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Fr. Paul Schenck: A Jewish, former Anglican Minister, Catholic Priest on St. Theresa Benedicta

By Fr. Paul C.B. Schenck
August 10th, 2011
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Saint Theresa Benedicta of the Cross was the quintessential example of penetrating intellect, social concern and personal piety. Particularly for my family and me, she is an inspiring example of continuity between Jewish heritage and Christian faith.

HARRISBURG, PA. (Catholic Online) - Soon after my family and I became Catholics, we visited Rome and the Vatican. There, among others, we met Cardinal Renato Martino, who was the Holy Father's legate to the United Nations. He is a delightful, kind and jovial man.

 With a mercurial grin and a gleam in his eye he said "Now, you were Jewish, then Protestant and now you are a Catholic, you're not going anywhere from here?!"

I handed him my card which announced "Dr. Paul Chaim Benedicta Schenck" and said, "Your Excellency, I have a Greek name, a Hebrew name and a Latin name, I cannot add any more names."

My Latin name was the last one. I took it at my confirmation, to honor St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross, Edith Stein. St. Theresa Benedicta had an abiding sense that she would die for her people, before she was ever pursued or condemned.

She came to understand the mystery of suffering as a part of her vocational invitation to participate in the continuing redemptive Love of the Cross of Jesus Christ. She offered her suffering, joined to His, as an act of love for the Jewish people, her people, especially loved by the Lord.

As a direct descendant of German and Eastern European Jewish immigrants, I found in Edith Stein's story both a reflection of my family's journey and an inspiring example of holiness and courage.

My paternal Great grandparents fled the Western Pale of Russia at the time of the pogroms, a form of ethnic cleansing as Jews were persecuted, hounded and forced to abandon their homes and flee on foot. Many, including my father's father, fled Eastern Europe and made their way to the USA.

In a modern spiritual odyssey my father's family became progressively less religious. By the time I was in Hebrew school even our Rabbi was agnostic. I opted out of Bar Mitzvah and went on a spiritual journey, found Christ as my Savior and was baptized at sixteen by an evangelical Christian minister.

After becoming an evangelical pastor, then an Anglican clergyman, my family and I came into fullness of the Christian faith and were received into the Catholic Church in 2004. Under the Pastoral Provision begun by Blessed Pope John Paul II, and with the permission of Pope Benedict XVI, I was ordained a Catholic priest in 2010.  

Edith Stein was the youngest of seven children born to Orthodox Jewish parents on the Polish German border. Her father was a successful businessman who died when Edith was only six years old. Her mother was a remarkable woman who maintained their lumber mill and supported her family and raised Edith and her siblings as a widow.

In the spirit of the times, Edith lost her faith and became an atheist. A bright student, she entered the university and took her Doctoral degree under the great modern philosopher Edmund Husserl. She was a promising female philosopher, lecturer and author when she encountered Saint Theresa of Avila's autobiography. After a marathon reading she wrote in her journal "This is the truth." She was baptized by the parish priest and took the confirmation name "Theresa".

She began a new translation of Saint Thomas Aquinas, lectured widely on philosophy and became a Catholic representative of women's rights. After Hitler rose to power her books were banned and she was prohibited from teaching and speaking.

Discerning her vocation to religious life, she entered the Carmelite Order along with her sister Rosa and made her solemn vows. She took the religious name of Benedicta (for St. Benedict) of the Cross (for Saint John of the Cross, St. Theresa's co-founder of the Carmelite Reform and another of Edith's mentors).

In an effort to protect her from further persecution, her community sent her away to Holland. When the Nazis invaded, all Catholics of Jewish descent were transported to the extermination camps, Edith and Rosa among them.

Edith Stein, St Theresa Benedicta of the Cross, died with her sister in the gas chamber at Auschwitz. The last words she spoke upon her arrest by the Gestapo were "Come Rosa, we go for our people."

The testimony of survivors, Jewish and Christian, was that this powerful, courageous, intellectual and deeply spiritual woman spent her last days leading prayers and devotions, counseling distraught women, bathing, feeding and caring for their children, and encouraging her fellow prisoners.

One camp survivor said she was just like the presence of an angel. Saint Theresa Benedicta of the Cross was the quintessential example of penetrating intellect, social concern and personal piety. Particularly for my family and me, she is an inspiring example of continuity between Jewish heritage and Christian faith.

In our time, as we struggle to bring the light of Faith into a culture of death, Edith Stein's life of intellectual rigor, philosophical insight, spiritual depth and social activism is an example for Catholics and all people of conscience who seek the Common Good.

Edith Stein, St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross, pray for us!

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