Tuesday, August 9, 2011

St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross - The woman who defeated Hitler

Though it is only a weekday sermon, I have posted my homily for St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. She has long been for me a dear spiritual friend and guide. [see the Vatican press release about this great saint]

August 9th, Feast of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein)

[Moses said to the children of Israel:] It is the Lord who marches before you; he will be with you, he will not fail you or forsake you. So do not fear or be dismayed. (Deuteronomy 31:8)

The portion of the Lord is his people. (Response for today’s responsorial)

[Jesus said:] What is your opinion? If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray, will he not leave the ninety-nine in the hills and go in search of the stray? (Matthew 18:12)

Edith Stein, who lived from 1891-1942, was a woman of Jewish descent who first became an atheist and then a great philosopher. Together with Heidegger, she was the greatest student of Edmund Husserl – the founder of the philosophical school called “phenomenology”. Edith Stein was quickly recognized for her talent and insights, and her philosophical writings were influential on the thought of Bl. John Paul II – in fact, it was our great hope that he would make her a Doctor of the Church, but alas it looks like we will have to wait and see.
Again, Edith Stein was a German of Jewish descent and, when she eventually converted to Catholicism, she saw this very much in line with her heritage as an Israelite. John Paul II said of her, “She was a true daughter of Abraham, and a daughter of the Church.” Indeed, on a personal note, I can say that Edith Stein had a particularly strong influence on my own understanding of the relation of the Jews to the Church – perhaps some day the world will come to understand what our Savior meant when he said, Salvation is from the Jews.

Not only did Edith Stein become Catholic, but she entered the order of the Discalced Carmelites and took the religious name, “Teresa Benedicta of the Cross”. Her spiritual writings are particularly inspiring.
During the persecution under Hitler, Teresa Benedicta was arrested and taken to Auschwitz where she died in the gas chambers in the year 1942.
Thus, she remained united to her people, the Jews, and through her death gave witness to the love of Christ.

As we think of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, we are particularly mindful of the special role which the Jews have in the history of salvation. How can we not be moved when we hear the words of Moses in the first reading from Deuteronomy: It is the Lord who marches before you; he will be with you, he will not fail you or forsake you. So do not fear or be dismayed.
Indeed, even in the horrible atrocities of the Holocaust, the good Lord did not fail or forsake his chosen people. St. Teresa Benedicta knew this well, for the Cross is the only means of union with the Messiah of the Jews.
Likewise, when we consider the parable of the lost sheep and hear how the Lord will leave the ninety-nine to go in search of the one, do we not think of the Jews and the Gentiles. Indeed, we Gentiles who have entered the household of the faith are far more numerous than the Jews – we are those ninety-nine. But Jesus will surely go out in search of the one sheep which has gone astray and, when he brings the Jewish people into his flock, then will be accomplished the redemption of the whole world.
All of history rests on the Jews – they are the chosen people of God, and he will never forsake them.

Finally, just a word about the circumstances of St. Teresa Benedicta’s death. She was in the convent and she knew that her life was in grave danger – for Hitler had a particular hatred for Catholics as well as for Jews, and she was both. And I should mention that, although most of her family remained Jewish, Edith’s sister Rosa did convert to Catholicism and also entered the Carmelite Order as a nun.
At the time of her death, Teresa was writing her autobiography, and she probably knew that this would be the last book she would write. As we read the autobiography, it ends very abruptly, almost mid-sentence. There is just a “…”, and that is it.
Teresa Benedicta had been working on her book in the morning, but then the bell rang for the mid-day prayers. So, she put down her pen and went to the chapel to join the sisters in the recitation of the Breviary.
It was while they were gathered in prayer that the Nazis came to the door of the convent and forced their way in. They took both Teresa and her sister. And, when Rosa (Edith’s sister) was fearful, our Saint said: “Come, we are going for our people.”
“Come, we are going for our people.” These were the last words that St. Teresa Benedicta would utter in the convent. Do we not hear Christ himself, speaking through her? Is this not the very Spirit of the Messiah who speaks? He who offered himself up to death for the sake of us all – we who had become “his people”, when he deigned to take on our human nature.

The arrest occurred on August 2nd, and little more is known of St. Teresa. She was taken to Auschwitz and died in the gas chambers, probably on August 9th. She simply disappeared, completely hidden and obscured by the inhumanity, the brutality, the sin of the Holocaust.

But, I say, do not feel pity for St. Teresa Benedicta! No, do not weep for her! She was not defeated, she is the victor. Again, I say, if you must shed a tear, weep before this most wondrous example of love! Be moved to tears, not of sorrow but of joy – for this little Jewish woman, this great Carmelite Saint has today defeated Hitler!
You know that, don’t you? Edith Stein is the victor. Together with St. Maximilian Kolbe, she is the conqueror who triumphed over the Nazis, who triumphed over the world, through Christ who strengthened her.
This was not the day of her death – no, I tell you, it was the day of her birth! For through her great victory, she was born this day into the glory of life everlasting.