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August 24, 2008|
Franz Jägerstätter was born on May 20, 1907, the illegitimate child of Rosalia Huber, in St. Radegund, a village in Upper Austria very near the German border. He was baptized the following day and raised in poverty by his grandmother. In 1917, his mother married a farmer, Heinrich Jägerstätter, and Franz was made legitimatehe would inherit his stepfather's farm. He was a bright boy who liked to read, learned to play the zither, and acted in St. Radegund's Passion Play, which every year drew an audience of tens of thousands. Franz was not without flaws and quarreled easily. At 20, he went to earn his living as a miner. The young man found himself in a materialistic environment hostile to the Church which brought about a religious crisis for him. He stopped going to Mass for a short while but soon returned to the practice of his faith; yet it was probably deficient, and did not stop him from falling into grave sin. In August 1933, Franz became the father of an illegitimate daughter, whom he would take care of until his death. Nevertheless, he soon resolved to lead a responsible life.
A turning point
In 1933, Hitler came to power in Germany and relations with Austria immediately became strained. Bishop Gföllner, of the diocese of Linz in which St. Radegund was situated, declared in that year that Catholic doctrine was incompatible with National Socialism (Nazism). Franz held to that principleno compromise with neo-paganism. On April 10, 1938, he voted «no» in the referendum organized by the Nazis in Austria following its forced annexation by Germany (the «Anschluss»). He was the only one in his village who dared to do so. On June 17, 1940, Jägerstätter was called to active military duty in Braunau, Hitler's birthplace. However, he was exempted from service on the intervention of his town's authorities, because he had three young daughters, the third of whom had just been born. But in October he was recalled to Enns to join the mountain light infantry. On December 8 he was received into the Third Order of Saint Francis to which his wife also belonged. In April 1941, Franz managed, again thanks to authorities from his town, to return home. He would enjoy two months of relative peace, but throughout this time he and his wife lived in fearful anticipation of a letter from the Wehrmacht.
Franz did not at all refuse in principle to bear arms. He accepted the teaching of the Church, today expressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: «Public authorities, in this case (if the conditions of 'just war' are met) have the right and duty to impose on citizens the obligations necessary for national defense. Those who are sworn to serve their country in the armed forces are servants of the security and freedom of nations. If they carry out their duty honorably, they truly contribute to the common good of the nation and the maintenance of peace» (no. 2310). Nevertheless in April 1941 Franz decided not to comply with a new call to serve in the army of the Third Reich. He was convinced, after long and careful thought, that in doing so he would be sinning by taking direct part in an unjust war.
In St. Radegund's parish, Franz was advised to be more flexible. However, he refused any collaboration with the regime and any financial support to the Nazis, the only political party. In contrast, he gladly helped to support the despoiled Church and gave to the poor secretly, to avoid going through the official charitable organizations. From then on he attended Mass daily. Franz had become a sacristan in 1940 and took his duties seriously. He discreetly advised the priest to speak more often about the sufferings of purgatory, to encourage the parishioners to seek perfection and do penanceadvice that would be taken. As for himself, he did penance, fasted, and redoubled his prayers. It was above all from Holy Communion that he drew his strength. Asked «Can we still do anything?», Franz replied, «We often hear, 'Nothing can be done; to say anything is to uselessly expose oneself to prison and death. One can hardly singlehandedly change the destiny of the world'« But to save oneself, and maybe also win other souls for Christ, I believe that it is never too late, as long as we are living in this world.»
Faced with contradiction
Franz consulted his bishop, Bishop Joseph Fliesser, who according to his own testimony tried to convince him to obey the call to arms: it was beyond the ability of a simple citizen to determine whether the war was just, and Franz's first responsibility was to his family. This answer did not satisfy Jägerstätter, who suspected that the bishop had taken him for a Nazi provocateur. Furthermore, seeing how many of his acquaintances had died fighting on the Russian front, Franz noted that it was scarcely less dangerous to refuse to serve than to be drafted to fight on the Eastern front. «I believe that if God asks us to die for our faith, it is not something too difficult, considering the thousands of young men who, in these difficult years of war, were forced to give their lives for Nazism.»
God is served first
In February 1943, Hitler's propaganda minister Goebbels declared «Total War.» At that point, reservists too were drafted. Jägerstätter received the dreaded summons. In acknowledging receipt, he remarked, «I have just signed my death warrant.» His mother begged him not to be stubborn, but his wife had given up trying to change his mind. Summoned to present himself at the barracks in Enns on February 25, Franz wrote to Father Karobath, by then in exile: «I must inform you that you may be losing one of your parishioners« Since no one can give me a dispensation for doing something that endangers my eternal salvation, I can in no way change the decision that you are aware of.» At that point, the priest understood and approved of his friend's position.
At first, Franz did not go to the barrackshis plan was to hide in the forest. Then, realizing that his flight could result in reprisals against his family, he presented himself at Enns on March 1. On the 2nd he announced to the recruitment officer that he refused to bear arms because of his opposition to the principles of National Socialism. The same day he wrote his wife a letter full of love in which he explained to her the reasons for his decision. It ends with these words: «May God grant you all that you desire, as long as it does not endanger your eternal salvation« If God does not permit me to see you again here below, I hope we will soon be reunited in Heaven.» He asked Franziska to send him a booklet on the Virgin Mary's apparitions in Fatima.
Franz was taken to the military prison in Linz. There he was visited by Father Baldinger who invited him to accept the call to serve. The priest maintained that bearing arms did not imply belonging to the Nazi regimeit was only an act of civil obedience which did not bind the conscience. But Franz held to his decision, weighed a thousand times before Godhe could not take the oath of unconditional obedience to Hitler that was required of every soldier. After the war Father Baldinger testified to Jägerstätter's perfect mental health and his gentlenessthere was none of the fanatic in him. Besides, Franz often said, «I trust in God. If He wants me to act otherwise, He will let me know.»
In the heart of man
Nevertheless, «Conscience is not an independent and exclusive capacity to decide what is good and what is evil.» On the contrary, «The dignity of this rational forum and the authority of its voice and judgments derive from the truth about moral good and evil, which it is called to listen to and to express. This truth is indicated by the 'divine law', the universal and objective norm of morality» (John Paul II, Encyclical Veritatis splendor, 1995, no. 60). Thus, «Moral conscience does not close man within an insurmountable and impenetrable solitude, but opens him to the call, to the voice of God» (ibid., no. 58).
The Second Vatican Council teaches, «In the formation of their consciences, the Christian faithful ought carefully to attend to the sacred and certain doctrine of the Church. For the Church is, by the will of Christ, the teacher of the truth. It is her duty to give utterance to, and authoritatively to teach, that truth which is Christ Himself, and also to declare and confirm by her authority those principles of the moral order which have their origins in human nature itself»(Dignitatis humanæ, no.14).
He was not alone
Nevertheless, Jägerstätter experienced moments of trial, most of all fearing that his family would be persecuted because of him. He rejoiced in his wife's Christian acceptance of the trials she was enduring. On March 7, Franziska wrote to him: «My dearest husband, « may the Will of God be done, even if it is very painful! « Your three little girls are always clammering for you and are offering their Lenten sacrifices for your return.» On April 9, Franz wrote to his wife, on the occasion of their seventh anniversary: «When I think back on all the graces I have received over these seven years, it sometimes seems miraculous to me« That is why, even if we fear the future, we can be certain that He Who has sustained and spoiled us so will not abandon us. If we are able to thank Him and continue our efforts toward perfection, God will grant us eternal joy«. If I must leave this life, I will rest in peace in my grave because you know that I am not a criminal.»
The intimate notes Jägerstätter jotted down during his last days demonstrate his interior strength and freedom: «They are always trying to weaken my resolution through the fact that I am married and have children. But does the fact of having a wife and children change an evil act into a good one? Or does an action become good or evil simply because thousands of Catholics do it? What use is it to ask God for the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, if one must in any case practice blind obedience? What use is it to have received intelligence and free will from God if, as they claim, it is not for us to discern if this war Germany is waging is just or unjust?»
Before the trial, Franz' lawyer, Feldmann, who wanted to do everything possible to save his client, arranged for the prisoner to meet his judges in private. They urged him «not to force them to condemn him to death,» by agreeing to serve in a medical unit. But Franz declined the offer, because it would have forced him to take the oath of unconditional obedience, which he would not do at any cost. The sentence of the military tribunal in Berlin, dated July 6, 1943, states that his refusal to serve in the armed forces is a crime punishable according to the laws of the Reich, the alleged reasons of conscience being inadmissible and the plaintiff not being deemed mentally ill. Franz was condemned to death.
«I would have liked so much»
At 4 P.M., August 9th, Franz Jägerstätter was beheaded. That evening, Father Jochmann, the prison chaplain, said to the Austrian nuns who had a clinic in Brandenburg: «I can only congratulate you for having such a countryman, who lived as a Saint and died as a hero. I am certain that this simple man is the only Saint I have been privileged to meet in my life.» Jägerstätter's body was cremated by order of the authorities. The cremation urn would be buried after the war in the St. Radegund cemetery.
Father Kreutzberg, who knew Franz in his last days, wondered later: «Where did this simple man's strength of character come from? His letters show how he lived the great truths of his Catholic faith: God, sin, death, judgment, eternity, Heaven and Hellthese truths that he had received during Sunday homilies at his parish. In particular, the thought of eternity and the joys of Heaven were for him a great help and a precious consolation in his sufferings and his painful farewell to his family.»
On November 1, 2007, Cardinal Schönborn, the archbishop of Vienna, stated, «What is fascinating about Jägerstätter is the clear-sightedness of a martyr who, better than many academics of his day, was able to discern the incompatibility between National Socialism and the Christian faith. It would, however, be a terrible mistake to think that by beatifying Jägerstätter, all those who performed military service are condemned. Jägerstätter himself never judged others, but simply obeyed his conscience until the end.»
Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, pray that we might follow the voice of our conscience, guided by Our Mother the Holy Church, without allowing ourselves to be stopped by any human consideration.