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Catholic Heroes… St. Teresa Benedicta Of The Cross

January 4, 2022 saints No Comments

By DEB PIROCH

“The great thing for us to do is to embrace the Cross” — Autobiography, St. Teresa of Avila.
One evening while visiting a friend, a young German-Jewish, gifted philosopher began reading St. Teresa of Avila’s autobiography. Brought up in an observant Jewish home, she had long ago ceased her belief and turned atheist. She read the whole night through. When she finished, she knew she would become Catholic.
Edith Stein, gifted Jewish academic and student and teacher of philosophy, was born October 12, 1891 on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Feast of Atonement. The last of eleven children in her family, she was born in the Prussian town of Breslau in Germany, now Poland. Her father died just as Edith turned two, leaving her mother to raise her seven children who survived till adulthood.
Atonement? As Catholics we atone to God for our sins by offering up our own crosses, or sufferings, in unity with those of Jesus Christ on the cross. In doing so, we comfort our Savior, who redeemed all mankind despite our sins, gain countless graces and save countless souls in this gesture of love and reparation. It was a very different idea from the atonement of Yom Kippur, but this theme of the cross stuck with Edith. Even Edith herself believed this was no accident. If the feast did not fall every year on her birthday, they would still celebrate the twelfth — but her mother still considered Yom Kippur Edith’s true birthday.
Precocious, as a child she begged and pleaded to begin school early — which did not mean kindergarten, but first grade. Because a sister was a teacher, she was allowed to start part of the way through the year and caught up easily, showing early her academic bent. She excelled, eventually becoming a doctoral student of philosophy, studying under the famous Jewish philosopher, Edmund Husserl.
After studying with him at the University of Gottingen, and receiving her doctorate in 1916, she became his teaching assistant at the University of Freiburg. This was an important time for Edith. During this time, she tried but could not rise higher, as both female and Jewish. But she continued to write and was considered a rising star.

Conversion

At age 30, Edith was welcomed into the Church. She was baptized January 1, 1922, the Feast of the Circumcision in the old calendar. This is particularly noteworthy in that it marks the first shedding of blood by our Savior. “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 returned to God,” she said.
After her conversion, she eventually went on to teach for a few years at a Catholic girls’ school in Speyer, then on to the Catholic Institute for Scientific Pedagogy in Munster, at which time she was forced to resign in 1933 as a Jew. Seeing the tide turn, for this year Hitler would be appointed chancellor, she said, “There is nothing for me here now.”
Edith had been longing to enter religious life since her Baptism. She delayed, because just becoming Catholic was a blow to her Jewish mother. Now was the time. She set two months aside and went home, to break the news and try help her family understand her choice. She would be joining the discalced Carmelite cloister in Cologne, the oldest in Germany, founded in 1637. The order had been begun by the saint whose biography first set her heart afire, St. Teresa of Avila, as well as by St. John of the Cross.
Going to Breslau was emotional and difficult. Her mother wept and hoped she would change her mind, she could comprehend or approve Edith’s choices. But Edith, who was pragmatic, accepted this cross as her greatest in becoming a nun. “I did not see her anymore after entering (in October 1933). That was the hardest in joining the order. It did not alter my convictions, for that was where I belonged.”
Once she left, Edith never saw her mother again. Her mother did not answer her letters, nor write nor visit. Neither did her siblings visit her. Yet her mother’s death in 1936 brought great peace to Sr. Teresa, for she believed that now her mother really, truly understood. In becoming Sr. Benedicta of the Cross, Edith Stein had not rejected her race, she rejoiced the more in sharing her Jewish blood with Christ.
And more good would follow. Rosa, Edith’s sister, had been moved to join the order as a lay worker. She was baptized a few months later, on a magical Christmas Eve. Rosa and Edith would never be separated again.

Darkness Builds

One of Sr. Teresa’s many prayer intentions was always for peace, and one of the treasures of the cloister was a statue, commonly called Maria Regina Pacis (Mary, Queen of Peace). It had been donated by the former Queen of France and wife of King Henry IV, Marie de’ Medici. Would that the Nazis venerated God instead of the Aryan race! But November 10, 1938, brought Kristallnacht, or the “Night of the Broken Glass,” and Jews were attacked throughout Germany, their synagogues and businesses destroyed.
Her convent immediately whisked the sisters to safety at their sister convent in Holland, “Carmel at Echt.” So, New Year’s Day 1939 brought them a new home. However, the same year also brought evil, too; the invasion of Poland prompted England and France to declare war on Germany. The sisters would remain safely at Echt another three and one-half years.
At Sunday Masses on July 26, 1942, Dutch bishops had a letter read in every parish, condemning German seizure and deportation of Jews to concentration camps. The Reich responded by ordering The Hague to round up all Catholic Jews and send them to concentration camps. Such reprisals led the Church to do more silently as time went on; this war — like chess — required strategy to win lives and keeping one’s moves close to one’s chest.
After the bishops’ letter was read, it took only a week for the Gestapo to arrive at Carmel et Echt. Sr. Benedicta and Rosa had only five minutes to gather their things before being captured. They were sent by train via concentration camps Amersfoort and Westerbork in Holland to Auschwitz. No more is known, other than Sr. Teresa Benedicta and her sister Rosa probably arrived August 7. They were likely gassed to death on August 9, cremated, and their ashes were then scattered.
Sr. Teresa knew her Jewish people were to be victims and that they would not understand the cross. But she asked God to accept this sacrifice of theirs, through her, as an offering to Christ — as Atonement. A wise priest well read in St. John of the Cross — Fr. Robert Levis — once said, “In St. John of the Cross, the darkness is the light.” Yes, her redemptive suffering was the light.
Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross was beatified May 1, 1987 in Cologne, then canonized on October 11, 1998 by Pope St. John II. According to her niece, relatives of Edith attended both — 97 came to her canonization. May her offer of sacrifice and atonement bring the world peace, as she wished!
St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, co-patron of Europe, intercede for us to accept our cross as the key to our salvation.

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