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Why Edith Stein makes an excellent choice for patron saint of Europe

It is in light of the Holocaust that European civilisation must be rebuilt

By on Wednesday, 25 July 2012


On Monday we celebrated the feast of St Bridget of Sweden, who is a patron saint of Europe. In fact she is one of six patrons of Europe. Here is the list.

Saint Bridget of Sweden
St Benedict
Saints Cyril and Methodius
Saint Catherine of Siena
Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, otherwise known as Edith Stein.

Saint Benedict, the founder of Western monasticism, was proclaimed patron of Europe by Pope Paul VI back in 1964. You can read the Papal brief here. It is interesting to see the reasons why Paul VI chose Benedict as patron of Europe, and the emphasis placed on cross, book and plough. That was in 1964 when the controversy over the preamble to the European constitution was still in the future. 

All of the others were proclaimed patrons of Europe by the Blessed John Paul II. Cyril and Methodius became co-patrons of Europe in 1980, and the three female saints were proclaimed patrons of Europe by a motu proprio of John Paul II in 1999. 

It is interesting to note that all six of these saints were religious, though one, Bridget, was married before she became a nun. The one that has attracted the most controversy is St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Edith Stein, the Carmelite who died at Auschwitz. She is unique on the list in that she is the only one who died a violent death, and who is counted as a martyr. She was a particular type of martyr, though. Clearly not killed in odium of the faith like the martyrs, for example, of the Spanish Civil War, she was rather a martyr of love, one who offered her life out of love for her friends. As she herself wrote  in 1939:

I beg the Lord to take my life and my death … for all concerns of the sacred hearts of Jesus and Mary and the holy church, especially for the preservation of our holy order, in particular the Carmelite monasteries of Cologne and Echt, as atonement for the unbelief of the Jewish People and that the Lord will be received by his own people and his kingdom shall come in glory, for the salvation of Germany and the peace of the world, at last for my loved ones, living or dead, and for all God gave to me: that none of them shall go astray.

The reference to the unbelief of the Jews requires careful contextual interpretation. The concept of atonement,which underlies these words, however, is very clearly one drawn from the Old Testament. It is also a very strong theme in the New Testament where our Blessed Lord says: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

St Teresa Benedicta is the only twentieth century figure among the patrons of Europe. She is akin to St Maximilian Kolbe, who was starved to death in Auschwitz, and is also rightly venerated as a martyr of love, who laid down his life for his friends. But there is another martyr of the period of the Second World War, who is little known in the English-speaking world, who also offered himself as a victim to the Nazis so that the lives of others might be spared, namely the Servant of God Salvo d’Acquisto. I will post about him at a later date.

I think St Teresa Benedicta is an excellent choice to be patron of Europe. Auschwitz marks the low point in European history, the violation of every civilised and European value. There her dust lies, like so many, in an unmarked spot; and it is in the light of Auschwitz that we see the rebuilding of European civilisation as an urgent task. Such a civilisation can only be founded on love, the virtue that Saint Teresa Benedicta practised to such a rare degree. And some serious scholarship (she was a great intellectual) would not come amiss either.

  • kentgeordie

    We should be so proud of our saints. As you point out, St Teresa had in addition to her personal qualities a formidable intellect. We need her kind of steel, to set against the often vague benevolence of today’s religion.

  • orthodoxpriest

    There would be ecumenical value perhaps, in the UK at least, in an early British patron saint being selected as a European patron. If the selection were early then the patron would be a small means of uniting ecumenically minded Orthodox and Catholics. I can’t help think of St Columba as a possibility, and as representing the diffusion of Irish spirituality and monastic learning throughout Europe.

  • Ave Verum

    A sensitive and appropriate suggestion – St Teresa exemplifies the victory of love in the most horrible and evil of situations, situations that still exist among us in a multitude of guises.  The assurance of such Love which is the urgent life of God, the Most Holy Trinity, must be proclaimed again and again by such examples which point to Christ Himself and in fact but reflect His urgent, life-giving presence…His boundless compassion.

  • paulpriest

    St Maximilian Kolbe was taking too much time to die – so to make more space he was lethally injected with Carbolic acid – so maybe he should become an additional Patron saint to those in their final hours?

    Should also be remembered that Edith [a ground-breaking intellectual giant!] & Rosa Stein were  those Christians of Jewish origin rounded up by the Nazis in retaliation for the speech by the Bishop of Utrecht where he refused to remain silent in the face of evil:

    “Dear Brethren: When Jesus drew near to Jerusalem
    and saw the city before him, he wept over it and said, ‘O, if even today
    you understood the things that make for peace! But now they are concealed
    from your sight’…Dear brethren, let us begin by examining ourselves in
    a spirit of profound humility and sorrow. Are we not partly to blame for
    the calamities which we are suffering? Have we always sought first for
    God’s kingdom and his righteousness? Have we always fulfilled the demands
    of justice and charity towards our fellowmen?…When we examine ourselves,
    we are forced to admit that all of us have failed…Let us beseech God…to
    swiftly bring about a just peace in the world and to strengthen the people
    of Israel so sorely tested in these days, leading them to true redemption
    in Jesus Christ.”

    …and the only reason Edith wasn’t safe in Switzerland was because she would not abandon her sister; the more we look into the lives of the Saints the more one realises they could become patrons of so many other things….

  • paulpriest

     Hey – don’t forget St Bonaventure!
    One of England’s finest sons – who gave his all for returning the Continent to Christ.

  • Hughes196

     Saint Bonaventure was Italian, paulpriest!

  • paulpriest

     Mistake corrected with thx – I’m geting sooo old..

  • orthodoxpriest

     Yes, that did confuse me rather.

  • GFFM

    I would go one step further. She should be the patron saint of the West, the best of the western philosophical, cultural and theological contributions. Stein’s devotion to the intellectual, her dedication to the development women’s education and intellectual development, the wedding within her person of our Jewish, Christian and Greek philosophical heritage make her an appropriate patron not just for Europe, but the for the West and its foundational humanism in the right sense of that word.

  • Parasum

    Absolutely no disrespect to St. Edith Stein – but, isn’t Europe becoming a bit over-loaded with Patron Saints ?

    Being a Martyr is not insignificant. And the Shoah (“holocaust” already means “burnt offering”, as its Greek origin implies, & it’s a bad idea to make words carry too many unrelated meanings) is not an article of the Catholic Faith. Jews are welcome to regard it as theologically central if that is how they see it – but why should we ? Our Faith is Cross-centred because Christ Crucified & Raised shows us Who God is – the Shoah is not important in that way. And the article makes the Saint’s connection to the Shoah a reason for her being a Patron Saint of Europe.

    The Shoah may very well be a revelation of human depravity & vileness, but the horrendous cruelty of man is not central to Christianity – &  to find wickedness, we need do no more than look in our own hearts: no massacres are needed for human wickedness to be evident. The Shoah (= “calamity”) lived up to its name; but it is only one of a very long list of abominations committed by human beings. Hitler used to be regarded as uniquely wicked, as absolutely devoid of any good whatever, as wholly evil – but there have been plenty of barbarities since 1945, some on a far larger scale. Why should the Shoah be regarded as theologically significant, & the body-counts of Stalin & Mao & others not ? Hitler succeeded in killing a lot of people – but how do his activities differ, other than in scale, from those of other Judeicidal rulers ? Is hatred of Jews  any less wicked for not resulting in the deaths of millions ? To put it another way, how is the slaughter of – let us say -  Rhineland Jews during the First Crusade any less evil than the slaughter of Jews during the Shoah ? What is the moral difference ? If there is any, I can’t see it. Jews asphyxiated by Zyklon B gas & Jews cut to pieces by so-called Crusaders are equally dead.

    The Shoah was atrocious – but how is it special, other than because it is within living memory ? So, once, was the sack of Constaninople in 1204, & the sack of  Rome in 844 & in 1527. An event can be deeply  traumatic without being theologically important. If the Church had prophets, to announce to the Church that certain events in post-Biblical history were of central theological importance, that they were signs of God’s action, & should therefore be given especial attention, such events could be identified & thus, signalised. The Exodus in the OT & the Crucifixion in the NT are significant in precisely this way. But is anything post-Biblical marked out like this ? Has the Shoah been marked out like this ? If not, why the attention to it ? It may have been an exceptional shock to Westerners at the time, given that Germany was (or had been) a civilised country – but how can anyone find it shocking in a world full of tales of horror, from the torture of children in Syria to the massacre of Rwandans ? The horrors of Stalinism & of the Cultural Revolution are so unspeakable that it is not at all clear (at least to this poster) that the Shoah is really that exceptional. (“The Rise of the Third Reich” is a horrifying book – but the same could be said of Jung Chang’s biography of Mao.)

    “Auschwitz marks the low point in European history, the violation of every civilised and European value.”

    ## How come ? ISTM there have been many such low points. Not all great evils are obvious – does that make them any less evil ? The importance of the Passion is measured not by its unremarkable manner – for thousands of Jews were crucified by Rome – but by the Identity of the Sufferer. It was a far greater sin than the Shoah.

    Another Carmelite Martyr of WW2 who deserves more attention than perhaps he gets:

  • Parasum

    And 500 years later than St. Boniface of Crediton, Apostle of Germany, Martyr.

  • DBN

    ‘Germans’ not ‘Nazis’ – why support Germany’s attempt to whitewash history?

  • Tom Jones

    And offend all the Jews of Europe in the process? It wouldn’t surprise me though. The present pope seems very able to hold the coats of others who trample on cultural sensibilities – just remember the Regensburg lecture where he didn’t exactly do the trampling himself but left it to a long-dead emperor?

  • Shlomo Dror

    The very fact that Edith Stein was canonized and described as a martyr is offensive to many Jews, myself included, and the publication of her death-anticipating statement criticizing Jews in toto simply adds fuel to the fire. To us, it is evident that she was murdered, not for being a Catholic, but for being a Jew by the Nazis
    I am frankly surprised that you would publish such a frank condemnation of Jews, my friend.

  • Frank

    I love Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. She puts me to shame every time I read about her and I can’t get enough to read on her. 

  • Jeannine

    Please keep in mind that Edith Stein freely choosed to become a Catholic. And yes she ultimately died because she was ethnically a Jew but a Catholic in religious belief. As a person who has read her biography, I can tell you that she believed her Catholic faith enhanced her Judaism. (As a matter of fact, many Jews who converted to Catholicism believed the same thing.) It was only when she converted that she left her depressed rut of many yrs (since her childhood), to become truly happy. She was estatic after taking her vows as a nun.

    I think the above passage by Edith shows how much she cared for her people, wanted them to experience her view of happiness, & should not be viewed as a condemnation of Jews.

  • Paul English

    With very great respect I would draw your attention to the words immediately following the words at which you are offended:  ‘… and that the Lord will be received by his own people and his kingdom shall come in glory.’
    Implicit in these words is Edith’s recognition of the biblical prophecy that the present age will not end before the Jewish people come to belief in Jesus; and that it is the will of God that the Jewish people should not integrate with gentiles but should remain his separated people forever.  (Not all Christians see it like that but I do and Edith certainly did.)
    I believe this is very deeply respectful to the Jewish people to which Jesus belongs and always will belong.
    It also implies a model for those Jews who come to faith in Jesus – that they should not stop being Jews and should not integrate.  As a believing Jew, Edith remained totally Jewish as well as totally true to her new found faith.  It is this I feel that qualifies her to be accepted as a patron of Europe. 

  • felixclaudia84

    Well said. If there is any ‘low point’ in European history, it would have to be either the Deformation or the legalization of the mass slaughter of infants continentwide since the late 60′s / 70′s. It’s not surprising that a moral nonentity like Lucie Smith wouldn’t understand this since he thinks it should be OK to sell drugs to the public and that Richard Dawkins is the arbiter on the authenticity of the Catholic faith!