By Tom Quiner
Edith Stein was executed at Auschwitz on August 9th, 1942, for the crime of being a Jew. This 68th anniversary of her death is relevant today.
Some background is in order. She was born into a devout Jewish family on Yom Kippur, the youngest of eleven children. As a teen, she moved away from her Jewish faith to atheism until she experienced a profound religious conversion at the age of twenty-nine. She eventually converted to Roman Catholicism.
Ms. Stein gained renown as a writer, philosopher, and speaker, throwing her talents into the Catholic Woman’s Movement. She eventually became a Carmelite nun and took the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.
In 1932, she denounced Hitler and Nazism. She wrote the Pope and asked him to also denounce the Nazis and “to put a stop to this abuse of Christ’s name.” A public denunciation, of sorts, didn’t come until 1937 when Pope Pius XI condemned the tenets of Nazism in his German encyclical, “Mit brennender sorge” (“With burning anxiety”). The encyclical did not specifically mention anti-Semitism, but did vigorously support the concept of universal human rights. On Palm Sunday in 1937, it was read from the pulpit of every Catholic Church in Germany, eventually resulting in increased persecution of Catholics.
The horrors of Auschwitz were prayerfully commemorated in 1979 when Pope John Paul II visited the site during his historic trip to Poland. There, at “this Golgotha of the modern world,” as he characterized it, the Pope invoked Edith Stein:
“ … many victories were won [here]. I am thinking, for example, of the death in the gas chamber … of the Carmelite Sister Benedicta of the Cross, whose name in the world was Edith Stein … Where the dignity of man was so horribly trampled on, victory was won through faith and love.”
With sad eyes, the Pope recalled the anti-Semitic horror of Auschwitz: “In particular I pause with you … before the inscription in Hebrew. This inscription awakens the memory of the People whose sons and daughters were intended for total extermination. This People draws its origin from Abraham, our father in faith … The very people that received from God the commandment “Thou shalt not kill”, itself experienced in a special measure what is meant by killing. It is not permissible for anyone to pass by this inscription with indifference.”
Perhaps inspired by the Pope’s visit, perhaps inspired by the martyrdom of one of their own, a group of Carmelite nuns purchased an abandoned building at Auschwitz in 1984 and opened a convent. There they prayed for the souls of the army of innocents executed on those grounds, very much in the tradition of Edith Stein’s words: “it is our vocation to intercede to God for everyone.”
Jewish groups were understandably concerned.
To some, it seemed as if the site of the Auschwitz memorial was being hijacked by the religion, Christianity, of their oppressors, the Nazis (some of whom were nominally Christian).
Some were offended at the idea of Catholics praying for Jewish souls “as a guarantee of the conversion of strayed brothers,” as if Judaism was insufficient for salvation.
Some were offended by the idea of anything Catholic at Auschwitz, since in their eyes, the Vatican had not been strong enough in denouncing anti-Semitism.
Catholic-Polish groups couldn’t understand what could possibly be wrong with a group of nuns calling down God’s love and forgiveness at such a notorious place of evil. And besides, more Polish-Catholics were killed there than Jews.
Jews responded that extermination of the Jewish race was a central goal of the Third Reich, that Auschwitz held even more important symbolism to Jews than Christians.
Both sides had a point.
Pope John Paul II interceded and asked the nuns to move, which they eventually did. In his mind, the good accomplished by a Carmelite convent at Auschwitz would be outweighed by the pain it caused to Jewish groups. Their mission, their prayers, could continue in a convent at a different location.
A similar drama unfolds today, only this time, it is a Muslim group that wants to build a mosque at Ground Zero in New York.
The same issues, the same sensitivities are in play. The leadership, though, is remarkably different.
New York Mayor Bloomberg attacks families of the victims who don’t want the mosque at Ground Zero, asserting they should “be ashamed of themselves.”
Contrast his approach with that of the Pope who showed compassion to victims’ families and the anguish in their souls.
The Mayor couches the issue in terms of religious freedom for Muslims.
The Pope, on the other hand, viewed the issue through the lens of humility. Yes, the Carmelite nuns had a right to be at Auschwitz, but at what price?
What would Edith Stein have to say about this controversy? This: “As for what concerns our relations with our fellow men, the anguish in our neighbor’s soul must break all precept. All that we do is a means to an end, but love is an end in itself, because God is love.”
[I am at work on a new musical titled “The Pope of the People.” It presents Pope John Paul II’s dramatic trips to Poland and Iowa in 1979. Watch this space for updates.]