St. Edith Stein’s 5 Tips for Religious Education

COMMENTARY: Pro Pointers for Catholic Parents

Edith Stein is pictured as a student in 1913-1914.
Edith Stein is pictured as a student in 1913-1914. (photo: Public Domain)

St. Edith Stein (1891-1942), also known by her religious name as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, is known for many things, such as her conversion to Catholicism from atheism after being raised in a Jewish family, her scholarly works, and her martyrdom at the hands of the Nazis in Auschwitz.

But not much is said about her educational vocation. She began her teaching career in 1916 and taught until 1933, when the Nazi government in Germany banned those of Jewish descent from teaching, at which time she entered the Carmelites. Many of her insights into education can be found in the collection known as Essays on Woman, in which she explores the nature of the feminine vocation and how to form students for heaven through a Catholic education. 

In the sixth essay of this volume, St. Edith gives guidelines on how to educate and raise children in the Catholic faith. She explains that, after one becomes a child of God through baptism, “grace in the child is like a hidden little flame which must be painstakingly tended and nursed” and “to protect the life of grace means to defend it against any influence that could extinguish it, such as loss of faith or sin.” Everything we experience from the earliest age on up leaves an impression on our souls.

Further, prayers, especially those of the child’s mother, should confide the child to the “protection of the Mother of God.”

Once a child reaches the age of reason, he or she is ready to consciously embrace the faith. St. Edith explains that the goal of the religious instructor, as a parent or teacher, should be “to establish a direct, firm relationship to the world of faith, one which endures after her instruction ceases and which resists dangerous effects counteracting from another direction.” She gives several ideas on how to go about establishing this relationship. 

1. Children should be read Bible stories. 

The stories from the Bible “make a deep impression on the youthful imagination during the early school years,” she writes, explaining that each story invites children right into the depths of theological truth, such as the Gospels of Christmas, introducing “the mystery of the Incarnation and the exalted vocation of the Mother of God,” and the story of the Last Supper, introducing “the meaning of the Eucharist, and the account of the Passion and Easter for the meaning of redemption, of suffering, or death, and resurrection.”

One can draw other truths from different stories of the Bible, such as the Israelites throughout the Old Testament showing us our own sinful nature and need for repentance or the individual calling of each of us to know, love and serve God in the story of young Samuel being called in the night.

2. Children should experience beautiful religious customs. 

St. Edith explains the importance of surrounding a child’s upbringing with the depth and riches of the customs for the “festivities of the Church year such as Advent and Christmas and the May altar and May songs.” 

She also emphasizes the importance of communal church attendance “with well-planned liturgical prayer and song.” However, these things should not remain at the level of mere “imagination, feeling, and force of habit.” They must penetrate the whole life of the child. She explains: “Only when liturgical prayer is the expression of liturgical life will it really contribute fruitfully and formatively in the process of religious education.”

3. Children should be prepared for and receive sacraments at the earliest possible time.

Fully aware of the realities of our fallen nature, she emphasizes that we must rely on the “even stronger realities of the supernatural.” In her opinion, the sooner children begin receiving the sacraments regularly, and especially the Eucharist daily, the stronger their foundation in their faith will be. However, it is equally important for children to be prepared for “meaningful reception of the sacraments.” And to do this, they must also receive instruction in the truths of the supernatural reality inherent in the Real Presence. 

4. Children should receive a “foundation of clear and thorough dogmatic instruction” in which they are guided to comprehend it “not merely with the intellect but also with the heart.” 

This fourth guideline builds upon the others, which help make the child receptive to understanding the Catholic faith. 

Their imaginations have been engaged with Bible stories, they live and breathe the liturgical year, and they have a basic understanding of and a regular participation in the sacraments. They are ready to engage with their intellect what they feel in their hearts and ready to grow in their love through an increase in understanding. 

St. Edith wants the child to be led to “penetrate into the mystery of faith” with his or her whole person with an “intellectual recognition” and “a voluntary acceptance by the will.” Coming to know the “mysteries of Christianity must always lead to transformation in the ways of life.” 

5. Young minds and hearts will only be successfully formed in the faith “when the people who introduce the children to the mysteries are themselves permeated and their lives formed by these mysteries.” 

This last point is in some sense the most important. We cannot guide children to a lifelong faith if we do not live out what we are teaching them. 

All of these practices we give to children must already be a part of our lives. The Bible stories we share should come from our own experiences of reading them. 

We should observe the customs of the liturgical year alongside the children, letting ourselves be drawn deeper into the mysteries each year, and we must draw on the sacraments so that we have the grace to persevere in our faith. And in teaching our children, we will grow in our knowledge and study of the mysteries of Christianity.