St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross and Fr Victor Donovan

by Patricia Yoczis

St Teresa Benedicta of the CrossFor more than 50 years, Passionist Father Victor J. Donovan has fought anti-Semitism and worked to further understanding between Catholics and Jews.The canonization of Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Carmelite nun and Holocaust victim, who was born Edith Stein, was a momentous day for the 91-year-old priest. The Oct. 11, 1998 canonization, he said, signals a new Church.

"The canonization shows the future of change in the Church to root out anti-Semitism which eats away at the Church like termites," said Father Donovan.

Controversy surrounds the canonization of Edith Stein, a brilliant philosopher, who converted from atheism to Catholicism. She died in Auschwitz on Aug. 9, 1942, because of her Jewish heritage. Since Judaism does not have a canonization equivalent, some Jews are suspicious that a conversion movement of Jews may develop within the Church. Other Jews fear that the Church may claim the Holocaust as directed against the Church, and not against the Jewish people.

Though Father Donovan calls the canonization a delicate subject, he supports Pope John Paul II's decision. "The canonization was one step in the right direction." he said. "Now, it is up to both Jews and Catholics to combine efforts to make Edith Stein's hopes for better understanding to become a reality."

Though Father Donovan was unable to attend the canonization ceremonies, several relatives of Edith Stein, including Susanne M. Bartzdorff, her niece, who is a personal friend of Father Donovan, were present. He said Mrs. Bartzdorff presented the pope with a copy of her book entitled, "Aunt Edith" and a note commending the pope for "creating a climate of mutual understanding between Catholics and Jews" and his "tireless efforts in condemning anti-Semitism."

Inside the book, Father Donovan said Mrs. Bartzdorff had placed a prayer card designed by Father Donovan and described his work to the pope. This was truly an honor, he said. Father Donovan was able to fly to Cologne, Germany, to attend the May 1, 1987 ceremonies which elevated Edith Stein to Blessed Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. He called the event the equivalent of an annual retreat. The pope, he said, honored Edith Stein and all who work in thefield of bettering relations with people who suffer.

In October, 1991 Father Donovan had the privilege to travel to the chapel dedicated to Edith Stein in St. Michael's Church, Wroclaw, Poland. That year celebrated the l00th anniversary of Edith Stein's birth and the 58th anniversary of her entering the Carmelites.

Fr Victor Donovan, C.P.Father Donovan said Edith had attended 6 a.m. Mass in that chapel which has a marble altar designed to represent an open Bible and is adorned with Edith's motto, "Ave Crux, Spes Unica" (Behold the Cross, Our Only Hope). It was from here that Edith made the five-minute walk to her home to bid her grief-stricken mother and family farewell. As Father Donovan lingered in the chapel and read her description of that event, he had an unusual experience which was recorded in his journal .

"It was late at night; I didn't feel alone. The shadows cast by the flickering candles caused me to picture Edith bent forward praying at the altar rail. A faint wisp of incense smoke lingering from an earlier liturgy that evening, dances before my eyes. I only had to blink to see a Carmelite nun, wearing a crown of thorns, rise to life before me.

I have never experienced an ecstasy in my life. I do not care if I never have one. I will always consider my one hour of communing with the spirit of Edith Stein as the next best experience this side of heaven."

When Edith Stein became a Catholic, she "died" to her Jewish family and friends, who mourned her, said Father Donovan. A "Catch-22" situation arose, he said, because when she died in Auschwitz, she was considered a Jew. Though she maintained cordial relations with her family after entering the Carmelites, some people accused Edith Stein of trying to hide her Jewish roots as the persecution of Jews increased.

It was about this time that Father Donovan began his ministry in Catholic-Jewish relations. He was traveling in Germany during the summer of 1939. The plan had been for him to study Sacred Scripture in Rome, but threat of war mandated a return to the United States. Aboard the S.S. Washington, he came in contact with Jewish refugees fleeing from Hitler in Germany. Their stories astonished him.

The experience caused Father Donovan to examine the evils of anti-Semitism in depth. In 1942, his interest in Judaism garnered him the positions of teacher of Hebrew and of Hebrew Scripture to the Passionist seminarians. He began teaching in August of that year, the year Edith Stein died.

Father Donovan felt a connection with Edith Stein which led to the establishment of the Edith Stein Guild, based at Our Lady of Victory Church, 60 Williams St., New York City. The organization, formed ten years before Vatican II, aims to foster better understanding between Catholics and Jews, through education, respect and friendship. Also, it promoted the canonization of Edith Stein.

The Church determined that prayers to Edith Stein saved the life of her namesake, Teresa Benedicta McCarthy, Brockton, Mass., a two-year-old who accidentally swallowed a lethal dose of Tylenol in 1987. The eleven siblings of Teresa, her father, the Rev. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy, a Byzantine priest in the Eastern rite, and her mother, Mary, dined with the Stein family in Rome during the events of the of the canonization. Father Donovan sees the Wedding Feast at Cana (John 2,1) in that dinner meeting and "a time when 2,000 years were rolled back to a more peaceful time and the church derived its family origin from among the Jewish people."

"Right now, I am directing all my efforts towards adding my meager contribution to what His Holiness is doing against anti-Semitism," said Father Donovan. The lesson, he said, to be learned from the life of Edith Stein is "to never turn back, but to go forward to better understanding between Catholics and Jews."

Father Donovan's daily prayer for the removal of anti-Semitism is Isaiah, Chapter 53. He said the prophet wrote the words to describe the sufferings of an unnamed individual or an entire people taken collectively. A framed copy of this prayer, in Hebrew and in English, is found at Holy Family Monastery-Retreat, West Hartford, CT., where Father Donovan resides.

Fr Victor Donovan, C.P., 1908 - 2004, was a professor of biblical studies who founded the Edith Stein Guild in 1951.

Fr Victor's prayer: Isaiah 53

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