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For a large part of the liturgical year, we devote ourselves to listening to the mystery of Christ in all its aspects unfolded as we seek God's truth and understanding.
Teresa Benedicta of the Holy Cross, Virgin and Martyr, 1891-1941
Born into the family of a Jewish merchant in Breslau, Germany, in the fall of 1891, Edith Stein was the youngest of eleven children. Losing her father when she was two years old, Edith developed a strong love for her mother who kept the family, with seven surviving children, together at the same time she was continuing to run the family business. While she admired her mother’s strong faith, by the time she was a teenager, Edith was an avowed atheist.
A precocious child, Edith was an excellent student. She entered University of Breslau in 1911 to study, initially, psychology. Having developed an admiration for a renowned philosopher who was teaching at the University of Göttingen she transferred to that school where she was one of the first women admitted to the program. There, she became a member of a group of students who all went on to become famous philosophers. One, Max Scheler, was the subject of the doctoral-thesis of Karol Wojtyla who later became Pope John Paul II. After receiving her PhD, Edith began teaching, eventually moving back to the University of Breslau where she had started.
While still a student at Göttingen, Edith began to form an interest in Catholicism. One of her professors, a friend, was killed in World War I. Edith helped his widow to sort through his papers and was very impressed by her faith. In 1921, Edith picked up the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila from a friend’s library and read it in one sitting. When she set the book down, she declared, “This is truth!” She was baptized on January 1, 1922. Like her inspiration, St. Teresa, Edith wished to become a Carmelite nun, but the double blow of becoming a Catholic and then a nun might prove to be too much for her elderly mother.
Instead, Edith took a position teaching at a Dominican teachers college and, later, at the German Institute for Scientific Pedagogy while, at the same time, translating the works of Thomas Aquinas and Cardinal Newman into German. During this period, she also began writing some of her many works.
When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Edith was dismissed from her teaching position because of her Jewish background. At this time, she did enter the Carmelite convent at Cologne, taking the name, Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.
Teresa continued her writing in the convent, producing some of her more important works about the role of women in the world. Pope John Paul II studied her writings when preparing his encyclical, The Dignity and Vocation of Women.
In 1938, after a night of terrible violence that became known as Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass), during which thousands of Jewish businesses and hundreds of synagogues were destroyed and many Jews killed, the Carmelites, fearing for Teresa’s safety, sent her, and her sister, Rosa, who had joined her after their mother’s death, to a convent in Holland. When Holland fell to the Nazis, plans were being formulated to send the two sisters to Switzerland, however, before this could happen, when the Dutch bishops criticized the Nazi treatment of Jews, all Jews in the country were rounded up. Both women were arrested on August 2, 1942, and sent to Auschwitz where they were executed a week later.
Teresa Benedicta was beatified by Pope John Paul II on May 1, 1987, and canonized on October 11, 1998. Her memorial is celebrated on August 9th.
Teresa’s message today: Teresa did not choose martyrdom, but when it was thrust upon her, she did not shrink from it. Her faith in God gave her the strength that she needed. As they were led away from their convent by the Nazis, Teresa encouraged her sister, “Come, Rosa. We go for our people.”