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A Jewish nun, and martyr: Edith unites peoples


Patronesses of Europe

29 August 2020

Wojtyla: “She built a bridge between her roots and adherence to Christ”

A fulfilled and complex woman, a philosopher, and Carmelite nun. Her name is Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, a martyr and saint, whom was named Patroness of Europe on October 10, 1999 by St. John Paul II. The reasons behind the Pontiff’s choice confirm the European dimension of her personality and her thought. The fundamental aspects of which, as highlighted by the Pope, reaffirm what should be the spirit that unifies Europe. In his Apostolic Letter “Spe edificandi”, October 1, 1999, he emphasizes, among others, two of them: Edith Stein “built a kind of bridge between her Jewish roots and her commitment to Christ, (…), and in the end forcefully proclaiming by her martyrdom the ways of God and man in the horrendous atrocity of the Shoah” and manifested “the deepest tragedy and the deepest hopes of Europe”.  Regarding hope, in fact, she represents an example of respect and welcome while trying to overcome ethnic, cultural and religious differences and to build a European community founded, above all, on fraternity and solidarity.

Political and religious interests characterize her as a woman and intellectual. Stein combined her great theoretical ability with her practical concreteness: what she said, and what she did were thus placed in an extraordinary continuity and circularity, so that her life and her work are closely linked. She was very involved in the events of her time, and for a while she was also involved in political activity as a militant, precisely because her attention was focused on her homeland. However, her gaze stretched beyond borders, and showed great interest in countries that were in more or less direct contact with Germany.

As an intellectual, she penned An Investigation Concerning the State, a long essay on the formation of the modern state, which, in her opinion, should be based on a community; the state community. This statement goes beyond the current idea of the state, which is understood principally as only a legal structure. Edith Stein also considered such a structure fundamental, but it could not be realized in its impersonal form, if it was not based on the most valid and favorable associative form for human beings, namely the community. It was precisely because the community is the best human associative form that it is also an ideal goal to be reached with commitment and tenacity. Edith Stein noted that we live in multiple forms of community which include each other and which range from the family to the bond of friendship, to the religious community and expand towards the wider community of all people and the state. In fact, at the base of the State as a legal entity there are human beings and, in particular, the people who are its “supporters”, that is, its officials, who play a fundamental role. The State lives through people and the guarantee of its functioning and survival lies in the consciousness of belonging to a community on the part of all those who constitute it; if this consciousness is lost, we participate in its failure.

Stein emphasizes, therefore, the need for an ethical behavior that should underpin the personal and community ties between members of the state community. As it is people who make up a community, such links are established by the assumption of mutual responsibility, which goes under the heading of “solidarity”.

Stein’s reflections are very topical and are applicable to the situation in Europe today. On the one hand, it is evident that in Europe, there are not only peoples, but also states, and each state has its own sovereignty. To what extent should we abdicate our sovereignty in order to establish a unitary State? The way out from an operational point of view is to be found in forms of federalism, but the important and preliminary thing is that a higher order state community should be established that goes beyond the nation States. One may ask what our contribution, as individuals, should be. As it is possible to belong to more than one community at the same time, Stein suggests that we should become aware of this fact; and, realize that even individually, we can and must work together and make our contribution.

After her accession to Catholicism in 1922, she did not forget the Christian origin of Europe and this is the first aspect that John Paul II highlighted. It can be asked what is the role of religion with regard to the constitution of Europe for her. With reference precisely to the notion of the people, Edith Stein says that religion is fundamental. One sees in her the Jew who became a Christian. When she says, in referring to Jesus Christ, that if there were a human being who is important to the whole of humanity, one would expect him to be free of all ties with a single people.  Actually, she says that, although he, as God, is the head of humanity, and was born of a people and in a people, he lived in this people and elected it as the instrument of redemption for the whole of humanity.

In this passage, we refer to the whole of humanity. We can observe, moving on from Stein’s thought that just as an individual is invariably a part of communities of a higher order, so an individual, who is the Son of God, is born in a specific community that does not eliminate the other communities; instead, it keeps all the multiplicities in a higher unity. John Paul II pointed out that Stein’s presence testifies to the continuity between two communities, that of the Jewish people and the articulate and complex community of the Gentiles; she unites them, and ensures that everyone understands the language in which Christ’s message is proclaimed, as the Pentecost shows.

In the series of “intermediate” communities, which she describes that tend towards the whole of humanity, one can also place Europe. The continent is formed, in turn, by a plurality of communities that have accepted the message of a Jew, but “Son of Man”, that is, Emanuel, God with us: Jesus Christ, the extraordinary continuity between Judaism and Christianity.

Europe cannot do without its religious origins; after all, they serve to support and consolidate the ethical attitude of respect and mutual union between the peoples who constitute it. Even if today there is a tendency to separate the ethical from the religious moment, we must not forget that ethical principles in Europe have been borrowed from the Gospel message. This message confirms and exalts what is already contained in the human moral conscience and serves as a guide in the face of selfish concessions, as Pope Francis admonishes us every day with his words and actions.

The indications that we can draw from Edith Stein’s life and works are not generic, but find confirmation in what is happening in the difficult circumstance in which we find ourselves. We rejoice when we see that an approach of solidarity among the peoples of Europe emerges; in fact, this nourishes in us the hope of achieving human cohesion on moral grounds, which are indispensable if we are to speak of Europe as a community open to the world. Edith Stein is a sure guide along this path.

by Angela Ales Bello
Professor Emeritus of History of Contemporary Philosophy at the Lateran University, and the curator of the Italian translation of Edith Stein’s works. In addition, she edited “Edith Stein. Tra passato e presente” [Edith Stein. Between past and present] (2020, Castelvecchi)

Edith Stein

in Wroclaw, October 12, 1891
Died Auschwitz, August 9, 1942
Venerated by the Catholic Church
Beatification May 1, 1987 by Pope John Paul II
Canonization  October 11, 1998 by Pope John Paul II
Anniversary  August 9
Co-Patroness of Europe