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November 21, 2007|
Presentation of Our Lady
Franz Stock was born on September 21, 1904, in Neheim, Westphalia (west-central Germany), the eldest of nine children. His father was a factory worker in this industrial region of the Ruhr. For Franz, his love for his native land and for the Church were one. At the age of twelve, he revealed his desire to become a priest. The tragedy of the First World War and the influence of a Catholic association, «Quickborn,» that Franz belonged to, produced in him a great love of peace. It was in this spirit that he studied the encyclical by Pope Benedict XV, «On the Peace of God» (1920). He dreamed of a reconciliation between France and Germany based on their common Christian heritage. In August 1926, already a seminarian, he went with eight hundred Germans to the International Peace Congress in Bierville, in the Ile-de-France. There he heard Bishop Julien, the bishop of Arras (a city in a region very hard hit by the recent war), propose the ideal which would be Franz' for his entire life: «Not to eliminate borders but to collaborate across them, without leveling the differences. To learn to know one another in order to learn to love one another. To avoid the horror of war, while admiring the courage of the soldiers who sacrificed themselves to defend their country and their homes.»
Ministry in Paris
However, Father Stock's situation in Paris quickly became uncomfortable. The German authorities reproached him for his lack of enthusiasm for the Nazi regime; at the same time, a French daily published a calumnious article insinuating that he was working for the Gestapo by informing against émigrés. The truth was entirely different: Franz was financially supporting German fugitives, including some Jews. Rowing against the current, he organized a Franco-German High Mass for peace, celebrated in March 1937 by Cardinal Verdier, in the presence of the Catholic ambassador von Welczek. A worker for peace, Father Stock was nevertheless not a «citizen of the world,» indifferent to his homeland. He encouraged, among the souls in his care, love for their German homeland and its culture and the use of their mother tongue, while at the same time having them know and love France.
On August 26, 1939, the outbreak of the war forced Franz to leave France suddenly. But in autumn 1940, equipped with a canonical mission from the Archbishop of Cologne, he moved back to occupied Paris as the Rector of the German Mission. Before the apparent victory of the Third Reich, he remained clear-sighted and confided to those close to him that, in his opinion, «the swastika flags flying from the Arc de Triomphe will one day be taken down.» As for him, all he wanted was to be a priest and maintain respect and esteem for the humiliated French.
In November 1940, Father Stock accepted the position of chaplain for Fresnes Prison. From April 1941 on, he also visited the two other prisons requisitioned by the Germans in Paris: Cherche-Midi and La Santé. This ministry would soon become most of his life. The German command did not want a French priest for this ministry; therefore, Father Stock was the best choice, with his perfect knowledge of the language. In fact, he would be virtually alone taking care of thousands of prisoners. He refused to wear a uniform (which would nevertheless have made his role easier with the troops), understanding that a priest dressed as a soldier would lose all credibility with the prisoners. His diary, found after his death, allows us to follow his activity. He scrupulously put down in writing all he did to minister to the prisoners and all the information he was able to convey, so as to bring some consolation to their families.
The only friend
Franz Stock had picked out the jailers who were Catholic, or simply of good will, and got their help: for example, to organize a party. One of them, Sergeant Ghiel, devoted body and soul to the chaplain, would be betrayed and eventually killed by the Gestapo. Many prisoners were sent to concentration camps after their trials. But many left the prison only for their executions. For these, Father Stock fulfilled the most sacred of dutieshelping them die a Christian death. The first prisoner he prepared for death was Jacques Bonsergent, an engineer shot «as an example» in December 1940, because he had covered up an insignificant act of resistance. The chaplain stayed with him until the end and returned shattered. He never got used to these grim ceremonies, which nevertheless were repeated several times a week for three and a half years.
«God is stretching out His arms to me»
But other captives, often prisoners of atheism as well as of the Wehrmacht, refused all religious assistance. On April 13, 1942, Father Stock, his heart broken, noted in his journal, after an execution: «No one wanted spiritual aid. All died without faith.» Trusting in the power of grace, the priest had celebrated Mass even for them, in a neighboring cell occupied by a Catholic prisoner. Albert P. was to be executed on March 16, 1942. An atheist, he refused the sacraments, but allowed the chaplain to accompany him. On the way, Franz prayed ardently for his conversion and invited him to think about his eternal destiny. Again a refusal. But, at the last moment, Albert called the priest and asked for a crucifix. The chaplain was able to note: «He recited the act of contrition with me, showing great repentance. I gave him absolution.»
Roger L., 28 years old, was baptized the day of his execution. The journal mentions, «He had lost all courage. With my help, he regained confidence... He made his first Communion with a moving gravity... His last words at the moment of his death were 'Lord, have mercy on me.' » Most of the executions took place at Mont-Valérien, a former fortress west of Paris. Sometimes, Father Stock spent the last night with the condemned. At this ultimate moment, the priest was the only friendly, brotherly, Christian presence. Franz promised those who were to be shot that he would pray for them at their final moment, but he also asked them to pray for him, and for all, when they were «on the other side.» In October 1945, he wrote, «I have been faithful, I believe, to those whose chaplain I was for four years... If I want a special grace, a spiritual illumination, I ask those who knew how to die, who went straight to God after so many sufferings and a beautiful interior preparation, and whom I was able to accompany on their final path. I am convinced that their prayer will be heard... the departed do not forget us.»
Franz Stock welcomed families into his home on Rue Lhomond with the greatest discretion. When he could, he gave the closest relatives a souvenir of the deceased. The conversations with the mothers and spouses were sometimes more painful for him than the execution itself. An eyewitness commented, «I think Father Stock demonstrated great courage, great compassion, great love.» The chaplain managed, along with Bishop Rodhain, the founder of Secours Catholique, to start an aid society to support the neediest families of those who had been executed.
Father Stock's journal registers 863 executions from January 28, 1942 on, of which he attended 701. In all, he aided 1,300 to 1,500 people in their final moments. In December 1941, he wrote, «This week alone, I prepared seventy-two men for death, assisted them at the final moment and buried them.» In 1943, a priest friend heard him murmur, «I wonder sometimes if I will be able to continue... If only I could sleep...» An examination of his heart revealed an alarming weakness. The poet Reinhold Schneider wrote, after meeting Father Stock in 1943: «He was presented with a suffering that he could only endure strengthened by the Blessed Sacrament.»
In his Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum caritatis, Pope Benedict XVI says to priests: «Priestly spirituality is intrinsically Eucharistic. ... In order to give an ever greater Eucharistic form to his existence, the priest ... should make his spiritual life his highest priority. ... An intense spiritual life will enable him to enter more deeply into communion with the Lord and to let himself be possessed by God's love, bearing witness to that love at all times, even the darkest and most difficult» (February 22, 2007). Every Christian can be inspired by this advice.
Prisoner in his turn
In the last months of the war, the French army took charge of more and more of the huge number of German prisoners. General Boisseau, commandant of the camps, decided to bring together the German seminarian-prisoners so that they could continue their studies. A French priest, Father Le Meur, led this operation. He chose Father Stock, who had been his chaplain at Prison de la Santé during his detention for acts of resistance, to be the director of this seminary. On March 20, 1945, Franz accepted. His new duties obliged him to lead the life of a prisoner, even though he would have been able to immediately return to Germany. He wrote, «Captivity is a painful phase in a man's life. But, in the struggle with suffering, man recognizes his true destiny when, having reached the limits of his physical strength, he raises his hands and eyes to Heaven. There lies freedom. And this is indeed the deepest meaning of human freedomto be free from the earthly and give oneself to Him Who is all Grandeur.»
More a program than a name
Following a trip to Germany, Franz Stock got the University of Fribourg to recognize the theological studies done in Coudray. During the summer of 1946, the professors still needed arrived from Germany; they too volunteered to go into captivity. Radiant with his interior life and his charity, Franz Stock nevertheless had to struggle against sadness and the memories that haunted him. Painting was a great help to him: he made a fresco in the Seminary chapel representing the Virgin of Sorrows and Saint John. Several witnesses were convinced that Jesus Christ often physically appeared to Father Stock after the consecration during his Mass; Franz sometimes alluded to this in veiled terms. In May-June 1947, the German prisoners were freed, the Seminary was disbanded, and its students went on to pursue their studies in Germany. Father Stock returned to Rue Lhomond in Paris. He hoped to carry out his apostolate with the free German workers, but the civil authorities refused to grant him permission. Tempted by discouragement, Franz nonetheless found the strength to write to his family: «I willingly accept the situation in which I find myself at the moment, and I thank God for wishing us so much good.»
On February 22, 1948, Franz Stock suffered an attack of suffocation brought on by a pulmonary edema. Taken to the hospital, he who had so often kept others company during their final moments, died there alone on the 24th, at the age of 43. Before a handful of people, Bishop Roncalli presided at his funeral, followed by burial at Thiais Cemetery in the section reserved for prisoners of war. In 1963, his body would be solemnly transferred to the church that encompasses the Barbed-Wire Seminary's first chapel, in Rechèvres, close to Chartres. Several associations are promoting Franz Stock's beatification. General de Cossé-Brissac testifies that he saw in him «a being inhabited by grace ... I am infinitely grateful to him. Because of him, I forgot all those who had persecuted me. Because of him I have vowed many times to do everything I can to promote an open reconciliation between the German and French peoples, under the sign of Christ.» Father Pihan, a priest who was imprisoned in Fresnes, wrote in 1989: «When I am asked when I have most felt the brotherhood and universality of Catholicism, the answer is in prison, with Father Stock.»
May Father Franz Stock help us to become, like him, peacemakers by intensely living our Catholic faith, and making it radiate around us!