Sainthood for Jewish-born nun troubles some Jews

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VATICAN CITY — Setting aside Jewish sensibilities, Pope John Paul II on Sunday declared Edith Stein a saint and made her the first Jewish-born woman to achieve sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church.

Stein, a 51-year-old German who died in Auschwitz on August 9, 1942, converted to Catholicism and became a nun just as Hitler was rising to power.

The pope's message at Sunday's event focused on the suffering of Jews.

"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," the pope said at the Vatican ceremony, which was attended by several of Stein's Jewish relatives including Susanne Batzdorff of Santa Rosa.

The pope also said the saint's annual feast day will help remind Catholics of the Nazi's plan to eliminate the Jews.

Stein's sainthood, however, raises a large question: Does Stein truly merit sainthood or is her canonization an attempt to assuage the guilt of the Vatican's silence during the Holocaust?

Stein's canonization sparked widespread criticisms from Jewish leaders.

"It's outrageous. This is a very public slap in the face to the Jewish community," Efraim Zuroff, head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Jerusalem office, told Reuters news service. "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."

Rabbi Daniel Farhi, who heads France's Reform movement, called the canonization of Stein the "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?"

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.

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."

Stein was born into an Orthodox Jewish family on Yom Kippur 1891 in the German town of Breslau, which is now the Polish town known as Wroclaw.

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.

In October 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.

Five years later, she fled Germany to a Dutch convent. On Aug. 2, 1942, Stein was arrested — along with about 200 other Catholics who were at least partly Jewish — as a punishment to Dutch bishops who spoke out against the Nazis.

She died in Auschwitz exactly one week later.

Her sister, who followed her by converting to Catholism, was also arrested and murdered in Auschwitz.

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?"

Her ascension to sainthood, Michael added, "may well symbolize all that Edith Stein would cry out against in life. Honoring her Christian martyrdom negates her Jewish spirit."