Bishop Dr Bertram Meier (Augsburg)
Chairman of the World Church Commission of the German Bishops’ Conference:
Speech on August 9, 2022
at the Memorial site of the former Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp
Faith-based hope beyond death –
on the 80th anniversary of the death of St.Teresa Benedicta of the Cross/Edith Stein
Standing here on the day when exactly 80 years ago, the two sisters Edith and Rosa Stein, and many other people with them, were mercilessly driven to their deaths, moves me very much, as indeed the invitation from Archbishop Marek Jędraszewski of Krakow, that I might speak to you today on behalf of the German bishops. As a member of the German people who brought endless suffering and millions of deaths to Europe and whose darkest historical phase is concentrated here in the former Auschwitz concentration camp, I thank you, dear Archbishop, personally, and from the bottom of my heart. Your invitation is an expression of the precious bond between the Polish and German bishops and the growing understanding in the world church of the importance of Auschwitz. We are thus part of a tradition of remembrance and prayer which includes three popes, especially St. Pope John Paul II.
In this place we see what man is capable of without God, and when he goes against God. In this place we also see what man can do when he opens himself to God as shown to us in St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, and with her in all those who were and are bearers of hope under inhumane conditions.
Death and Resurrection
Auschwitz is a place of death. It is also the site of the violent death of Edith Stein, the Carmelite St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. We felt it during our prayer journey: the killing and suffering, the desperation, but also the hope beyond all reason which shapes the ground on which we stand. As I walked, I thought more than once of God’s question to Ezekiel as he led him into the vast field strewn with bones: “Son of man, can these bones come to life?” (Ez 37:3) Quick and confident answers to this question are forbidden. Ezekiel’s reply was, “Lord God, you know.” We of today must not turn our eyes away from the victims of this place. For according to the conviction of the theologian Johann Baptist Metz, with whom I wholeheartedly agree, Auschwitz is one of the formative “signs of the times” of the 20th century. He writes in his “Memoria Passionis”: “We Christians will never get back behind Auschwitz; However, if you look closely, we can no longer get beyond Auschwitz alone, but only with the victims of Auschwitz.”1 In this context, he is also concerned with the question of whether one can still pray after Auschwitz. This question is serious. And it seems to me that Metz can help us with his attempted answer: “We can pray after Auschwitz, because prayers were also prayed in Auschwitz”2. It is precisely here, at the site of the darkest fall of mankind, at the site of the radically suffered absence of God, that countless victims of brute force called on God and thus testified with the prophet Ezekiel that HE is the only real hope we have – beyond death.
The Hope of the Cross
It was the belief in the resurrection from the dead that attracted the philosopher Edith Stein when she turned to Christianity. In Him she knew she was connected to the deepest sources of Judaism. In her long inner search, the seeker for truth became a seeker for God and finally a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth, and a daughter of St. Teresa of Avila. This was her very personal faith journey. Under no circumstances should it lead to hasty appropriation or inadmissible generalization. What turned out to be an ultimately blissful mystical experience for Edith Stein, what she experienced biographically as a deep and inseparable connection between her being Jewish and her belief in the Christian promise, applies to her and presumably to her sister Rosa. But this does not necessarily transfer or apply to other people. We must not slacken in making this clear in all honesty.
Today we commemorate a Carmelite nun who, when asked after her first profession how she felt, answered, “like the bride of the Lamb!”3 with the cross to exist by. She had come to the realization that a justified hope for salvation can only exist through the cross and never bypass the cross.
Edith Stein and the Cross. In 1938 she wrote in a letter to Mother Petra Brüning: “I brought my religious name with me when I was a postulant. Under the cross I understood the destiny of the people of God, which was already beginning to be announced at that time. I thought that those who understood that it was the cross of Christ should take it upon themselves on behalf of all.”4
Only against this background can be understood the request of Edith Stein, Sr Benedicta of the Cross to the prioress of the convent where she was in exile in Echt in the Netherlands, and which is the motto of today’s commemoration day: “…please allow me to offer myself to the heart of Jesus as an atonement for true peace…” We know how terrible Edith Stein was killed here in this place, we therefore stand in awe of the mystery of her intimate relationship with God. We can’t help but stammer childishly: Saint Teresa Benedicta, who followed the Lord on his way of the cross, help us too to become people who work for the peace that is so threatened! Patroness of Europe, strengthen the forces of peace in Europe and in the world!
The Catholic Church and Judaism
Edith Stein was far ahead of her time, including ahead of the Catholic Church. She showed us the way with her solidarity for her Jewish sisters and brothers and for all those who were humiliated and disenfranchised. This has been a path which has held many painful insights for us, as it pointed out our failures as a church. After the Shoah we had to face our guilt. With the document “Nostra Aetate” the Second Vatican Council ended the centuries-old Christian anti-Judaism, and initiated a new phase of dialogue with our older sisters and brothers in Judaism. Fifty years after this landmark declaration (2017), the European Rabbinical Conference, together with the Rabbinical Council of America and the Chief Rabbinate of the State of Israel, confirmed that “Between Jerusalem and Rome”, as the letter reads, trust and good cooperation were indeed developing.
But we must not rest on the laurels of those who have borne responsibility before us. Anti-Semitism flares up again and again in Europe, in Germany. I remember the attack on the synagogue in Halle that killed two passers-by in 2019, on Yom Kippur of all days, the Day of Atonement. Edith Stein reports in her memoirs how deep it meant to her mother that her youngest child was born on the Day of Atonement.5 With this act of violence in mind, Cardinal Marx said: “We Christians will stand by our Jewish brothers and sisters until the Lord’s return.” Strong words which need to be lived out in everyday life – through an interest in Jewish traditions and annual festivals in order to recognize how much we owe to our mother religion; through contacts between parishes and Jewish religious communities, mutual visits to the synagogue and church, in short, through “an option that is always possible”6, the “dialogue of life.”
It is very significant that we are here today as Poles and Germans together. In this place of suffering of Jewish people, of Poles, but also of many people of other nations. We remember the life of the German Jewess, philosopher and Catholic nun Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, and at the same time we think of all others who were murdered here.
During her lifetime, Saint Edith Stein was a dedicated and determined teacher, fair and kind, and always consistent. Not only did she want to impart knowledge, but with her whole life she gave testimony of how God intended people to be. When we allow ourselves to be spoken to and guided by her, we gain an inkling of the grace of being children of God and the mission that our Creator has in store for us, for each and every one of us – in the community of the one Catholic and apostolic Church. She is destined in all her imperfection to be a sign and instrument of the unity of humanity. This form of existence is inscribed in her by the cross of Jesus. The life testimony of the Carmelite Teresa Benedicta calls us to the cross again and again.
We walked the path here together in prayer and remembrance. The crucial thing is: How do we leave here? What does this moment of pause change in our personal lives?
Many of us came as representatives, we should always be multipliers as well. The light that opposes the darkness of ignorance, rejection and hatred must burn within us. I therefore appeal to the young people: actively help to build peace, do not allow yourself to be used as an instrument for the rulers of this world, take responsibility for your own life and seek allies among the saints, the living and the dead.
Holy Edith Stein, pray for us!
Sancta Teresa Benedicta a Cruce, ora pro nobis!
Święta Teresa Benedykta od Krzyża, módl się za nami!
- Johann Baptist Metz, Memoria Passionis. Ein provozierendes Gedächtnis in pluralistischer Gesellschaft. In Zu-sammenarbeit mit Johann Reikerstorfer. (= Gesammelte Schriften Bd. 4) Freiburg/Brsg.: Herder 2006, S.49.
- Ebd. S. 48.
- Teresia Renata de Spiritu Sancto, Edith Stein. Nürnberg: Glock und Lutz 1948, S. 107.
- Zit. n. Edith Stein Gesamtausgabe Bd. IX: Selbstbildnis in Briefen II (1933-1942), Brief Nr. 580, S. 302. https://www.karmelitinnen-koeln.de/edith-stein-archiv-kk/gesamtausgabe (aufgerufen am 21. 07.2022).
- Vgl. Edith Stein Gesamtausgabe Bd. I: Aus dem Leben einer jüdischen Familie, S. 39. Edith Stein-Gesamtausgabe zum kostenlosen Download (karmelitinnen-koeln.de) (aufgerufen am 21.07. 2022)
- Vgl. Papst Franziskus, Botschaft zum 55. Weltfriedenstag, 1. Januar 2022.