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St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (1891-1942) Part – 2: Her Martyrdom
Welcome to INSPIRING LIVES, a series on the lives of Saints in the catholic church from around the world. In this series we bring you those saints who are canonized by Pope John Paul II. Saints are holy people who lived ordinary lives in extraordinary ways. Each saint the Church honors responded to God's invitation to use his or her unique gifts. These saints are examples of great holiness and virtue, and they invite us to follow their paths to holiness. Their unique stories inspire us to be rooted in our faith. As Pope Francis þ wrote on 21 November 2013, ‘to be saints is not a privilege of the few, but a vocation for everyone’. God calls each one of us to be a saint.
Last week we listened to the life and works of Edith Stein who became St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. She was canonized by Pope John Paul II on 11th October 1998 in the Vatican Basilica. Her feast is celebrated on August 9. Today we shall listen to her final surrender to God while she was martyred in the gas chamber of the Auschwitz concentration camp on 9 August 1942.
On the occasion of the beatification of Edith Stein on 1 May 1987, in Cologne, Germany, Blessed John Paul II said: "We bow down before the testimony of the life and death of Edith Stein, an outstanding daughter of Israel and at the same time a daughter of the Carmelite Order, Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, a personality who united within her rich life a dramatic synthesis of our century. All this came together in a single heart that remained restless and unfulfilled until it finally found rest in God."
Edith Stein was born in a Jewish family in Breslau, Germany on 12 October 1891, the youngest of 11 children. Her father died when she was just two years old. Her mother, a very devout, and hard-working woman, then had to look after the family and their large business. However, she did not succeed in keeping up a living faith in her children. As a teenager, Edith lost her faith in God.
But years later, she wrote: "Things were in God's plan which I had not planned at all. I am coming to the living faith and conviction that - from God's point of view - there is no chance and that the whole of my life, down to every detail, has been mapped out in God's divine providence and makes complete and perfect sense in God's all-seeing eyes."
On 1 January 1922, at the age of 21, Edith Stein was baptized. It was the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus, when Jesus entered into the covenant of Abraham. At the Feast of the Purification of Mary - another day with an Old Testament reference - she was confirmed by the Bishop of Speyer in his private chapel. Immediately after her conversion she wanted to join a Carmelite convent. However, her spiritual mentors, stopped her from doing so. Eventually, however, Edith joined the Carmelite Convent of Cologne on 14 October, and her investiture took place on 15 April 1934.
In 1938 Edith wrote: "I understood the cross as the destiny of God's people, which was beginning to be apparent at that time. I felt that those who understood the Cross of Christ should take it upon themselves on everybody's behalf. Of course, I know better now what it means to be wedded to the Lord in the sign of the cross. However, one can never comprehend it, because it is a mystery."
On 21 April 1935 she took her temporary vows. On 14 September 1936, the renewal of her vows coincided with her mother's death in Breslau. "My mother held on to her faith to the last moment. But as her faith and her firm trust in her God ... were the last thing that was still alive in the throes of her death, I am confident that she will have met a very merciful judge and that she is now my most faithful helper, so that I can reach the goal as well."
When she made her final profession on 21 April 1938, she had the words of St. John of the Cross printed on her devotional picture: "Henceforth my only vocation is to love." Her final work was to be devoted to this author. Her entry into the Carmelite Order was not escapism.
"Those who join the Carmelite Order are not lost to their near and dear ones, but have been won for them, because it is our vocation to intercede to God for everyone." In particular, she interceded to God for her people: "I keep thinking of Queen Esther who was taken away from her people precisely because God wanted her to plead with the king on behalf of her nation. I am a very poor and powerless little Esther, but the King who has chosen me is infinitely great and merciful. This is great comfort," she wrote on 31 October 1938.
On 9 November 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.
This is where she wrote her will on 9 June 1939: "Even now I accept the death that God has prepared for me in complete submission and with joy as being his most holy will for me. I ask the Lord to accept my life and my death so that the Lord will be accepted by His people and that His Kingdom may come in glory, for the salvation of Germany and the peace of the world."
While in the Cologne convent, Edith Stein had been given permission to start her academic studies again. Among other things, she wrote about "The Life of a Jewish Family": "I simply want to report what I experienced as part of Jewish humanity," she said, pointing out that "we who grew up in Judaism have a duty to bear witness to the young generation who are brought up in racial hatred from early childhood."
In Echt, Edith Stein hurriedly completed her study of ‘The Church's Teacher of Mysticism and the Father of the Carmelites, John of the Cross, on the Occasion of the 400th Anniversary of his birth. In 1941 she wrote to a friend, who was also a member of her order: "One can only gain the knowledge of the cross if one has thoroughly experienced the cross. I have been convinced of this from the first moment onwards and have said with all my heart: 'I welcome you, Cross, our only hope." Her study on St. John of the Cross is entitled: "The Science of the Cross”.
Edith Stein was arrested by the Gestapo on 2 August 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 Echt were addressed to Rosa: "Come, we are going for our people."
Together with many other Jewish Christians, the two sisters were taken to a transit camp in Amersfoort and then to Westerbork. This was an act of retaliation against the letter of protest written by the Dutch Roman Catholic Bishops against the pogroms and deportations of Jews.
Edith commented, "I never knew that people could be like this, neither did I know that my brothers and sisters would have to suffer like this. I pray for them every hour. Will God hear my prayers? He will certainly hear them in their distress." Prof. Jan Nota, who later wrote about later: "She is a witness to God's presence in a world where God is absent."
On 7 August, early in the morning, 987 Jews were deported to Auschwitz. It was probably on 9 August that Sister Teresa Benedicta, her sister and many of her people were gassed. As Pope John Paul said, she was "a daughter of Israel", who, as a Catholic during Nazi persecution, remained faithful to the crucified Lord Jesus Christ and, as a Jew, to her people in loving faithfulness."
You have been listening to INSPIRING LIVES, a weekly series based on the lives of Catholic Saints from around the world, brought to you by Vatican Radio’s English Service for South Asia.
By P.J. Joseph SJ
FRIDAY, 14 MARCH 2014