August is a month of martyrs. St. Lawrence, St. Bartholomew, St. John the Baptist, St. Sixtus II and companions, Sts. Pontian and Hippolytus, St. Maximilian Kolbe, St. Edith Stein. The power of martyrdom is emphasized in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Martyrdom is the supreme witness given to the truth of the faith: it means bearing witness even unto death.”
Fr. Steven Payne, O.C.D., President of the Carmelite Institute of North America, has written, the witness of the martyr is one in which (referring to St. Edith Stein) “the last chapter has to be lived, to be written, spoken with her blood.”
The question of Stein’s categorization as a martyr of the Catholic faith is crucial for our understanding of modern witness in the face of an authoritarian regime, a group that St. John Paul II called “the new martyrs.” Although Stein’s Cause for Sanctity was initially opened as a straightforward Cause for a life lived in heroic faith, hope, and charity, further evidence surfaced during the Cause’s initial proceedings which proved that Stein was killed in odium fidei, in hatred of the faith. Her Cause was then re-opened as a Cause for Martyrdom.
Why should Stein be specially recognized for a death suffered by so many millions of Jews? What makes her death a cause of sanctity, verified in a canonical process of the Catholic Church? The answer lies in the motive of Stein’s martyrdom.
The Positio super martyrio et super virtutibus canonizationis servae Dei Teresiae Benedictae a Cruce, documenting Stein’s martyrdom, points out that while the “informal” cause of Stein’s martyrdom “presents itself as the fundamental unity of the hatred of the National Socialists against Catholicism and Judaism,” the “formal and immediate cause of the deportation and consequent killing of Catholic Jews of Holland was the wish to punish the Catholic Church for its protest, therefore odium fidei and not hatred of the race.”
This distinction between the informal and formal cause of Stein’s death is pivotal. Stein died in odium fidei, directly due to hatred of the faith, the necessary qualification for a Catholic martyr.
On Sunday, July 26, 1942, a pastoral letter condemning the deportation of the Jews was read from every Catholic pulpit in the Netherlands in a coordinated act of resistance of the Dutch Catholic Church. The letter is a clear and direct protest of the anti-Semitic measures in force. It reads, in part:
The undersigned church communities of the Netherlands, deeply shaken by the measures taken against the Jews in the Netherlands that have excluded them from participation in the normal life of the people, have learned with horror of the latest regulations by which men, women, children and whole families are to be deported to the territory of the German Reich.
Nazi retribution against this act of defiance by the Dutch Catholic Church was swift and lethal. A round up which targeted converts from Judaism to Catholicism was enacted on August 2nd. Stein and her sister Rosa were victims of the round-up:
All non-Aryan members of every Dutch religious community were arrested and taken away. In Echt there was no hint of what was about to happen. At five in the afternoon the Sisters had assembled in choir for meditation; Sr. Benedicta was just reading out the point for meditation when two rings at the turn were heard. . . .There were two officers asking for Sister Stein.
Stein’s readiness for martyrdom and her internal union with Christ in laying down her life for Him are further critical elements in Stein’s recognition as a martyr of the Catholic faith.
In 1933, she had written a moving letter to His Holiness Pope Pius XI, warning that silence before the persecution of the Jewish people under National Socialism would enable future persecution of the Christian faith.
After Kristallnacht in 1938, Stein was transferred for safety from Cologne, Germany, to a Carmel in Echt, the Netherlands. When summoned to Gestapo headquarters in Maastrich for questioning on one occasion, Stein entered the police station and greeted the officers with the bold proclamation, “Praised be Jesus Christ.”
Biographer Sr. Teresia Renata Posselt, O.C.D., recounts, “Startled by this greeting (the officers) looked up but they did not reply. Later (Stein) explained to Reverend Mother that she had felt driven to behave as she had done, knowing well enough that it was imprudent from a human standpoint, because she saw quite clearly that this was no mere question of politics but was part of the eternal struggle between Jesus and Lucifer.”
Arrested on August 2, 1942, in the Nazi retaliatory action against the Dutch Catholic faithful, Stein was transported through a series of holding camps to Auschwitz. When the train car holding Stein stopped at Schifferstadt Station, Stein sent a message from the platform to the religious sisters of nearby St. Magdalena’s Dominican Convent, in Speyer. Her message was prophetic: “Grüβe von Sr. Teresia Benedicta a Cruce. Unterwegs ad orientem.” “Greetings from Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. We are heading East.”
Her brave words, “We are heading East,” could be spoken by each of our August martyrs. St. John the Baptist prepares the way for the Resurrection and the Life. St. Maximilian Kolbe lays down his life for another in Christ’s stead. The blood of the Papal Martyrs is the seed of the Church.
Amidst the darkness of pervasive and seemingly omnipotent evil, these holy witnesses proclaimed the Truth, each in their own time. With them, we can stand for Christ in our time, offering our lives in testimonium fidei.
*Edith Stein in an undated photograph, probably as a university student or teacher in the years before entering the religious life.
**Likely the passport photograph of Edith Stein (Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross) taken at the Discalced Carmelite monastery in Cologne shortly before she fled to Echt in the Netherlands.