Catholics will now be able pray to a Jewish-born nun for divine intervention. That’s because on Sunday, Pope John Paul II made Edith Stein, a German-born Jewish convert to Catholicism, into an official saint of the Catholic Church.
It is the first time in history that the Vatican has elevated a Jewish convert to sainthood, said Rabbi Leon Klenicki, interfaith affairs director of the Anti-Defamation League. But the canonization of Stein, who died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, has re-opened wounds in the Catholic-Jewish relationship.
At its heart is the question: Whose martyr was she, Jewish or Catholic? Some Jewish leaders are dismayed, saying that Stein’s elevation to sainthood represents the further “Christianization” of the Holocaust, diminishing it as a uniquely Jewish tragedy. The ADL, in a strongly- worded statement, contends that sainthood allows the church to celebrate Stein as a Christian martyr to push its own claim of victimization during the Holocaust, thus minimizing the role of the church’s “own anti-Jewish practices” in contributing to the Shoah.
“Why glorify conversion?” said ADL national director Abraham Foxman. But church officials argue the opposite: that Stein’s canonization honors the six million Jews who died.
In the Sunday ceremony, Pope John Paul II said he wanted to Stein to serve as a bridge for Catholic Jewish dialogue.
But the ADL called that “fantasy.”“A person who converted is not a bridge,” said Rabbi Klenicki.
However, Father James Loughran, the Jewish liaison for the Archdiocese of New York, said he took offense to the ADL’s criticism. “It’s rather hurtful and disparaging of my religious beliefs to deny us the opportunity to raise this woman to sanctity,” he said. Loughran said he believes that “by the very fact she was killed because she was Jewish, that will reinforce the fact that the Holocaust was directed to the Jews.” But some Jewish officials are concerned Stein’s sainthood is part of a pattern by the Vatican to honor problematic Holocaust figures, such as the scheduled beatification (first step towards sainthood) of Alojzije Stepinac, a Croatian cardinal accused by some of collaboration with a Nazi-backed government.
“For us, these two steps taken by the Vatican should give us cause to reflect on the damage inflicted upon us by the two major scourges of the 20th Century in Jewish terms, anti-Semitism and assimilation,” said Ephraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Israel. The Nazis didn’t care that Stein was an atheist, who in 1922, with her mother weeping, converted to Catholicism at the age of 31.
Stein, taking the name Sister Theresa Benedicta of the Cross, became a Carmelite nun whose plea to wartime Pope Pius XII to speak out against the Nazis was ignored. Ultimately, the Nazis killed Stein and her sister Rosa — also a convert to Catholicism — for being Jews.
But the way Stein died has caused great discomfort for Jews and Catholics.
She reportedly went to the gas chamber in Auschwitz offering her life as an atonement to God for “the sins of [her] unbelieving people, so the Lord will be accepted by his own.” Jewish leaders fear this aspect of the story will lead Christians to emphasize proselytizing Jews.
Stein’s own surviving relatives have mixed feelings about her sainthood.
“To raise a person who has converted to another religion as a symbol of the Holocaust, which for the most part affected Jews, is problematic,” niece Suzanne Batsdorf told National Public Radio last week. “The idea that your aunt is going to be beatified and that people actually pray to her, venerate her, is so alien to concepts in Judaism that it’s hard to bridge that gap.” Grand nephew Michael Beaverstein wrote a letter to the pope expressing his family’s concerns about sending the wrong message about the Holocaust.
“That is, ‘here we Catholics are celebrating a wonderful Jewish person, we are friends with the Jewish people, and we are now a victim of the Holocaust that is, one of ours is now a victim of the Holocaust. Therefore how could we have been perpetrators, how could we have been indifferent? When in fact there was a great deal of indifference and there was complicity.’ ”
That point seems to be made by Father John Sullivan, an expert on Stein, who said the church believes she was killed not only because she was Jewish but also because her Catholic faith was under attack by the Nazis. Ironically, it was an instance of moral audacity on the part of Catholic bishops of the Netherlands that led to Stein’s death.
When the bishops spoke out against the Nazis, the Germans retaliated by shipping Stein and other converts to Auschwitz. Recognizing Jewish sensitivities, Baltimore’s Cardinal William Keeler issued a memo last week reminding Catholics that Stein’s sainthood should not be used either to proselytize Jews or to appropriate the Holocaust.
If there was ever to be a Jewish pope, France’s Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger would be him.
The cardinal’s mother was arrested by the Nazis and died in the Auschwitz death camp. Lustiger’s given name was Aaron. In 1940 at the age of 14, Aaron Lustiger converted to Catholicism. He rose quickly through the church ranks, becoming the bishop of Orleans and most recently Archbishop of Paris. All the while he has been an outspoken critic of racism and injustice. And on Tuesday, the 72-year-old Lustiger will be honored in New York by the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding at Sacred Heart University for his role in issuing a collective apology on behalf of French Catholic clergy for their compliance in the Holocaust. Also being honored is Rabbi Samuel Sirat, chief rabbi emeritus of Europe. The program, hosted by center director Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz will take place Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at Sutton Place Synagogue in Manhattan and is open to the public. While Rabbi Ehrenkranz praised Lustiger for deepening Jewish Catholic relations, others have sharply criticized the cardinal.
In 1995, Israel’s Chief Rabbi Yisrael Lau, a Holocaust survivor, strongly criticized Lustiger’s appearance at a Jerusalem conference on the Holocaust. Rabbi Lau accused Lustiger of “having chosen the most difficult period to desert the front of the struggle for survival of the Jewish people.” Lustiger, however, says he still considers himself a Jew.