Today, August 9, the Roman Calendar of Saints commemorates St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross, a 20th Century Carmelite nun.
St. Theresa's birth name was Edith Stein. She was the youngest of a large Orthodox Jewish family, born in Breslau in 1891. From her earliest days she demonstrated uncommon intellect; she was one of the first women in Germany to attend university on the same footing with the male students, and she early came under the tutelage of Edmund Husserl, the "Father of Phenomenology." She completed her PhD dissertation, On the Problem of Empathy, under his direction in 1916. (The late Pope John Paul II was another student of phenomenology, and his writings on the philosophy of personalism were influenced by Husserl's ideas.)
Stein's dormant Jewish faith, colliding with the implications of Husserl's philosophy, and tempered in the grief and sorrow experienced by much of her generation in the wake of World War I, led her into an intense search for religious meaning. Her journey ended on the pages of St. Teresa of Avila's autobiography. Stein was baptised in 1922, took up a post at a Dominican school for girls, and began translating the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas into German.
Stein's conversion did not shield her from the coming Nazi storm. She was dismissed from a lectureship at Munster in 1933; unable to find work in Germany under the anti-Semite laws she instead professed vows to the Order of Discalced Carmelites and entered their convent in Koln in 1934. She continued to write works of philosophy and theology, both in Koln and in Holland, where the Carmelites transferred her in 1938 in an attempt to keep her safe.
On Sunday, July 20, 1942, the Dutch Catholic bishops ordered read from every pulpit in the Netherlands a statement condemning Nazi racism. In swift retribution, the Nazi occupation authorities in Holland began arresting Jewish Catholic converts. Edith Stein was taken from the Echt Carmel on July 26 and sent directly to Auschwitz. She died in a gas chamber 63 years ago today, on August 9, 1942.
Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross left behind her a remarkable body of work. Her collected writings run to nine volumes, and include important contributions to philosophy and theology. She was beatified as a martyr in 1987, and canonized in 1998.
Today, Europe is shaken by another storm, remarkably like the one that swept away Sister Theresa Benedicta and millions more. It is a storm that would gladly crush before it thousands of Edith Steins if it could. May we always remember what happened when the men of Europe ignored the massing hatred, sought to appease it, and too late recognized it for what it was. Pray for us, St. Edith Stein, Patroness of Europe, that God will never allow us to forget.