09 August 2019

Remembering the ministry
of women and the victims
of war and racism

A fading rose on the fence at Auschwitz-Birkenau; behind is one of the watchtowers and a train wagon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

(Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The Mothers’ Union from parishes throughout the Dioceses of Limerick celebrated Mary Sumner Day earlier today with coffee in the afternoon at Curraghchase.

Mary Sumner (1828-1921), the founder of the Mothers’ Union, is commemorated in many provinces of the Anglican Communion on 9 August, although some researchers claim the actual date of her death was 11 August.

Today is also the 74th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, which I was marking with a blog posting earlier this morning.

In many parts of the Roman Catholic Church, today also recalls Edith Stein (1891-1942), the Polish-German Jewish philosopher who became a Roman Catholic and a Carmelite nun, and who was murdered in Auschwitz during the Holocaust.

Edith Stein was born to an observant Jewish family in Breslau (Wroclaw), Poland, to Jewish parents, on Yom Kippur, 12 October 1891. As a child, her parents encouraged her to critical thinking, and when she was in her teens she declared herself to be an atheist.

She studied philosophy at the University of Göttingen and after completing her doctoral thesis on the ‘Problem of Empathy’ under Edmund Husserl, she became his teaching assistant in the University of Freiburg in 1916.

She was on holiday in 1921 in Bad Bergzabern, on the border with France, when she first read the autobiography the Carmelite mystic of Saint Teresa of Avila, who was born into a family that had been forced to convert from Judaism to Catholicism. She became Christian, and she was baptised into the Roman Catholic church in 1922. She continued to teach, lecture and write until the Nazis introduced laws that barred people of Jewish birth and ancestry from teaching.

Meanwhile, in the intervening decade, she had contemplated becoming a Carmelite nun. She entered the monastery in Cologne in 1933 and took the name of Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.

Because of her Jewish ancestry and her writings against the Nazi, she was moved to a Carmelite monastery in Echt in the Netherlands. There she taught philosophy, literature and languages.

The Dutch Roman Catholic Bishops’ Conference issued a public statement read in churches on 20 July 1942 condemning Nazi racism. In a retaliatory response on 26 July 1942, the Nazis ordered the arrest of all Jewish converts who had previously been spared. Along with 243 baptised Jews living in the Netherlands, Edith Stein was arrested by the SS on 2 August 1942. Stein and her sister Rosa were held in concentration camps in Amersfoort and Westerbork before being deported by convoy No 587 to Auschwitz on 7 August 1942.

Edith and Rosa were murdered in a mass gas chamber with all the Jews of the convoy, at Auschwitz-Birkenau on 9 August 1942.

She was beatified in Cologne in 1987 and was canonised by Pope John Paul II in 1998, with 9 August as her feast day. Later, she was named a patron of Europe, alongside with Saint Benedict of Nursia, Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius, Saint Bridget of Sweden and Saint Catherine of Siena.

Critics of her canonisation argued she was murdered because she was Jewish by birth, rather than for her Catholic faith. Some critics suggested her canonisation carried ‘the tacit message encouraging conversionary activities.’ The Roman Catholic Church argued, however, that Saint Teresa Benedicta also died because of the Dutch bishops’ public condemnation of Nazi racism in 1942.

Today (9 August) is an appropriate day to remember the Holocaust and the horrors of war and of racism, to give thanks for the ministry of women, and to continue to pray for inter-faith dialogue:

O Prince of Peace, to all who receive you, you bright light and peace. Help me to live in daily contact with you, listening to the words you have spoken and obeying them. O Divine Child, I place my hands in yours; I shall follow you. Oh, let your divine life flow into me.

I will go unto the altar of God. It is not myself and my tiny little affairs that matter here, but the great sacrifice of atonement. I surrender myself entirely to your divine will, O Lord. Make my heart grow greater and wider, out of itself into the Divine Life.

O my God, fill my soul with holy joy, courage and strength to serve you. Enkindle your love in me and then walk with me along the next stretch of road before me. I do not see very far ahead, but when I have arrived where the horizon now closes down, a new prospect will open before me and I shall meet with peace.

How wondrous are the marvels of your love, we are amazed, we stammer and grow dumb, for word and spirit fail us.

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