’s Presence in a world where God is absent.”
Pope Saint John Paul II beatified Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross in 1987, and canonized her a saint eleven years later on October 11, 1998.
We commemorate her feastday on August 9.
(From catholicnewsagency.com, saints.sqpn.com, americancatholic.org, catholicculture.org and vatican.va/news_services)
(The following prayer is from the Roman Breviary from the Proper for Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross)
“God of Power and Mercy, You gave Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Your martyr, victory over pain and suffering. Strengthen us who celebrate this day of her triumph and help us to be victorious over the evils that threaten us.
“Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, who lives and reigns with You in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”