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BY Romanus Cessario OP
Come, we are going for our people!” These are the last recorded words of Saint Teresia Benedicta of the Cross, known outside her Carmelite cloister as Edith Stein — words spoken before she died in the gas chamber that has come to symbolize the ultimate unreason of the twentieth century.
The words were addressed to her blood sister Rosa, and were heard in the Carmel of Echt in Holland, where “this eminent daughter of Israel,” as Pope John Paul II has called her, had been sent by her superiors in an effort to save her from the Nazi persecution of the Jews.
Even before her canonization on Oct. 11 of this year, many things had been written to extol the genius and the grace of Edith Stein, a woman who fulfilled in the Church the vocations of philosopher, Carmelite nun, and martyr. Her last words merit special attention.
“Come, we are going for our people!” Who are the “people” to whom Saint Teresia Benedicta refers? — the people of Israel, of course, God's people, as the Church professes. Lumen gentium (no. 9) makes the point explicitly when it affirms that God chose this race (plebem israeliticam) and constituted them into his People (sibi in populum elegit).
When God made Israel his people, he also revealed a plan for our salvation. God does not want to save us as individuals, but as a people. So he creates a people destined to know him and love him in this life and to rejoice with him for all eternity.
This is a great mystery of faith, where modern political notions can be misleading. When the framers of the American Constitution wrote, “We, the People,” they adopted a view about human solidarity that depends more on the Enlightenment than on Exodus. Democracies are self-constituting, insofar as many come together to form a union.
The People of God, on the other hand, exists only because God first chose to constitute us into a people. Historically, this divine election rested first on the People of Israel, and so Edith Stein could go forth heroically from her Carmel cloister in their name.
The Church is not a democracy. This flat assertion is not motivated by a preference for some other kind of political organization with which to compare the Church. That would only invite ideological bickering. The truth is deeper than imagery.
The Church is not a democracy because the People of God are powerless to constitute themselves. How could they? Only God can establish a people as his very own. The difference is so great that the Greek language uses two different words: the people who make up a democratic regime are the demos, and the People that belongs to God are a laios. It is easy to remember. Democracy means the exercise of power by the many, whereas the People of God means forming one Body under Christ's Headship.
God's election of Israel as God's People has not been annulled; Saint Paul makes this clear. And Edith Stein gives eloquent testimony about what remained for her a singular mystery of faith. Aware of the implications of her Jewish origins, she still proclaimed that beneath the Cross she came to understand the destiny of God's people.
The Cross of Christ makes out of both Jew and gentile members of the new People of God. The first letter of Peter affirms this heritage that belongs to all who believe: we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own People” (1 Peter 2:9).
The same biblical text reminds us of something else. God is not obliged to constitute us as his people. Indeed, the New Testament forcefully reminds the Christian believer: “Once you were no people, but now you are God's people (1 Peter 2:10). This admonition should make us attentive to the privilege that God communicates to us in Christ.
We should never take for granted our status as God's people. The main responses to our election as God's people must be praise and gratitude. But we should also remember humility. We belong to God's own people, one that he creates out of many peoples. We call this people the Body of Christ. And membership in this people is a gift — never a right, still less a burden.
The Holy Father has repeatedly invited every member of the Church to take up his or her vocation to holiness with seriousness. Sanctity is never found apart from humility. Saint Teresia Benedicta of the Cross reminds us that a Christian vocation can even lead to imitation of the ultimate humility of the One who came to serve, not to be served, and to give his life for the many.
Dominican Father Romanus Cessario is a senior writer for the Register.