Volume > Issue > Modern Martyrs

Modern Martyrs

Edith Stein: A Biography

By Waltraud Herbstrith

Publisher: Harper & Row

Pages: 123

Price: $15.95

Review Author: James G. Hanink

James G. Hanink, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

Also reviewed:

Jerzy Popieluszko: A Martyr for the Truth. By Grazyna Sikorska. Eerdmans. 134 pages. $6.95.


The link, at once obvious and obscure, between Edith Stein — philosopher, convert, Carmelite — and Jerzy Popieluszko — priest and patriot — is their martyrdom. The bond is obvious because the drama of their martyrdom, and not the “ordi­nary” achievements of their lives, commands our attention. But why also obscure, even opaque? Because very few of us have the imaginative capacity to catch hold of a witness for Christ that ends in murder. Yet such was the witness of Stein and Popieluszko. She was forcibly removed from her Carmelite convent in Holland in 1942 and swallowed by Au­schwitz. Popieluszko is much closer to us, still at the surface of our memories. In October 1984 Polish security officers abducted and beat him and then drowned him. His voice was one of Soli­darity’s most eloquent, and the authorities could not otherwise silence it.

If there are saints in this century of violence, if the Church continues Christ’s pres­ence, Stein and Popieluszko are in their company. When we, join­ing an ancient tradition, chroni­cle “the lives of the saints,” as Herbstrith and Sikorska have done, and when we read such lives, there are a number of ends to be served. We want to honor these men and women and to ask for their intercession. We exalt the Church Triumphant. But there is, too, the matter of sim­ply trying to fathom, however diminished our imagination, the mystery of flawed human beings whose lives have become sacrifi­cial holocausts. To the extent that we grasp this mystery, we acknowledge the God in whom we profess to believe, a God who intervenes in history, by his own Crucifixion and the deaths of martyrs, to build a kingdom like no other.

But if the lives of martyrs end in mystery, we can still fol­low their narrative lines, trying to discern what makes their de­nouement so extraordinarily powerful.

Edith Stein’s story begins in Germany in 1891. Born to a de­vout Jewish family, she soon showed enormous intellectual promise, but a promise clouded by a pervasive unease about hit­ting upon what really mattered in life. After largely abandoning Judaism, Stein looked to psy­chology for an understanding of what was significant. Instead, she found a superficial empiricism that failed to address the funda­mental questions.

She then directed her atten­tion to philosophy, in particular to the phenomenology of Ed­mund Husserl. In Husserl she found a teacher who saw truth as objective and attainable, if only it were rigorously pursued. In Husserl’s company she also met serious Christian believers who shared her philosophical preoccu­pations. Of these, perhaps the most important for 20th-century philosophy was the Jewish con­vert Max Scheler.

Stein’s own philosophical career was interrupted by World War I, during which she served for a time as a nurse. Shortly af­ter the war she read — having no­ticed it on a friend’s bookshelf — the autobiography of Teresa of Avila. The encounter was deci­sive. Stein, the intellectual drawn to an academic study of religion, found in St. Teresa the God of love. Her intellectual detachment crumbled. Years later, writing a commentary on Aquinas’s De Veritate, she discovered an obser­vation of Thomas’s that account­ed for the path of her conver­sion.

The intellect is not capable of grasping its divine object to the same extent that the affections seek and love it…. Nor should it be maintained that the intel­lect achieves a greater proximity to its ultimate goal than the will. Even though it is by means of the intellect that the soul is drawn to God, it is the will which more perfectly attains to him.

Certainty lay not in philosophi­cal demonstration; it required a conversion of will.

There was still the painful business of informing her Ortho­dox Jewish mother of her con­version. And there remained the effort to balance her work in phi­losophy and her public lecturing, especially on the role of women in a radically changing society, with her deepening desire for the contemplative life of a Carmelite. The Nazis prompted her to se­cure her new vocation. Academic posts became an impossibility; Jews were being shut out of pub­lic life in Germany. With her first vocation in ruins she entered the Carmel at Cologne in 1933. Five years later, with the Nazi vise tightening, she fled to the Dutch Carmel of Echt.

She was becoming ever more silent, ever less visible, but paradoxically, out of this hiddenness she would speak to her wid­est audience. Enraged by the stif­fening resistance of Dutch Chris­tians, the Nazis retaliated by seizing Jewish converts in religious life. Among them was Edith Stein. Because of that she will address us as long as we remem­ber the Holocaust: not as a schol­ar but as a simple nun who loved Christ and died because she was a daughter of his Chosen People. In the end Edith Stein had one concern. Could the suffering she saw around her become redemp­tive? Could even the Holocaust be turned to redemption? The witness of her life answers “yes.”

Auschwitz is in the south of Poland. Jerzy Popieluszko was born in 1947 in Poland’s north­east to a family as devoutly Cath­olic as Stein’s was Jewish. Unlike Stein, he was not intellectually precocious. Nor was he to undergo dramatic shifts of allegiance in working out his personal voca­tion. Popieluszko prepared for the priesthood in the Warsaw Seminary. His studies were inter­rupted by military service, during which he was beaten and impris­oned because of his religious commitment. He nonetheless completed his seminary work, and in 1972 was ordained by Ste­fan Cardinal Wyszynski.

From the outset of his min­istry, Popieluszko’s health was precarious. He pastored a parish, organized youth groups, and served as a hospital chaplain. While he was well-liked, every­thing pointed to a restricted, ev­en guarded, future.

With the birth of Solidarity in 1980, much of what seemed predictable in Poland turned out to be contingent, including the direction of the young priest’s life. Popieluszko answered the call of striking steel workers from the Warsaw plant to offer Mass for them. In a matter of months he became something of an official chaplain to the Warsaw Solidarity movement. When martial law was imposed, Popi­eluszko continued to speak out for the workers. During the sub­sequent trials of Solidarity fig­ures, he was a fixture in the courts and a constant support for the families of the accused.

Out of his sharing in Soli­darity’s struggle, a unique liturgy emerged, the “Mass for the Country.” Celebrated on the last Sunday of each month, the Mass brought thousands of worshipers to Warsaw’s St. Stanislas Kostka Church. In the context of this Mass, Polish history and litera­ture were publicly remembered, and Popieluszko preached the compelling sermons that infuri­ated the regime’s “organs of se­curity.” In the wake of Solidar­ity’s suppression a number of priests were victimized by offi­cial violence. But the assault on Popieluszko revealed most stark­ly the terrible chasm between the Polish people and the Polish re­gime. The attack played out once more the sin of Cain.

After months of harassment, Popieluszko and a friend who served as his driver were stopped by three security agents on their return to Warsaw from the northern town of Bydgoszcz. The driver escaped to alert Church authorities. Popieluszko was savagely beaten, bound and gagged, and dumped into a reser­voir. A whole nation, informed of the abduction, had in the meantime begun its vigil, one that many assumed was to be a death watch. A week later the re­gime announced the arrest of the abductors; shortly the news came that the priest’s body had been found.

From this death a public, if tentative, victory was won. There vas, first, the testimony of Popieluszko’s funeral: some 300,000 people gathered to mourn his death. Amazingly, there followed an open trial in which the mur­derers were found guilty, though not before the court allowed the defense to smear Popieluszko’s name. The charge was that Popi­eluszko was “political.” (And is not John Paul II opposed to such politicization?) Yet surely one legacy of Popieluszko’s life is that it underscores the distinc­tion between a “political priest” and a priest whose ministry challenges the merely political and engenders a vision that transcends political categories.

How did Popieluszko do this? First, claiming Maximilian Kolbe as his mentor, he practic­ed, as Kolbe did, the redemptive suffering of Christian nonvio­lence. At one Mass for the Coun­try he said:

Do not fight by means of vio­lence. Violence is a sign of weak­ness. Whatever cannot win by in­fluencing the heart tries to win by means of violence. The most splendid and lasting battles known to history are the battles of human thought. The most ig­noble and the shortest are the battles of violence. The idea which prevails merely through the use of violence is perverted. A living idea conquers by itself.

Secondly, Popieluszko’s ministry showed a marked commitment to the sacrament of reconcilia­tion. Again and again, people estranged from the Church would come to listen to him for political or patriotic motives, on­ly to realize they could not re­spond to him without reconcilia­tion with Christ.

Edith Stein and Jerzy Popi­eluszko, so different in back­ground and culture, share a strik­ing witness to our time: a witness unto death that we cannot en­tirely fathom. But is this not how it must be for a witness that continues the mystery of the Cross?


© 1986 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.

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