The Blessed Objector
Departing from the usual Vatican practice of a semipublic consistory for the declarations of causes, the Holy See announced that, during the prefect's audience, Pope Benedict "authorized the Congregation" to publish his green-light for two causes for canonization, a whopping 327 beatifications and seven instances of "heroic virtue," the "venerable" whose causes require miracles before they may proceed.
While among the new Blessed are to be found 127 martyrs of the Spanish Civil War and 188 from 17th century missionary efforts in Japan, the day's standout declaration is that of the martyrdom of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian whose conscientious objection to the Nazi draft led to his beheading in 1943, aged 36.
As the grip of the Third Reich tightened in the late '30s and early '40s, Jägerstätter lived as a husband and farmer and served -- after, so it's said, a "wild youth" -- as a parish sexton in rural Austria; his widow, Franziska, is still alive at 94. After he was ordered to join the German army in early 1943, despite pressure which reportedly came even from the ecclesiastical authorities, he refused, was promptly jailed, and killed at Berlin within six months.
Jägerstätter has long been an icon of the peace and non-violence movements -- in the Vietnam era, his witness was upheld by no less than the brothers Berrigan, Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day. However, today's declaration from the Holy See ends a years-long push for his cause to be declared a martyrdom by Rome, thus paving the way for his beatification without a miracle.
Two takes on Jägerstätter -- first, from Robert Royal of the Faith & Reason Institute:
Jägerstätter received only a basic education at the local school, but he developed good reading and writing skills. When in his mature years he became an ardent believer, he would take time out of his demanding work on the farm to read the Bible and spiritual works. By the time he was imprisoned, he was well versed enough in Christian history and thought that this "simple farmer" was delighted to find a copy of St. John Chrysostom’s sermons among the prison books.......and from Jesuit Fr John Dear, recounting a visit with the martyr's widow for the National Catholic Reporter:
[B]y 1936 Jägerstätter was a firm and active believer and began serving as the sexton in the local church. Around that year, he wrote to his godchild with the boldness of spiritual expression that was characteristic of him: "I can say from my own experience how painful life often is when one lives as a halfway Christian; it is more like vegetating than living." And he poignantly adds: "Since the death of Christ, almost every century has seen the persecution of Christians; there have always been heroes and martyrs who gave their lives — often in horrible ways — for Christ and their faith. If we hope to reach our goal some day, then we, too, must became heroes of the faith."
In the meantime, he went about his business, much like others, but with important differences. He had three children and a farm to run, but Jägerstätter did not use family needs as an excuse to deviate in the slightest from what was right. He stopped going to taverns, not because he was a teetotaler, but because he got into fights over Nazism. At the same time, he practiced charity to the poor in the village, though he was only a little better than poor himself. The usual custom in the village was to give a donation to the church sexton for his help in arranging funerals and prayer services. Jägerstätter refused them, preferring to join with the faithful rather than act as a paid official. The period of self-discipline prepared him for much more demanding sacrifices.
When the Nazis arrived, not only did he refuse collaboration with their evil intentions, he even rejected benefits from the regime in areas that had nothing to do with its racial hatreds or pagan warmongering. It must have hurt for a poor father of three to turn down the money to which he was entitled through a Nazi family assistance program. But that is what he did. And the farmer paid the price of discipleship when — after a storm destroyed crops — he would not take the emergency aid offered by the government.
As the Nazis organized Austria, Jägerstätter had to decide whether to allow himself to be drafted by the German army and thus collaborate with Nazism. Two seemingly good reasons were given to him, sometimes by spiritual advisers, why he should not resist. First, he was told, he had to consider his family. The other argument was that he had a responsibility to obey legitimate authorities. The political authorities were the ones liable to judgment for their decisions, not ordinary citizens. Jägerstätter rejected both arguments. In normal times, of course, obedience to authority may be required even when we disagree on certain policies. But the 1940s in Austria were not normal times: to obey for obedience’s sake would have been to do what Adolf Eichmann would later plead in his trial in Jerusalem — he was just following orders.
The consequences of Jägerstätter’s position were obvious: "Everyone tells me, of course, that I should not do what I am doing because of the danger of death. I believe it is better to sacrifice one’s life right away than to place oneself in the grave danger of committing sin and then dying." But he serenely decided that he could not allow himself to contribute to a regime that was immoral and anti-Catholic. Jägerstätter was sent to the prison in Linz-an-der-Donau, where Hitler and Eichmann had lived as children. According to the prison chaplain, 38 men were executed there, some for desertion, others for resistance similar to Jägerstätter’s (no others have been positively identified). His Way of the Cross would not be long. In May, he was transferred to a prison in Berlin. His parish priest, his wife and his lawyer all tried to change his mind. But it was useless. On Aug. 9, 1943, he accepted execution, even though he knew it would make no earthly difference to the Nazi death machine.
A Father Jochmann was the prison chaplain in Berlin and spent some time with Jägerstätter that day. He reports that the prisoner was calm and uncomplaining. He refused any religious material, even a New Testament, because, he said, "I am completely bound in inner union with the Lord, and any reading would only interrupt my communication with my God." Very few men could have made such a statement without seeming to be in denial or utterly mad. Father Jochmann later said of him: "I can say with certainty that this simple man is the only saint I have ever met in my lifetime."
Death, terrible and certain. And early. With what strength did he face it? For starters he had come to the same conclusion as Gandhi, that non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as cooperation with good. "It is still possible for us, even today, to lift ourselves, with God's help, out of the mire in which we are stuck and win eternal happiness -- if only we make a sincere effort and bring all our strength to the task. It is never too late to save ourselves and perhaps some other soul for Christ."Jägerstätter is the second Nazi-era resister to be beatified by Benedict XVI; in the fall of 2005, the German-born pontiff beatified Cardinal Clemens August von Galen (1878-1946), the "Lion of Munster" whose residence was firebombed in light of his outspokenness against the regime. Von Galen died less than a week after returning from Rome and the reception of his red hat.
And he imbibed the spirit of nonviolence. "As a Christian, I prefer to do my fighting with the Word of God and not with arms," he wrote. "We need no rifles or pistols for our battle, but instead spiritual weapons -- and the foremost among these is prayer."
The night Franz died, a chaplain paid him a visit. Said Franz: "I am completely bound in inner union with the Lord." The chaplain later testified: "Franz lived as a saint and died a hero."
I once made a pilgrimage to St. Radegund. It was in 1997, during my tertianship year, on my way to Northern Ireland. I wanted to pray at Franz's grave. I bore an invitation to the Jägerstätter house, but finding the place posed a problem. I was by myself, and didn't speak German. I trudged through the village for hours, magnificent farmland on all sides, but no landmark or signpost pointed the way. Finally I came upon an elderly lady in her yard eating plums off a tree. "Can you tell me where the Jägerstätters live?" She smiled. "I'm Frau Jägerstätter."
She looks like Georgia O'Keefe, has the sparkling eyes of Mother Teresa, a warm, gentle soul with an infectious joy and loving kindness. She carries herself with humility, a hint of shyness. But beneath lies strength, a solid faith, deep peace, towering Gospel conviction. She stands, to my mind, as much a saint as her martyred husband. After Franz died, she took up his job as sacristan and set about to raise their three girls and keep his memory alive.
She offered words of welcome and showed me around. Our first stop, the old family home, where Franz lived and worked, now a national museum. I ambled through the rooms and gazed upon the displays. I examined Franz's letters and his belongings, while Franziska and one of her daughters offered commentary, bringing Franz alive. During the evening Franziska opened her photo albums and we gathered around, and the family conjured precious memories, warm and worn, story upon story.
I was on sacred ground -- and me with no gift to offer in return, but one. I told Franziska that their story had influenced me long ago to become a priest, had goaded me into activism against nuclear weapons and war And I said Franz has become a kind of icon. The Catholic peace movement holds his memory aloft. His witness has passed into timelessness and come to inspire the likes of Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day and Daniel Berrigan. Franziska glowed. Most of this was news to her.
Did you ever imagine it? I asked. That one day you would meet the pope? That you would inspire the faith of people around the world? That your home would achieve the dignity of a national museum? That pilgrims like me would flock to visit you? That Franz would be proposed for canonization?
Question after question; the poor woman could scarcely keep up. "Never," she answered. The Nazis had dispatched him with German finality. "I thought no one would ever know about him. I hid his letters under my mattress for decades. Then, in the early 1960s, Gordon Zahn learned of him and wrote his book, In Solitary Witness, and that started the whole thing."
My last morning there we shared a liturgy in the village chapel. We prayed in German and English for our families and friends, for the church and the world. And we prayed for the abolition of nuclear weapons and war. After Eucharist, we stood in silence by Franz's humble grave.
It lies along the outside wall of the small chapel where he attended daily Mass. Above it stands a typical Austrian crucifix bearing the words of Matthew's Gospel: "Whoever wishes to save his life must lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it." It was one of the most moving spiritual and liturgical experiences of my life. As I bid farewell, Franziska pressed into my arms a bag of plums and apples from her yard, and some homemade bread.
Some months ago, the Vatican informed Franziska that its commission had approved Franz's beatification. Now we're all awaiting the official Vatican announcement and the date.
To my mind, this is an astonishing turn of events. In his time, church officials had heaped ridicule upon Franz's insistence that Jesus forbids us to kill. Now this turnabout, a kind of judgment against the "devout" German and Austrian Catholics who cheered the war and fought for Hitler. But more than that, the turnabout is a sign. It's a sign that points to the nature of sanctity, a sign of the future of sanctity.
In a world of total war, a world on the brink of destruction, only one kind of sanctity bears fruit -- the one that Jesus embodied and Franz embraced. Daring nonviolence that refuses to kill no matter the pretext. Willingness to die without a trace of retaliation. Divine, universal love for everyone, even the enemy. And public, prophetic, outspoken defiance of patriotic militarism and state violence.
In an insane world, Franz points the way: refuse to fight, refuse to kill, refuse to be complicit in warmaking, refuse to compromise -- and pit your very self against structures of violence with all the nonviolence in your soul.