Edith Stein, St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

I actually preached this sermon on the 17th Sunday of the Year. I'm going through some of the saints in my Sunday sermons at the moment, proposing them as illustrations of one of the texts from the scriptures.

I, a prisoner in the Lord, implore you to live a life worthy of your vocation. (Eph 4.1)

One of the outstanding figures canonised by Pope John Paul was Edith Stein, whose name in religion was Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.

As a young woman, she was a brilliant philosopher, taking part in that movement of personalist philosophy which so inspired Pope John Paul in his defence of the dignity of the human person and the sanctity of human life. Through her personal struggle to obtain recognition she played an important part in obtaining equal opportunities for women in German universities.

She was an atheist for a while but began to doubt when she went to see her friend Anna Reinach whose husband had been killed at the front in 1917. Anna’s serene hope and confidence caused her unbelief “to collapse” as she put it.

Another important occasion which influenced her life was when she was staying at a friend’s house, in the summer of 1921, looking for a good book to read. She said
I took a book at random, a fat one: it bore the title Life of St Teresa of Avila, written by herself. I began to read, was at once fascinated and did not stop until I had finished it. When I closed it I said to myself: 'This is the truth'.
Edith Stein was baptised on New Year’s day, 1922, taking the name Teresa.

St Teresa Benedicta saw the Catholic faith as the fulfilment of what it meant to be Jewish, not its denial. Sometimes, she even went to the synagogue with her mother and prayed the psalms from her breviary as they were being prayed by her fellow Jews.

By 1942, the Jews were being systematically persecuted in Holland. At first, the Germans left the Christian Jews alone. During this period, Teresa Benedicta’s position was precarious but relatively safe although she was sometimes called in for harrassing interrogations. She always refused to give the Nazi salute and on one occasion, answered it with “Praised be Jesus Christ!”

The Catholic Bishops repeatedly complained to the Commander of the German occupying forces about the treatment of the Jews. Their complaints had no effect. Eventually, they directed that a pastoral letter be read in every parish in Holland; the pastoral letter included the text of the telegram previously sent to the head of the occupying German authority.

The letter was read on Sunday 26th July.

One week later, the Germans retaliated by arresting all Catholics of Jewish descent in a single sweep on Sunday 2nd August 1942, including Edith Stein and her sister Rosa.

One week after that, on Sunday 9th August 1942 Edith Stein and her sister, Rosa, were gassed to death at Auschwitz.

She was a martyr for the truth proclaimed by the Church. She was a martyr, in particular, for objective truth. This is especially important today. If someone says "It doesn’t matter what you believe, so long as you are sincere" Nazism (or any other form of anti-life totalitarianism) is an unanswerable counter-example. Many Nazis were sincere in their views on the master race. But their views were wrong-headed and evil. Their false beliefs resulted in the deaths of millions of people.

St Teresa Benedicta was also a martyr for the sanctity of human life. What the Nazis did was to deny the humanity of the Jewish person. There is a very clear parallel in principle with the denial of the humanity of the unborn child. There is also a parallel with the growth of Nazism and today's acceptance, bit by bit, by whole societies, of the new holocaust. It is chilling to see the creeping acceptance of euthanasia in Europe, and heartbreaking to see that Holland has led the way.

Pope John Paul II pointed out the importance of objective truth in this context. In Evangelium Vitae, he said:
Everyone’s conscience rightly rejects those crimes against humanity of which our century has had such sad experience. But would these crimes cease to be crimes if, instead of being committed by unscrupulous tyrants, they were legitimated by popular consensus? (EV 70)
Pope John Paul II made St Teresa Benedicta a patron of Europe and given her celebration the rank of feast in recognition of the impact that her life can have in he renewal of Europe. We should not underestimate her power in heaven nor the power of the keys on earth in making this decision. Remember, this was the Pope whose apostolic ministry brought about the collapse of communism in many countries of Eastern Europe. In my teenage years, you would have been thought utterly mad for suggesting that such a thing could happen. But it did.

I invite you to pray to St Teresa Benedicta and the other martyrs of the holocaust, St Maximilian Kolbe and St Titus Brandsma, for a renewal of belief in the truths of our faith and for an end to crimes against the sanctity of human life in modern Europe.

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