St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross (1891-1942)
We Are Going For Our People
How does a woman become transformed from a brilliant atheist to a humble contemplative nun? It seems impossible. Yet that is the person we honor today in Edith Stein, St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross. She was born into an observant Jewish family but became an atheist by her teenage years. Stein received a doctorate in philosophy, taught, wrote and was known as a seeker of truth. A chance reading of the autobiography of St. Theresa of Avila, founder of the Carmelite Order, led her down a path of discovery of the truth of the Catholic faith. After her conversion in 1922, she spent her days teaching, lecturing and writing especially on women’s issues like one’s vocation in life, marriage and companionship.
Gradually her longing for solitude and contemplation drew her to Carmel where she entered the monastery at Cologne in 1933. Stein made her profession of vows in 1935 and took the name Theresa Benedicta of the Cross. While in the convent she continued to write books about philosophy and theology, and was drawn to the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. All was calm for a while.
However, the Nazi persecution of the Jews increased in violence and fanaticism, so in 1938 Sr. Benedicta was transferred to the Carmel of Echt, Holland. However, after the Nazis invaded neutral Holland, they arrested all Catholics of Jewish heritage, and Benedicta was taken captive on August 2, 1945. The prisoners were transported by cattle train to the death camp of Auschwitz. On August 9th she and her sister, Rosa, died in the gas chamber. But this disciple of Jesus Christ did not go quietly in the night.
Years earlier she predicted the terrible holocaust that would soon engulf the Jews in Germany and other countries in Europe. Theresa wrote to Pope Pius XI pleading for an encyclical to oppose the Nazi regime. Historians believe that the Pope did not publicly condemn Nazism for fear greater atrocities would befall Jews and Christians. Yet the Nazi war machine silenced all opposition with terrible violence, and millions of Jews died throughout Europe.
Though Theresa was only in Auschwitz a short time, those close to her testified how she was a woman of remarkable interior strength, giving courage to her fellow prisoners. She offered all her sufferings for her people. In her own words: “One can only learn of the science of the Cross by feeling the Cross in one’s own person.” A woman who survived the war told how compassionate Theresa was to those around her to the very end. She wrote: “Every time I think of her sitting in the barracks, the same picture comes to mind: a Pieta’ without the Christ.” Theresa gave all she had for God’s severely oppressed people. Her last recorded words were to Rosa: “Come, we are going for our people.”
Devotion to St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross grew quietly, and she was canonized on October 11, 1998 by Pope John Paul II. He declared that she was an “eminent daughter of Israel and the faithful daughter of the Church” who deserved to be considered a co-patroness of Europe.
Fr. Michael Salvagna, CP