On Monday we celebrated the feast of St Bridget of Sweden, who is a patron saint of Europe. In fact she is one of six patrons of Europe. Here is the list.
Saint Bridget of Sweden
Saints Cyril and Methodius
Saint Catherine of Siena
Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, otherwise known as Edith Stein.
Saint Benedict, the founder of Western monasticism, was proclaimed patron of Europe by Pope Paul VI back in 1964. You can read the Papal brief here. It is interesting to see the reasons why Paul VI chose Benedict as patron of Europe, and the emphasis placed on cross, book and plough. That was in 1964 when the controversy over the preamble to the European constitution was still in the future.
All of the others were proclaimed patrons of Europe by the Blessed John Paul II. Cyril and Methodius became co-patrons of Europe in 1980, and the three female saints were proclaimed patrons of Europe by a motu proprio of John Paul II in 1999.
It is interesting to note that all six of these saints were religious, though one, Bridget, was married before she became a nun. The one that has attracted the most controversy is St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Edith Stein, the Carmelite who died at Auschwitz. She is unique on the list in that she is the only one who died a violent death, and who is counted as a martyr. She was a particular type of martyr, though. Clearly not killed in odium of the faith like the martyrs, for example, of the Spanish Civil War, she was rather a martyr of love, one who offered her life out of love for her friends. As she herself wrote in 1939:
I beg the Lord to take my life and my death … for all concerns of the sacred hearts of Jesus and Mary and the holy church, especially for the preservation of our holy order, in particular the Carmelite monasteries of Cologne and Echt, as atonement for the unbelief of the Jewish People and that the Lord will be received by his own people and his kingdom shall come in glory, for the salvation of Germany and the peace of the world, at last for my loved ones, living or dead, and for all God gave to me: that none of them shall go astray.
The reference to the unbelief of the Jews requires careful contextual interpretation. The concept of atonement,which underlies these words, however, is very clearly one drawn from the Old Testament. It is also a very strong theme in the New Testament where our Blessed Lord says: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)
St Teresa Benedicta is the only twentieth century figure among the patrons of Europe. She is akin to St Maximilian Kolbe, who was starved to death in Auschwitz, and is also rightly venerated as a martyr of love, who laid down his life for his friends. But there is another martyr of the period of the Second World War, who is little known in the English-speaking world, who also offered himself as a victim to the Nazis so that the lives of others might be spared, namely the Servant of God Salvo d’Acquisto. I will post about him at a later date.
I think St Teresa Benedicta is an excellent choice to be patron of Europe. Auschwitz marks the low point in European history, the violation of every civilised and European value. There her dust lies, like so many, in an unmarked spot; and it is in the light of Auschwitz that we see the rebuilding of European civilisation as an urgent task. Such a civilisation can only be founded on love, the virtue that Saint Teresa Benedicta practised to such a rare degree. And some serious scholarship (she was a great intellectual) would not come amiss either.