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Controversy Shrouds Ceremony Making Jewish-born Woman a Saint

October 15, 1998
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Pope John Paul II irritated Jewish sensibilities when he declared Edith Stein a saint, making her the first Jewish-born woman to achieve sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church.

Stein, who died at the age of 51 in Auschwitz on August 9, 1942, converted to Catholicism and became a nun just as Hitler was starting his rise to power.

That coincidence of events raised a large, doubtless unasked, question at Sunday’s ceremony: Does the martyrdom of Stein truly merit sainthood — or is her canonization an attempt to assuage the guilt of the Vatican’s silence during the Holocaust?

In canonizing Stein, Pope John Paul II called her both “an eminent daughter of Israel and a faithful daughter of the Church.”

The pope also used the canonization to launch a powerful appeal for tolerance, dialogue and reconciliation.

“For the love of God and man, I once again raise my voice in a heartfelt cry: never again may such a criminal act be repeated against any ethnic group, any people, any race, in any corner of the earth!” he said.

And he said Stein’s saints day each year, Aug. 9, would be celebrated as a Holocaust memorial to remind the world “of that bestial plan to eliminate a people, which cost millions of Jewish brothers and sisters their lives.”

But many Jews said that by singling out a Jewish convert to Catholicism for sainthood, the Pope offended the memory of the Holocaust’s Jewish victims.

Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Jerusalem office, went even further.

He called the move “outrageous” and “a very public slap in the face to the Jewish community.”

He said, “The pope is sending an extremely negative message to the Jewish community that in the eyes of the Catholic Church the best Jews are those that convert to Catholicism.”

The leader of France’s Reform movement also criticized the move.

Rabbi Daniel Farhi said the canonization of Stein, who converted to Catholicism and became a nun, was an “ultimate injury to Holocaust survivors and the descendants of victims.”

“How can one not understand that it is a Jew converted to Catholicism that is being shown as an example to the Christian people?” he said.

Like other critics of the ceremony, Farhi maintains that Stein — whose beatification as a martyr in 1987 was also widely criticized — was killed because she was a Jew, not a Catholic.

Indeed, Baltimore Cardinal William Keeler, the Episcopal moderator for Catholic-Jewish Relations of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, issued a statement Oct. 5 in which he said that by honoring Stein, the church was symbolically memorializing Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

“In Edith Stein’s mind, we know, she never for a moment felt that she had ceased to be a Jew,” he said. “As a Church, we cannot pretend that she died as anything other than one of the millions of Jews murdered in the Shoah.”

Farhi, who has been active in forging closer ties between Catholics and Jews in France, warned that the move would be “a new stumbling block in Judeo-Christian dialogue.”

But Rabbi A. James Rudin, the director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, who said Stein’s canonization is filled “with ambiguity, ambivalence and confusion,” told JTA that he did not believe the move would derail the generally positive relations between Catholics and Jews.

Stein was born into an Orthodox Jewish family in Breslau, now the Polish town of Wroclaw, on Oct. 12, 1981 — Yom Kippur of that year.

In her unfinished autobiography, “Life in a Jewish Family,” Stein wrote that as a child she was convinced she was “destined for something great and that I did not belong in all the narrow, bourgeois circumstances into which I had been born.”

The brilliant, passionate Stein offers little insight into her decision to convert — “It is my secret,” she wrote — but she does describe a visit to the widow of a friend who had been killed during World War I.

The widow attributed her composure and serenity, despite the loss she had suffered, to her recent embrace of Christianity.

It was to be the most influential encounter of Stein’s life. She soon set about devouring Catholic literature.

On Jan. 1, 1922, at the age of 31, Stein was baptized a Catholic.

Her mother was both heartbroken and confused by her daughter’s decision.

Jesus was a “good man — I’m not saying anything against him. But why did he have to go and make himself God?” she was reported to have asked her daughter.

On Oct. 14, 1933, at the age of 42, Edith Stein irrevocably shed her Jewish past and, adopting the name Teresa Benedicta a Cruce — Teresa, Blessed of the Cross — entered the Carmelite Convent of Cologne in Germany.

But even as a converted Catholic nun, she was not safe from the Holocaust.

After she first entered the convent, Stein wrote about the Nazi measures being taken against the Jews.

“The fate of this people will also be mine,” she wrote prophetically.

In 1933, she appealed to Pope Pius XI to speak out against the Nazis. The pope rejected her plea.

After fleeing in 1938 from Germany to a Dutch convent in Holland, Stein was arrested at the convent on Aug. 2, 1942. She died in Auschwitz exactly one week later.

On May 1, 1987, in a prelude to canonization and full sainthood. she was beatified by Pope John Paul II at a huge ceremony in a football stadium in Cologne.

At that ceremony, the pope told the assembled crowd: “Today, we greet in profound honor and holy joy a daughter of the Jewish people, rich in wisdom and courage, who gave her life for genuine peace.”

He insisted that her baptism “was by no means a break with her Jewish heritage. But the life of this heroic follower of Christ was illuminated by the cross.”

Eleanor Michael, a writer who has spent five years tracing the life of Stein, said categorically that Stein was “murdered by the Nazis because she was Jewish.”

“What had she done to provoke the Nazis who murdered her, other than being born Jewish?”

“Stein is one of 6 million Jews who perished,” said Michael. “Her ascension to sainthood may well symbolize all that Edith Stein would cry out against in life. Honoring her Christian martyrdom negates her Jewish spirit.”

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