Pope John Paul II canonised Edith Stein in October 1998, declaring sainthood for a woman he considered one of the more complex and inspiring figures of the 20th century.
Born into a Jewish family in Poland in 1891, she became an atheist before converting to Catholicism at age 31. She joined a Carmelite convent 11 years later and died in the Nazi gas chambers at Auschwitz in 1942.
The church considers her a martyr for the faith. Over the years, some Jews have protested her sainthood cause, saying that she was arrested and killed because of her Jewish heritage.
But the pope beatified her in 1987, declaring her a “daughter of Israel’’ and a “daughter of Carmel.’’ In 1997, the church recognised the cure of a US girl as a miracle attributed to Blessed Stein.
For John Paul II, elevating Blessed Stein to sainthood gave the Church a model of faith in action – in normal society and in the dramatic context of wartime suffering.
The canonisation held deep personal significance for the Polish-born pope as well. He grew up not far from the Auschwitz death camp, and as a young seminarian he, too, was attracted to the Carmelite order. Like St Edith Stein, he wrote extensively on the Carmelite mystic St John of the Cross. Both studied philosophy and pondered the connections between reason and faith.
Reflecting on her accomplishments in life in 1995, the Pope said Blessed Stein’s activities as a philosopher, writer, social activist and contemplative made her a model for women of today. Her works include “The Science of the Cross’’ and “Life in a Jewish Family.’’
At that time the Pope spoke about the sensitive issue of her conversion to Christianity, saying it was reached after a painful personal search and “did not signify the refusal of her cultural and religious roots.’’ Instead, Christ was helping her to “read the history of her people in a deeper way,’’ he said.
Edith Stein was born the youngest child in a large Jewish family in what is now Wroclaw, Poland. She received a doctoral degree with honours in philosophy during World War I and later became assistant to Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, the current of philosophy that the future Pope John Paul wrote about in his doctoral dissertation. She became a well-known professor, lecturer and writer. After years of unbelief, she was baptised in 1922 into the Catholic Church. She taught several years at a teacher’s college in Speyer, now in Germany, but was forced to leave teaching in the 1930s by Nazi anti-Semitic legislation.
In 1933, she joined the Carmelite cloister in Cologne, Germany, taking the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Alarmed by the Nazi policies, she requested transfer to a convent in Holland in 1938.
She was arrested there by the Nazis in 1942 and was among 200 Catholics sent to Auschwitz in reprisal for a pastoral letter the Dutch bishops had written criticising Nazi persecution of Jews. The Germans had ordered the arrest of all priests and religious who were even one-eighth Jewish.
Within a week she and her sister, Rosa, were gassed and cremated at the Auschwitz death camp. John Paul II said Blessed Stein faced the prospect of deportation and death with a “heroic’’ awareness of dying for her people.
One aspect of Blessed Stein’s life that he highlighted was her work in favour of women and women’s rights, in the home and in wider cultural spheres. She taught women most of her life, lectured extensively on women’s education and professional standing, and was said to be researching a pedagogical theory regarding the education of women when she was forced to give up teaching in 1933.- john thavis, cns