Countering the Swastika with the Cross of Christ
Relic of Blessed Restituta Kafka in the Basilica of St Bartholomew on Tiber Island
A strong and courageous woman. Ward sister and head nurse in an Austrian hospital, she firmly, opposed the anti-religious measures of the Nazi regime and defended the rights of the weak and the sick, speaking of peace and democracy. She was denounced by the SS, was imprisoned, condemned to death and then decapitated in Vienna on 30 March 1943, at the age of 49. She was killed together with some Communist workmen whom she managed to comfort on the eve of their death.
The sacrifice of Bl. Maria Restituta (in the world: Helen Kafka) — the only nun to be condemned to death under the National-Socialist regime and judged after a court hearing — was recently commemorated in the Basilica of St Bartholomew on Tiber Island. Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna, celebrated on 4 March a Mass at which the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity gave to the Basilica a small cross which Maria Restituta carried on the belt of her habit. The relic was placed in the altar — which commemorates the martyrs of Nationalist-Socialism — by a woman who was born in 1941 in very the hospital where the religious served in those years. Immediately following the Great Jubilee of 2000, John Paul II decided that the Roman Basilica of St Bartholomew on Tiber Island was to become a memorial of the "new martyrs" and witnesses of the faith from the 20th and 21st century.
Born on 1 May 1894 at Brno-Husovice, in modern day Czech Republic, of humble background, Helen Kafka grew up in the Austrian capital where she worked in the Lainz hospital with the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity. In 1914 she entered the convent and received the name Maria Restituta. From 1919 until 1942 she served in the hospital in Mödling, Vienna, where she became a surgical nurse and an anaesthetist, esteemed for her professional competence, beloved for her sensitivity and respected for her energetic character, so much so that she soon earned the nickname "Sister Resoluta" .
After Germany annexed Austria, the religious worked for justice and the dignity of every human being. Faced with the anti-religious suppression of the Nazis, she responded by reaffirming religious freedom and by refusing to remove the crucifixes in the hospital. She also countered Hitler's swastika with the Cross of Christ. She also spread "A soldier's song" that spoke of democracy, peace, and a free Austria. Spied on by two ladies, she was denounced by a doctor close to the SS, who for some time sought an opportunity to distance her from the hospital.
After her arrest by the Gestapo on Ash Wednesday, 18 February 1942, she was condemned to death on 29 October 1942 (the day chosen for her liturgical memorial). The sentence was carried out 30 March 1943. Before her death she asked the chaplain to make the sign of the cross on her forehead. "She was a saint because in that situation she encouraged everyone, she transmitted a power, a positive spirit and one of confidence", a fellow-prisoner later recalled.
On 21 June 1998 Restituta Kafka was beatified in Vienna, together with the servants of God, Jakob
Kern and Anton Maria Schwartz, by John Paul II, who said: "Looking at Bl. Sr Restituta, we can see to what heights of inner maturity a person can be led by the divine hand. She risked her life for her witness to the Cross. And she kept the Cross in her heart, bearing witness to it once again before being led to execution, when she asked the prison chaplain to make the Sign of the Cross on my forehead". John Paul II continued: "Many things can be taken from us Christians but the Cross as the sign of salvation will not be taken from us. We will not let it be removed from public life! We will listen to the voice of our conscience, which says: 'We must obey God rather than men' (Acts 5:29)."
Bl. Maria Restituta Helen Kafka was a lady who, with a power for renewal, was able to give an example of freedom of expression and of responsibility of the individual conscience — even in difficult circumstances, animated by a virtue that is at times inconvenient: courage. "No matter how far we are from everything we are, no matter what is taken from us", the religious wrote in a letter from prison, "no one can take from us the faith we have in our heart. In this way we can build an altar in our own heart".
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10 April 2010, page 10
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