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EDITH STEIN - TEACHER IN THE SCHOOL OF COMMUNION

Fr Billy Swan


One of the three pillars of the synodal pathway is ‘communion’, the other two being participation and mission. It is no co-incidence that in the listing of all three, communion comes first, followed by participation and then mission. The implication is clear – in the measure that the whole Christian community is united in communion with Christ and one another, the more effective she will be to mobilise participation in the life and mission of the Church.


This concept of communion emerged as the dominant theme of the theology of the Church at Vatican II and has been ever since. On the 20th anniversary of the closing of the Council, Pope St John Paul II convoked the synod of bishops in Rome in 1985 to develop this concept more clearly and practically in the life of the Church. In his Jubilee Year encyclical Novo Millenio Inuente, the late pope famously said that the Church is both ‘the home and school of communion’ (n. 43). In other words, the community of the faithful is where communion with Christ and one another is both experienced and celebrated but also learned.


On Wednesday 9th August, we celebrate the feast day of a saint who has many things to teach us in the school of communion where all of us are forever learning. I speak of course of St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross or Edith Stein as she was known prior to her entry into a Carmelite monastery. Regrettably, St Teresa is not well known in the Catholic world as she should be. However, I believe that her influence will increase as history progresses and as we become increasingly aware of our call to build communion where it is absent, heal communion when it is damaged and nurture communion where it is weak. First a little about the life and story of St Teresa and that included an ever-expanding communion with greater numbers of people - communion with her own Jewish roots and history, communion with Christ and fellow Christians, communion with her fellow Carmelites and finally her communion with the martyrs following her execution at Auchwitz on 9th August 1942.


Edith Stein was born on 12th October 1891 on the feast of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year for the Jews. She was born into a wealthy Jewish family, the youngest of 11 children. Her father died when she was very young. At aged 14 she stopped believing, praying and dropped out of school. Although she abandoned religious practice, she began searching for answers and meaning through philosophy and particularly through a discipline called ‘phenomenology’ which was being taught by a well-known professor at the time, Edmund Husserl. Phenomenology is based on the premise that reality consists of objects and events as they are perceived in the human consciousness and not of anything independent of that. Edith studied philosophy at the University of Gottingen, and received a doctorate.

Even though Edith had excelled in her studies and became Edmund Husserl’s assistant, she still felt a void, a sense of hollowness inside her. Her heart and her mind weren’t being nurtured in the way that she expected and everything she studied felt very mechanical and superficial to her. This led her to revisit the existence of God and to explore again the faith of her Jewish ancestors as well as Protestantism and Catholicism. She befriended many who came from different faiths and none. Adolf and Anna Reinach were two of these friends of Edith’s who had converted from Judaism to an Evangelical Church in Germany. Adolf signed up for the army and news came in one day that he had been killed. Edith went immediately to her friend Anna to be with her to console her. She was very moved by Anna’s deep Christian faith and was struck by the strength that Anna carried at this most terrible time in her life. Edith said: ‘This was my first meeting with the Cross, with the Divine strength it brings to those who bear it’.

The Christian response she witnessed to the grief and suffering of the First World War left a huge impression on her. The hope and strength that she felt herself from the cross of Christ filled her with a sense of love that she hadn’t felt before and slowly she began to sense the truth that she was always seeking. Edith did a nursing course and she served in a field hospital in Austria where she looked after the sick and dying. Over the following three years, Edith went through a period of deep reflection and began to read and practise the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. She then stumbled on the ‘Book of the Life’ – the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila. She was so impressed by it that she couldn’t put the book down. She finished it in one night, after which she exclaimed ‘This is the truth’. Everything fell into place for her then, everything made sense to her. She felt a huge connection to the love of God that she had never felt before. In 1922 Edith was baptised a Catholic Christian and received her First Holy Communion. One month later she received the Sacrament of Confirmation. In 1934 she entered the Carmelite convent in Cologne, Germany. She taught, gave lectures and studied at the nearby Institute. The anti-Semitic tide was rising fast in Germany at the time and this made it impossible for Edith to continue her teaching work. On 1st January 1939 she was taken to Holland. She asked her superior if she could offer herself for her Jewish people, the people in the flesh of Christ himself.

The German Gestapo ordered the deportation of Catholic Jews to the east and sent all Dutch Catholics of Jewish origin to the concentration camp at Auschwitz. Edith had begun writing a book ‘The Science of the Cross’ and she was in the convent working on this when two German officials marched in and took her and her sister Rosa away. Her last words to be heard in the convent were ‘Come Rosa, we are going to die with our people’. On 9th August 1942, they arrived in Auschwitz. On that same day Edith was sent to the gas chamber. When Edith Stein was beatified in Cologne on 1st May 1987, the church honoured a ‘daughter of Israel’, as Pope John Paul II put it, who, as a Catholic during Nazi persecution, remained faithful to the crucified Christ, and, as a Jew, to her people in loving faithfulness.


Edith Stein was canonised on 11th October 1998 by Pope St John Paul II and on 2nd October 1999 he proclaimed her Co- Patron of Europe.


In Pope Francis’ encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, he outlines his vision and dream of a more fraternal world where polarisation would be countered by greater communion both within the Church and outside her. To emphasise this, the pope reminds us that we mutually belong to each other and that to live peacefully with each other, we need to live in a greater spirit of fraternity and community.

Influenced by her Jewish background, Edith Stein’s writings on the human person contain a strong emphasis on his/her belonging to a community. She states that ‘without community, without the social life, and therefore without forming individuals into community, humanity’s last end is unattainable’. For a culture steeped in individualism with a weakening sense of community, these are strong words indeed. However, for someone like Edith Stein and her Jewish background, one’s individual identity was inseparable from the collective identity of the community to which one belongs. We see this in her words to her sister Rosa as they left for Auchwitz: ‘Come, let us die with our people’. She was one with her people in life and in death.


Edith insisted that we are ‘born from community, in community and for community’. For Edith, being part of a community provides a certain energy for the individual members that they otherwise could not attain on their own. Therefore, for the Christian, our individual calling can only be understood in the light of the collective vocation as the Church community to be, in the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (para. 781-801), ‘The People of God’, ‘the Body of Christ’ and ‘the Temple of the Holy Spirit’. She teaches us that behind every individual and the story of his/her life, there stands a community behind it that has formed and shaped it. These communities can be nations, religious institutes and smaller community settings such as the family and parishes. This truth about the human person, Edith insisted, is a core value that must be part of our education programmes especially with young people. As St John Paul II insisted, the whole Church is a school of communion and therefore filled with people learning the art of growing in communion with God and others. Communities are always a school and it is through life in community that human persons are able to develop and to become what they are meant to be as individuals. According to Edith, community members are bound by a common vision and are called to be ever more united in mind and soul with respect to that common vision. This does not mean a sterile uniformity but a mutual commitment to unity and a common subscribing to a common understanding of the community’s existence and vocation. She writes: ‘If a plurality of subjects is filled with one objective, then what results is one community-wide stance of will and one action’.


Another important insight of Edith is the distinction she makes between associations of people and the gift of community. She explains: ‘Under community is understood the natural, organic union of individuals; under association is understood a union that is rational and mechanical’. In associations, one views others as objects and are united to others by weak bonds of common interests. Of course, this element of associations is not a bad thing as we see for example in the Gaelic Athletic Association. The problem comes when one lives exclusively within the confines of that association in a way that buffers them from the concerns of those outside that association. In contrast, in order for communion to happen, there must be openness and a change in attitude. Edith writes: ‘Where the individuals are open to each other…there a communal life subsists’. She continues:

‘Human souls are capable by virtue of their free spirituality of opening themselves up in loving self-giving to one another and of receiving one another into their own selves - never to be sure, as completely as in the case with a soul that abides in God but in some greater or smaller measure’.


In community one is bound to others as a subject to other subjects. There is a real openness to difference, an openness and willingness to encounter others and to dialogue in the spirit of fraternity, respect and peace.

Edith also encourages members of a community to be ‘carriers of community’ – in other words to be ambassadors for the community to which one belongs. We see examples of this with people who represent their counties and countries in sport, their families and the Church communities they come from too. Here is a call for all of us to embody the community that stands behind us and that we represent. It underlines the importance of us being builders of community and not just consumers.


For Edith, the goal of Christian formation is to help the individual to develop and harmonize the two aspects of his/her being: to unfold his/her individuality and to become a communal member. She warns against emphasising one at the expense of the other: ‘The one who wants to emphasise the importance of one at the cost of the other injures both, because community if founded on individuals as an organism, arises from its varied members. The one who injures one member harms the entire organism. Separated from the organism, no member can exist’.


Finally, in her understanding of the Church as a community, she never loses sight of Christ as head of the Church his Body and as an organic, living community. She anticipates the teaching of Gaudium et Spes at Vatican II when it states that because of the incarnation, ‘Christ has mysteriously united himself to every human being’ (para. 22). Over twenty years previously, Edith Stein wrote: ‘Humankind is the portal through which the Word of God entered into the created world’ (Finite and Eternal Being, 527). This is the basis for her then proceeding to say: ‘Every individual human being is created to be a member of this Mystical Body (the Church)’. She continues: ‘It is the purpose of the Mystical body of Christ that each individual member who is indeed a whole human being with body and soul, attend to the fullness of salvation and sonship with God and glorify in his/her own way, the entire body the communion of saints’ .


To conclude. The Instrumentum Laboris for the First Session of the 16th General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops due to be held in October this year, puts front and centre the ideal of a ‘communion that radiates from the Church’. It then challenges each of us to consider ‘How can we be more fully a sign and instrument of union with God and of the unity of all humanity?’ As a Jew, a Christian, a religious, a prophet, martyr and saint, St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross is a teacher of giant stature in the Church of how communion is built and sustained. She enlarged the space of her tent to embrace the world and its need for healing and communion at a time of great darkness. May all of us in the Church be inspired by her to build communion with God and each other – a communion and unity so badly needed again today.


The quotes from Edith Stein above are taken from M.R. van den Berg, Communion with Christ according to Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2015, pp.98-141

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