March 8 is International Women’s Day. In our culture the meaning of feminism is lost in a world of relativism. St. Teresa provides a model for a true feminist and a true woman – a woman who authentically integrates faith, family, and work.
St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross was a German Jew who was born on October 12, 1891 and named Edith Stein. She was a martyr and a brilliant author, philosopher and teacher who suddenly converted to Catholicism and became a Carmelite nun after reading the Autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila. One evening, she picked it up and read the whole book in one night. She later said, “When I had finished the book, I said to myself: This is the truth!”
She taught that both men and women have instilled in them by God the same destinies to seek Him and His truth; to marry and procreate; or to remain single and chaste and to receive their eternal reward with Him through a faith-filled and virtuous life. Edith demonstrated the beauty of a female Christian life and recognized the true value of women. She was the intellectual leader of Catholic feminism in Europe and constantly delivered lectures regarding the dignity of women. She formed the Catholic Women’s Movement and spoke at their annual conventions.
On January 1, 1922, Edith was baptized and took the name of Teresa Benedicta [Blessed] of the Cross (in Latin, Teresia Benedicta a Cruce). 2022 is the 100th anniversary of her baptism.
Edith Stein taught her women students how to confront their later tasks in life as professional workers or as wives or as single women. She taught them that they were created in the image of God equal in dignity to men, and she inspired them to attain the highest intellectual and professional achievements. She called herself a feminist and was an advocate for the right to vote for women and for working women’s education. As a woman of high intellectual and spiritual stature, she was a witness to true feminism.
Edith rejected the radical feminist claims that there are no important differences between men and women. She argued that the physical differences between men and women profoundly marked their personalities. “The woman’s body stamps our soul with particular qualities that are common to all women, but different from distinctively masculine traits. She saw these differences as complementary and not hierarchical in value, and so they should be recognized and celebrated rather than minimized and deployed. There are two ways of being human, as man or a woman.” (Laura Garcia, “Edith Stein – Convert, Nun, Martyr”, Crisis, June 1997).
Edith wrote, “Only the person blinded by the passion of controversy could deny that woman in soul and body is formed for a particular purpose. The clear and irrevocable word of Scripture declares what daily experience teaches from the beginning of the world: woman is destined to be wife and mother both physically and spiritually. She is endowed for this purpose…. Of course, woman shares a basic human nature, but basically her faculties are different from men; therefore, a differing type of soul must exist as well….Woman naturally seeks to embrace that which is living, personal and whole. To cherish, guard, protect, nourish, and advance growth is her natural, maternal yearning…. Abstraction in every sense is alien to the feminine nature. The living and personal to which her care extends is a concrete whole and is protected and encouraged as a totality…. She aspires to this totality in herself and in others.”. (Edith Stein, Essays on Woman, Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1996).
Edith wrote, “Only subjective delusion could deny that women are capable of practicing vocations other than that of spouse and mother. Every normal and healthy woman is able to hold a position. And there is no profession which cannot be practiced by a woman. A self-sacrificing woman can accomplish astounding achievement when it is a question of replacing the breadwinner of fatherless children, of supporting abandoned children or aged parents. Like a man, each woman has her individual specialty and talent, and this talent gives her the capability of doing professional work, be it artistic, scientific, technical, etc. Essentially, the individual talent can enable her to embark on any discipline, even those remote from the usual feminine vocations…. Basically, the same spiritual attitude which the wife and mother need is needed here also, except that it is extended to a wider working circle and mostly to a changing area of people; for that reason, the perspective is detached from the vital bond of blood relationship and more highly elevated on the spiritual level. (Ibid., 49).…. The participation of women in the most diverse professional disciplines could be a blessing for the entire society, private or public, precisely, if the specifically feminine ethos would be preserved.” (Ibid.,51). The soul of woman must be expansive and open to all human beings.
Ultimately, “woman’s mission is to imitate the Blessed Virgin Mary. She must further the life of faith by providing a secure and enduring foundation. As teacher, she must be the maternal, loving educator for Christ. She must nourish a rich life of faith in young persons through their intellectuality and voluntariness. By so consecrating herself to supernatural maternity, the Catholic woman becomes an organ of the Church.” (Ibid., 36).
Edith and her sister Rosa, a lay Carmelite, were arrested by the Gestapo on August 2,1942 in their convent in Holland. As the Gestapo dragged them from the convent, Edith’s last words were, “Come Rosa, let us go for our people.” They were transported by train with over 900 other Jews to the concentration camp in Auschwitz, Germany, where they were both murdered in the gas chambers on August 9.
On May 1, 1987, St. Teresa was beatified by St. John Paul II and he canonized her on October 11, 1998.
On October 1, 1999, St. John Paul II proclaimed St. Teresa a co-patron saint of Europe – together with St. Catherine of Siena and St. Bridget of Sweden.
He wrote in his Apostolic Letter of the same date,
I feel that the decision to choose this “feminine” model of holiness is particularly significant within the context of the providential tendency in the Church and society of our time to recognize ever more clearly the dignity and specific gifts of women….
Today’s proclamation of Teresa as a Co-Patroness of Europe is intended to raise on this Continent a banner of respect, tolerance and acceptance which invites all men and women to understand and appreciate each other, transcending their ethnic, cultural and religious differences in order to form a truly fraternal society….
Let us pray with St. Teresa her own prayer for peace,
O my God, fill my soul with holy joy, courage and strength to serve You. Enkindle Your love in me and then walk with me along the next stretch of road before me. I do not see very far ahead, but when I have arrived where the horizon now closes down, a new prospect will open before me and I shall meet with peace.