Vatican rushes to canonise a Catholic Jew

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The Independent Online
WAS THERE something mysterious about the last words uttered by the Carmelite nun and mystic, Edith Stein, as she was led away by the SS from her convent in occupied Holland?

"Come," she beckoned her sister Rosa. "We are going on behalf of our people." They were taken to Auschwitz and gassed two days later, on 9 August 1942, along with 692 other Catholic Jews.

Edith Stein, born on Yom Kippur in 1891 in the then German city of Breslau, had lost her Jewish faith and later discovered Jesus, but she never renounced her Jewish identity. She had harangued Pope Pius XII for an audience, wrote to him warning of the impending Holocaust and sought - in vain - a papal encyclical on the evils of the Nazi regime. When speaking of "our people", it is not unreasonable to suppose that she was referring to the children of Israel.

The church has other ideas. As she is canonised today, becoming the first Jewish saint since the disciples, the pastoral letter to be read out to every congregation in Germany will pay tribute to her "martyrdom for the faith". This is the prerequisite for fast-track sainthood, and the Vatican, evidently, is in a hurry.

The definition may be being stretched to the limits of credulity. "Did Edith Stein die as a Christian martyr or as a Jew?" asks the theologian, Hanna-Barbara Gerl-Falkovitz, in the special pamphlet issued by the conference of German Catholic Bishops. "It is historically fair to say that Edith Stein was killed as a Jew, although it is equally fair to believe her own words, when she declared that by this act she wanted to carry the cross of Jesus."

Unlike many other candidates for sainthood, who often have to wait their turn for centuries, Edith Stein is credited with a single miracle: the healing of a two-year-old terminally ill child in Boston whose mother had prayed to the Carmelite nun. The canonisation process has also gone exceptionally swiftly. It was only in 1987 that the current Pope took the first step, by beatifying Edith Stein in the teeth of protests from Jewish groups.

Why the haste? Edith Stein was a remarkable woman, a philosopher ahead of her time, a tireless campaigner for equal rights for women within the Church. Not the kind, one would think, that the current incumbent of the Holy See would want to rush to embrace.

But there are profound political reasons why the nun was put on the fast track to heaven. Of course she died because she was Jewish, martyred while the Church remained silent about the Nazi persecutions. She was selected for extermination after leading Dutch churchmen - Protestant and Catholic - in protests against the mass deportation of Jews to concentration camps. As reprisal, the 694 Catholic Jews went to the gas chamber.

Pope Pius, who had been on the brink of issuing a rigorous condemnation of Nazi atrocities, understood the message and backed off. So it came to pass that six million people were slaughtered during the war without a murmur of dissent from the Vatican.