for August 9: Memorial of Dr. Edith Stein/St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

Early feminist ● German Jewish philosopher ● Catholic intellectual ● Discalced Carmelite ● victim of the Shoah ● Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross ● “Virgin and Martyr.” These are just some of the descriptors that have shaped the remembrance of Edith Stein (1891-1942). Her memorial in the liturgical calendar falls on August 9, the presumed day on which in 1942 she was marched from the transport train into the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

Ways of remembering Edith Stein after her death in Auschwitz are many, and the topography of her memory includes sensitive terrain. Yad Vashem, for example, the memorial to the victims of the Holocaust in Jerusalem, commemorates Edith Stein as a Jewish woman murdered by the Nazis: “Edith Stein was born in Breslau, Germany in 1891. Prior to WWII she lived in Koeln, Germany. Edith was murdered in the Shoah.” The Catholic and Carmelite identity that Edith Stein took to Auschwitz with her is inconsequential here. That identity of course is what the official Roman Catholic veneration of Edith Stein foregrounds, namely the fact that she sought baptism in the Catholic Church in 1922, lived as a committed Catholic Christian for twenty years of her life, and was taken to Auschwitz in 1942 in her Carmelite habit. Moreover, her death in Auschwitz was not unrelated to her Catholic faith — although that claim has been contested. Regarding the veneration of Edith Stein as a “martyr,” I suggest that two facts must be held together in any consideration of her murder at Auschwitz. First and foremost is the fact that she was a victim of the Shoah because of her ethnic Jewishness (she had left the Jewish faith behind years before becoming Catholic). Second is the fact that she was rounded up for transportation to Auschwitz in 1942 precisely as a Catholic Jew, in direct retaliation by the Nazi Regime against the Dutch Catholic bishops’ public condemnation of the persecution of Jews. This condemnation had taken the form of an open letter, read in all Catholic churches on Sunday, July 26, 1942. The Nazi Regime responded swiftly by rounding up hundreds of Roman Catholics of Jewish descent living in the Netherlands. Most of these Catholic Jews were then transported to Auschwitz, Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross among them. These two basic elements of Edith Stein’s forced journey to Auschwitz – her ethnic Jewishness, and the Dutch Catholic bishops’ public protest against the persecution of Jews, which was the direct cause of her arrest – need to be acknowledged together.

There are other parts of Edith Stein’s identity that should be held together with her ethnic Jewishness and her Catholic faith. I am here thinking especially of her scholarly passion. It is important to recognize that Edith Stein was one of the first women to aspire to a post-doctoral degree and to a career in academia in Germany, and that she did not leave behind that scholarly passion when she entered the Carmel in Cologne in 1933. Sr. Teresia Benedicta a Cruce (a name she chose for herself, with that particular spelling) embraced Carmelite religious life with all her scholarly skills in hand, and her Carmelite superiors knew to appreciate those skills. Against Carmelite conventions at the time, her Provincial explicitly permitted ongoing scholarly work for Sr. Teresa Benedicta, which she clearly delighted in as her letters from Carmel show. Her last book, a study of St. John of the Cross, was all but complete when she went to Auschwitz.

That it is possible to venerate Edith Stein on August 9 with her fierce intellect is shown by the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. It remembers her as “Edith Stein (Teresa Benedicta of the Cross), Philosopher, Monastic, and Martyr 1942.” That alone is a vast improvement over the conventional titles of “virgin and martyr” in the Roman Catholic calendar. The Collect for her memorial in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer reads as follows:

Pour out your grace upon thy church, O God; that, like your servant Edith            Stein, we may always seek what is true, defend what is right, reprove                what is evil, and forgive those who sin against us, even as your Son                    commanded; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with you            and the Holy Spirit be all honor and glory, now and for ever.

This way of remembering and honoring Edith Stein – as a philosopher, monastic, and martyr – offers a vision of a future in which women scholars who also live holy lives are not shorn of their scholarly passion when the church officially recognizes their sanctity.

Dr. Edith Stein in 1925

May Day versus Labor Day

Today the General Roman Calendar celebrates St Joseph the Worker as an Optional Memorial. The observance is marked with more or less solemnity in different places. But I have always wondered why it is celebrated on May 1 in the United States.

Even though I am currently ministering in Ireland, the land of my birth, I hope that US readers will accept my reflection as a naturalized US citizen who had spent two thirds of my adult life in the US and as a presbyter ordained (and incardinated) in a US Archdiocese.

Simply put, I have always thought that the observance of St. Joseph the Worker would be better celebrated in the US on Labor Day.

Before Pius XII introduced this observance in 1955, May 1 had different emphases including Our Lady, St. Walpurga, as well as many other themes. However, since the late nineteenth century, May 1 has been observed as the International Workers’ Day. This civil observance had Marxist overtones in its origins, but today it is observed in most countries of the world. The Catholic liturgical observance is undoubtedly to counterbalance the Marxist origins of today’s International Workers’ Day.

However, May 1 it is not observed in the US and there is no need for a Christian counterbalance on that day. In the US, Labor Day has a similar function.  Therefore, I would propose that the US Church observe St. Joseph the Worker on Labor Day. Perhaps in certain parishes the May 1 modern liturgical observance is indeed popular (although I have never seen any evidence of it). But I would purpose that moving it to Labor Day would allow US Catholics to celebrate it better and would be a better opportunity for catechesis on the importance of work and the dignity and rights of workers.


Cover art: Christ in the House of His Parents (1849-1850) by John Everett Millais from Wikimedia.

In the image of God he created them …

Albani Psalter (12th century), Mary Magdalene announces the resurrection of Christ to the disciples.

In the context of the annual celebration of Easter, we encounter some women who can be called “witnesses from the beginning”: Mary of Magdala – as in the Albani Psalter (12th century) pictured here – is the first to recognize the Risen Christ and deliver his message to the disciples (who, admittedly, do not believe her); the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well proclaims the Messiah in her village (some villagers believe her, others only after they have convinced themselves). And Martha – not unlike Peter (Mt 16:16) – confesses her friend Jesus “the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.” (Jn 11:27). The historical impact of these women is short or non-existent, even today.

Not to diminish our Easter joy, but woman’s life in the church does not feel “redeemed” in every respect. There is too much hierarchical male dominance in the name of “divine right” and too little faithfulness to the biblical image of man, starting with the creation narratives up to Galatians 3:28.

The adoption of the respective current anthropologies has led to different ecclesiastical images of women that have one thing in common: What “being a woman” is has always been and still is decided by men in the Catholic Church – to the disadvantage of women.

From fluid transitions …

The ancient concept of gender thought of woman (including her sexual organs) as an unfinished “imperfect man.” Masculine and feminine did not denote biological differences, but rather characteristics and attitudes on a continuum between the poles of masculine-intellectual-strong and feminine-material/physical-weak. Women could find recognition by “masculinization,” while men could be “shamefully feminized.” Christian theologians from Origen to Thomas Aquinas have received and reflected on this image of women for over a millennium — perhaps one reason why, from ancient times, it was not necessary to argue specifically for the exclusion of women from the priesthood? The fact that women nevertheless served at the altars for centuries is shown by the repeatedly inculcated restrictions and prohibitions imposed by church authorities, which were often not enforced until much later.[1]

…to Cult purity

The Pauline “insignificance” of the sexes in Christ (Gal 3:28) turned into disdain, even contempt, especially for female sexuality. The late antique ideal of spiritualization in connection with cultic ideas of purity and sexual taboos was detrimental to women. As a periodically defiled and libidinous temptress, woman was incapable of liturgy. Only the “pure hands” of the supposedly asexual priest were allowed to touch the holy of holies.[2] Other effects of the menstrual taboo included: baptisms being postponed, church attendance being restricted, and the reception of communion being forbidden – even for women who had recently given birth. Even nuns were denied a view of the sanctuary during their menses.

The “essentially” different woman

The discovery of the “natural” biological otherness of women in the early modern period did not improve their situation. The new binary image of man merely transformed her previous deficits – feeling instead of understanding, devotion instead of leadership, etc. – into virtues and established them as female “essential characteristics.” The ecclesiastical ideal of the humble, pure, servant-obedient handmaiden of the Lord (or: of the lords?) was born from a male perspective: Mary-likeness instead of Christ-likeness is a topos that is still popular today.[3] How practical that such a strictly conceived complementarity also provides the (theologically untenable) “argument” that women cannot embody Christ in the ordained ministry for lack of “natural likeness” (!).

… and their “special” dignity

The social emancipation of women in the 20th century did not remain without effect on ecclesiastical thinking: John XXIII recognized that women “are demanding both in domestic and in public life the rights and duties which belong to them as human persons.“[4]

John Paul II, however, in his 1988 Apostolic Exhortation Mulieres dignitatem – which he characteristically understands as a “Marian Year meditation” – conferred special dignities on women. The pope attaches importance to their otherness: “The personal resources of femininity are certainly no less than the resources of masculinity: they are merely different” (MD 10). By defining “virginity and motherhood as two particular dimensions of the fulfillment of the female personality” he declares that “these two paths in the vocation of women as persons, explain and complete each other” (MD 17).  With the help of the Holy Spirit, women could realize that and “thus be disposed to making a ‘sincere gift of self’ to others thereby finding themselves” (MD 31). Male fantasies; once again, women’s rights are not general rights, but special rights! Most recently, Pope Francis, in his post-synodal letter Querida Amazonia (2020), hit the same narrow notch, dashing the hopes of Amazonian women. “Profoundly moved” by the testimony “of strong and generous women” he sums up: “Women make their contribution to the Church in a way that is properly theirs, by making present the tender strength of Mary, the Mother.”[5] The request for ordination of women deacons in a distressing pastoral situation went unheard.

One last Witness from the “Silent Church”

But there are Catholic ordained women priests. Following his motto, “Leadership is the granting of freedom” Bishop Felix M. Davidek ordained married men as bishops and women as priests in the Czech underground church during Communist rule, including his vicar general Ludmila Javorova. Attempts to positively involve the Vatican in advance had previously failed. Even before the fall of Communist states beginning in 1989, Davidek was defamed as mentally ill, then in 1996 ordained women were forbidden to exercise their ministry and were imposed the strictest silence. When the pressure from Rome on her sisters in priestly ministry became too great, Ludmila Javorova broke her silence and told her story.[6]

The conclusion? Whether “unworthy,” “equal in dignity,” “with special dignity,” or idealized into a devoted lover and bearer of a mission “of capital importance” … for the rediscovery by believers of the true face of the Church,”[7] women remain “unequal” in the Catholic Church to this day. Could it be that this very injustice distorts the “true face” of the Church?

O Lord—how long?

[1] In fact, the sources are largely silent about the ordination of women to priestly ministry in the greater church; as things stand today, it seems unlikely.

[2] Comprehensive studies on this subject are fundamental works by Arnold Angenendt, Geschichte der Religiosität im Mittelalter, Darmstadt 22000; and most recently Ders. Ehe, Liebe und Sexualität im Christentum. Von den Anfängen bis heute, Munich 2015; Church historian Hubertus Lutterbach sums up: “Ab dem vierten Jahrhundert setzte sich das Ideal der kultischen Reinheit massiv durch und umfasste alle Bereiche des Alltags.” From this, he says, a “leistungsorientierte Verzichtsspiritualität” developed among clerics: ” Je höher der Verzicht, umso höher das Maß an kultischen Reinheit.” See: (accessed Nov. 08, 2017); in Ders, Fatale Sakralität, in: HK 4/2020, 43-47 (here 43), he argues for “diese Entwicklung zurückzudrehen.“

[3] In an interview with AMERICA magazine (Nov. 28, 2022), Pope Francis has reaffirmed the traditional patrine principle (of ministry and therefore male) and the Marian (female) principle.

[4] John XXIII, Enzyklika Pacem in Terris (1963) 41.

[5] Francis, Postsynodales Schreiben Querida Amazonia (2020) 101.

[6] She received the Herbert Haag Award for Freedom and Humanity in the Church in 2011.

[7] John Paul II, Apostolisches Schreiben Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (1994) zitiert in Nr. 3 aus der Erklärung der Kongregation für die Glaubenslehre Inter Insigniores (1976) 6.

My Headless Mr. Heart

Those of you familiar with the empire of “Barbie” may be likewise familiar with Barbie’s famed significant other, “Ken,” and the physical constraints of a plastic-molded body with semi-posable limbs.  Maybe you had an easier job navigating your Barbies back in the day, but my interactions with my own particular “Ken” doll (actually a Mr. Heart” for you connoisseurs out there) frequently encountered a pretty severe limitation for a Barbie doll:

His head fell off.

Maybe it was the incredibly well-fitted clothing with which he was supplied, but it seemed as if anytime my eight-year-old self tried to change poor Mr. Heart, his head popped right off with his one-piece suspender suit (which, I may add, is STILL challenging for me to navigate three decades later).

Each time this cerebral tragedy took place, I would need to cease playing, climb off my bed, and roam through the house in search of a parent to put Mr. Heart back together.

So annoying.

Now, with children of my own, the Barbies which passed the “I guess the plastic hasn’t degraded enough to cause me immediate concern for carcinogenic properties” test, Mr. Heart (and his head) exists among them.

But, little did I, or Mr. Heart, know what lay in store for him.


While my daughter tends to “princess-oriented” play, my son tends to “monsters with sharp teeth and claws battling robots with lots of buttons and lasers”-type play.  So how does Mr. Heart fit in to this scenario?

While the headless Mr. Heart was simply an annoyance for me—a doll that kept breaking—he has been embraced with a new identity by my three-year old.  Headless pseudo-Ken-doll is no longer “Mr. Heart.”  He is “MONSTER MAN”!!!!!!

Monster Man has many unforeseen properties: he can carry other monsters (or his own head) with his posable plastic arms.  He can shoot lasers out of his headless torso.  Also, he’s cool enough to chill with all the other super-heroes in my son’s crib.  Monster Man is tight with the likes of Captain Marvel and Spider Man these days.

In short, this is a new life, a resurrected life, an unexpected life.  Where the world might see brokenness and defeat, my son sees a peerless member of the communion of super-heroes, with powers far greater than I ever imagined.

On this day, we celebrate the death of another hero.  The murder and martyrdom of John the Baptist surely seems to be a day of brokenness and defeat—shrouded in lies, jealousy, and deception, for good measure.  The innocent one, who himself pointed out the Lamb of God, is led to the slaughter.  But we celebrate the passion of John—as our Alleluia verse says: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.”

John the Baptist himself was a sign for the Living One who came to dwell among us.  He baptized the very author of baptism, as our Preface for this day describes.  John himself was a “monster man”—clothed in strange camel’s hair and consuming wild fruits of the desert.  John was an outsider, unwanted in the eyes of much of the world—except for those who saw him for what he was: the forerunner of our Lord.  John the Baptist now dwells with the likes of Peter, Mary Magdalene, and all the communion of saints who rejoice in the light of the Resurrected Lord.

So broken things can become new.  Disaster and destruction may have a new life.  May we, on this Memorial of St. John the Baptist, come to be something new—unexpected, and resurrected beyond the best of our imaginations.


Thinking Through Tradition with the Myrrhbearers and St John

The great church historian Jaroslav Pelikan famously said, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” I’ve always liked this quote. It gets right to the point. And like all such pithy quotes, it also rewards further consideration.

On the Byzantine liturgical calendar, the third Sunday of Pascha celebrates the feast of the Holy Myrrhbearers—the women who came “early in the morning on the first day of the week” to anoint Jesus’ body after his crucifixion. This year it happened to fall on the same day as the feast of St John the Evangelist, or “John the Theologian” as he is called in the Orthodox Church. The coincidence of these feasts invites us to think deeply about the meaning of tradition.

Icon by the hand of Gregory Krug

The Myrrhbearers were among the only followers of Jesus present at his crucifixion, not just watching from a safe distance. The women saw Christ on the cross; they saw the empty tomb. When they encountered the angel in the tomb, he told them to go and proclaim to the disciples that the Lord had risen from the dead. They are the first “traditioners” of the Gospel. Without these women, the faith of the church would not exist. Tradition is a word whose root means “handing down.” What is the “living faith” they handed down?

Tradition or transferral?

I recently got a new smartphone. My previous phone was about seven generations old, which I think makes it 150 years old in iPhone years. I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to transfer the information—the pictures, the contacts, the data—from my old phone to my new one. You simply connect to the cloud and move the data. It’s seamless.

This is not what tradition is like in the life of the church: just a transfer of data from one person to another, from one brain to another. That is because the content of the tradition is not just information about God, or correct words and ritual forms. It is rather a living encounter with God, with the crucified and risen Lord, in the Holy Spirit.

When the Myrrhbearers encountered the empty tomb, their minds were scrambled. Their whole lives had to become different. The experience of the cross and the empty tomb was not just a data point that was seamlessly transferred to their brains. No, it prompted a reprogramming of their whole life. This is what the Myrrhbearers communicated to the disciples: a new life.

St John and tradition

St John has the distinction of being the sole member of the twelve male disciples who was present at the crucifixion. Like the Myrrhbearers, he too was an eyewitness. The first epistle of John speaks to the significance of that encounter for passing down the tradition. The epistle opens like this:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life, the life was manifested, as we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us. (1 John 1:1-2)

Leaving aside for the moment the disputed scholarly question of the its authorship, the Johannine letter corresponds to the experience of St. John by the cross, and his encounter with Christ after the resurrection. He repeats it again and again: the proclamation being “traditioned” was seen and heard and touched with hands and fingers.

The new life that this encounter prompts us to live is what John calls, “eternal life.” Eternal life this is not simply life after death. It is the life that was “manifested.” Eternal life is already beginning right now, today. It is this new life that is passed down in tradition.

To be a part of the living tradition of the dead means to have such an encounter such that we live in eternal life. The tradition is not only a thing to be kept and preserved, but also to be embodied in speech and action in our common life. It is that encounter with God that the church’s dogma, its liturgy, even the Scriptures themselves, authentically witness to. But without that encounter, they are but empty words and rituals.

Rev. Dr. Mark Roosien is Lecturer in Liturgical Studies at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School and a deacon in the Orthodox Church in America.