ROME – On Tuesday, the 80th anniversary of Edith Stein’s death, a cardinal close to Pope Francis celebrated Mass in a Carmelite convent in Auschwitz, saying that he shares with the saint his own Jewish origins, his Catholic faith and his vocation to religious life.
Canadian Jesuit Cardinal Michael Czerny, who heads the Vatican’s Dicastery for Integral Human Development, visited the grounds of the former concentration camp Tuesday. He then said Mass in a nearby Carmelite convent in Oswiecim, a Polish town that was under Nazi German occupation during World War II, to mark the anniversary of Stein’s “birth to heaven.”
Stein, a German Jewish philosopher who converted to Catholicism, joined the Carmelite sisters, took the name Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross and was put to death in a gas chamber in Auschwitz on Aug. 9, 1942.
Pope John Paul II declared her a martyr in 1987 and a saint in 1998.
During his homily, Czerny made many references to his own family. Born in the former Czechoslovakia in 1946, his mother, who had been baptized and raised Catholic, was of Jewish descent, thus, during the war she’d been forced to work as a laborer and spent 20 months in prison and then in a concentration camp. His father, a Roman Catholic without Jewish ancestors, was sent to a labor camp after he refused to divorce his wife.
“My mother’s family – both parents and two brothers – were also Catholic but shared the Jewish origins that the enemy abhorred,” the cardinal said.
“My maternal grandmother Anna, my grandfather Hans and my uncles Georg and Carl Robert, were all interned in Terezín, where Hans died. My grandmother and uncles were transported to Auschwitz. From here my uncles were sent to labor camps and eventually murdered there.”
His grandmother, Czerny said, survived the war, but by the time her camp was liberated, she was very ill with typhus and could not make the trip back to Brno. She died on May 21, 1945.
“I still do not know where she was buried,” Czerny said.
“With Edith Stein, I share Jewish origins, the Catholic faith, a vocation to religious life, and several coincidences with my maternal grandmother, Anna Hayek née Löw (1893-1945). They were about the same age and came to a similar end,” he said.
Given his personal background, Czerny said, he was honored to mark the 80th anniversary of Stein’s death, which he called particularly relevant taking into account this year’s “special circumstances,” referring to the war in Ukraine “and too many cruel wars dragging on in various parts of the world.”
“The suffering imposed on the Ukrainian and Russian populations, the ever more numerous refugees and victims, oblige us to remember the Holocaust,” he said.
Czerny was one of several cardinals and high-ranking Vatican officials dispatched to Ukraine by Pope Francis as a sign of closeness to the country after it was invaded by Russian forces on Feb. 24.
During his homily, Czerny described Stein as a woman whose search for the truth characterized her whole existence.
“Edith Stein exemplifies how a life spent in love can be a slow journey of opening up, of being transformed into the Son Made Man,” he said, referring to a woman who was a philosopher, a pedagogue, a contemplative, and a saint.
According to the prelate, Stein understood that “God is always ‘beyond’: beyond all reasoning, beyond all phenomena, beyond all human activity.”
Following her baptism in 1922, Stein combined teaching with study and writing. These years, Czerny said, “led her to seek a harmonious balance between faith and philosophy, and this blossomed into a sense of mission in her vocation as a teacher: to lead her students to the truth. Not only theoretical truth, but also absolute and living truth: God.”
The cardinal also recalled the saint’s letter to the aging Pope Pius XI “urging him to break his silence and speak out against all expressions of antisemitism.”
Czerny concluded by saying that both Edith and his grandmother Anna, along with the six million others exterminated by the Nazis, will never be forgotten.
“Through their intercession, we pray for peace in Ukraine and throughout the world,” he said, quoting Pope Paul VI’s famous speech to the United Nations in 1965: “Never again one against the other, never, never again!… never again war, never again war!”
“May those whose personal and family histories are both Jewish and Christian contribute to the necessary dialogue between our faiths so as to live as fratelli tutti, siblings all, in our common home,” Czerny said.