Solitary, but not alone

Meet the martyr/dad Franz Jagerstatter

Melissa Keating

One theme unifies the stories of all the saints: Christians are never alone. Even in the most isolated circumstances, saints have a profound union with God. This principle is demonstrated by the martyrdom of Franz Jagerstatter, a father and martyr during the Nazi occupation of Austria.

A peasant background

 Franz Jagerstatter poses on his motorcycle. From right to left: Franz Jagerstatter; his stepfather, Heinrich Jagerstatter; his mother, Rosalia Jagerstatter; and Aloisia Sommerauer, Franz's cousin and foster sister. / Styria Verlag. Used with permission.

Franz Jagerstatter poses on his motorcycle. From right to left: Franz Jagerstatter; his stepfather, Heinrich Jagerstatter; his mother, Rosalia Jagerstatter; and Aloisia Sommerauer, Franz’s cousin and foster sister. /Styria Verlag. Used with permission.

Franz was no St. Therese. He was the illegitimate child of a maidservant in a tiny village in Upper Austria. His mother married when Franz was 10.

Franz was a wild child. He was a womanizer, and even had a daughter born out of wedlock. Gordan Zahn, whose book In Solitary Witness is the definitive work on Jagerstatter’s life, discovered that Jagerstatter was exiled from his community for several years, during which time he stopped attending Mass.

However, Jagerstatter received a passable education in the village’s one-room school schoolhouse before becoming a farmer. Then he met his wife.

 

Marriage transformed him

Franz and Franziska Jagerstatter after they returned from Rome, probably in April or May 1936. This is their wedding photograph./Styria Verlag. Used with permission.

Franz and Franziska Jagerstatter after they returned from Rome, probably in April or May 1936. This is their wedding photograph./Styria Verlag. Used with permission.

He married Franziska Schwaninger on Holy Thursday 1936. On their honeymoon, they received a papal blessing from Pope Pius XI.

 

Franziska’s effect on her husband was subtle but persistent. Jagerstatter became the sexton of the village Church, meaning he assisted at all the liturgies and maintained the building. This led to him becoming a daily communicant. He began to memorize the Bible and learn the lives of the saints. In fact, he once told his wife, “I could have never imagined that being married could be so wonderful.”

 

 

Road to martyrdom

Three of Franz Jagerstatter's four children: Maria, Louisi and Rosi./Styria Verlag. Used with permission

Three of Franz Jagerstatter’s four children: Maria, Louisi and Rosi./Styria Verlag. Used with permission

Jagerstatter and Franziska had three girls together, and remained close to his other daughter. In 1938, around the time their eldest daughter was born, Germans invaded Austria.

The Catholic Church in Austria had warned against Nazi socialism for years. Catholics in Germany were facing severe restrictions, including the prohibition of Mass outside of Sundays, even for the holiest solemnities and feast days.   Jagerstatter’s own pastor had been jailed for delivering an anti-Nazi sermon. His bishop had dictated an anti-Nazi letter to be read in all the parishes several years earlier. That same bishop would declare, “It is impossible to be both a good Catholic and a true Nazi.” He was later replaced with a bishop who spoke more cautiously.

The same pope who had blessed Jagerstatter’s marriage, Pope Pius XI, published the encyclical “Mit Brennender Sorge“, in which he warned that socials was more dangerous than communism.

 

Buoyed by these witnesses, Jagerstatter was still the only person in his whole town to disavow Anschluss, or the German annexation of Austria. He was dismayed to see many Catholics support the Nazis. One cardinal even demanded that all parishes fly the Nazi flag from their churches on Hitler’s birthday.

 

“I believe there could scarcely be a sadder hour for the true Christian faith in our country,” he wrote.

Franz Jagerstatter refused to support the Nazis, despite the pressure his village placed on him./ Styria Verlag. Used with permission

Franz Jagerstatter refused to support the Nazis, despite the pressure his village placed on him./Styria Verlag. Used with permission

The prevailing idea at the time was that a peasant layman should do what his country told him to do. By this obedience, the people who made the decisions, and not the peasant, would hold moral responsibility for the actions. But Franz couldn’t reconcile that worldview with the fact that he had a freewill, and that he could not call himself a disciple if he bowed that will to a movement he viewed as satanic. He would not fight for the Nazis.

Franz Jagerstatter: Letters and Writings from Prison (Orbis Books) contains many of Jagerstatter's arguments for objecting to the Nazis.

Franz Jagerstatter: Letters and Writings from Prison (Orbis Books) contains many of Jagerstatter’s arguments for objecting to the Nazis.

At first it seemed that being a farmer would keep him from fighting–Germany’s massive army required equally massive amounts of food. Unfortunately, in 1943 the need for fighters grew, and Jagerstatter was called to active duty. He went to the induction center, where he announced that he would not fight. He was summarily carted to the military prison at Linz to learn his fate.

“I am convinced it is best that I speak the truth, even if it costs me my life,” he wrote.

 

 

Saints have saints for friends

Friends, family and even the local bishop visited Jagerstatter in prison, trying to convince him to fight. None of these visitors gave him a convincing argument against his moral convictions about conscientious objection. Instead, they all tried to convince him that God would not hold him accountable for doing what his state ordered. Jagerstatter was unconvinced.

 

“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 someday, then we, too, must become heroes of the faith,” he said.

Austria: The first page of Franz's last essay, written while he was in prison. The first sentence reads,

The first page of Franz’s last essay, written while he was in prison. The first sentence reads, “Now I’ll write down a few words as they come to me from my heart. Although I am writing them with my hands in chains, this is still much better than if my will were in chains.”/Styria Verlag. Used with permission

His wife accepted his need to follow his conscience. He was also part of a movement of Catholic martyrs who gave their life to fight the Nazis.

 

St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) had died the previous August in Auschwitz, almost a year to the day after St. Maximillian Kolbe. Blessed Marcel Callo was just beginning the undercover Catholic activities in his forced labor camp that would eventually lead to his 1945 martyrdom for being “too Catholic.”

Most impressively, Jagerstatter spent May to August of 1943 in the same prison as the renowned Lutheran pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer. There is not evidence that the two men ever met, or even realized they shared a prison with someone so similar in conviction. Jagerstatter was able to learn, though, of a priest who had been martyred in the same prison for the exact reasons he and so many others shared.

That conviction ultimately cost him his life. He was taken to Berlin, where he was sentenced to death for sedition. His last recorded words before he met the guillotine are,”I am completely bound in inner union with the Lord.”

Easter 1943: Franz Jagerstatter's daughters; Loisi, Rosi, and Maria, holding a sign that reads,

Easter 1943: Franz Jagerstatter’s daughters; Loisi, Rosi, and Maria, holding a sign that reads, “Dear Father, come [home] soon.” Franz was in jail in Linz and was later executed./Styria Verlag. Used with permission

The Church agreed. During Vatican II, Jagerstatter’s life helped shape the section of Gaudium et Spes that talks about conscientious objectors to war. He was beatified 50 years after his death. His daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren attended the ceremony.

COMING UP: Nothing about us without us

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The slogan “Nothing about us without us” was used by Solidarity in the 1980s in Poland, borrowing a royal motto from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the mid-second millennium. Then, it was expressed in Latin: Nihil de nobis sine nobis. Later, it appeared in Polish on the banners of 19th-century Poles fighting their country’s partition by Russia, Prussia, and Austria: Nic o Nas bez Nas. Today, it’s often used by disability activists asserting their claim to be fully participant in society.

“Nothing about us without us” also applies to the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region, which will meet in Rome in October.

That Synod will involve seven bishops’ conferences from nine Latin American countries who will consider their pastoral situation under the theme, “Amazonia: new paths for the Church and for an integral ecology.” As is usually the case in these meetings, the bishops at the Synod will work with materials drafted in Rome. Early indicators from the Synod’s preparatory document suggest that the Amazonian Synod will be longer on environmentalism than on theology. International media attention will doubtless focus on the Synod’s discussion of climate change and its relationship to Amazonian deforestation.

Recent synodal history suggests, however, that more will be afoot at the Amazonian Synod than what its announced theme suggests.

The 2014 and 2015 Synods were called to consider the crisis of marriage and the family throughout the world. Yet they became the occasion for powerful churchmen to try to deconstruct Catholic moral theology and sacramental discipline, according to the tried-and-failed theologies and pastoral practices of the 1970s. The 2018 Synod, summoned to discuss youth ministry and vocational discernment, began with an effort by the Synod general secretariat to enshrine the world’s language of sexual plasticity (and the lame understandings of happiness that underwrite that language) into an official Church document. When that failed, Synod-2018 became the occasion for the Synod general secretariat to promote an ill-defined notion of “synodality” that struck more than a few bishops present as a prescription for local-option, choose-your-own-doctrine Catholicism on the model of the (imploding) Anglican Communion.

This pattern seems likely to continue at the Amazonian Synod. There, the deeper agenda will be the ordination of mature married men — viri probati — to the priesthood. Proponents will argue that this dramatic change in the Church’s longstanding tradition of a celibate priesthood (which, contrary to much misinformation, antedates the early Middle Ages by hundreds of years) is necessary because Amazonia is a Catholic area deprived of the Eucharist by a lack of priests. One hopes that the counterclaims — that Amazonia is mission territory requiring wholesale evangelization, and that Amazonia’s lack of priests reflects racial and class divisions in Latin American Catholicism that discourage priests of European pedigree from working with indigenous peoples — get a serious hearing.

Proponents of ordaining viri probati in Amazonia, including retired Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, OFM, have insisted that any such concession there would have no implications for the universal Church. That cannot be, however. Should the Amazonian Synod request the Pope to grant a dispensation from the discipline of celibacy for that region, and should he grant it, it will be just a matter of time before bishops conferences elsewhere — Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, and Austria come immediately to mind — make similar requests, citing pressing pastoral needs. On what ground would those requests be denied?

In a year-end interview with Vatican News, the Synod’s general secretary, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, insisted that the Amazonian Synod would not discuss environmental issues only, but would also confront “ecclesial themes” — and would do so in a way that Amazonia could be “a model for the whole world.”

We can be grateful to the cardinal for his candor in, however unintentionally, letting the celibacy cat out of the synodal bag. Any decision to ordain viri probati in Amazonia would inevitably have major consequences for the entire Church. A decision of this magnitude cannot be taken by an unrepresentative segment of the Church and then turned into a “model” for everyone else.

That is why the principle of “Nothing about us without us” must apply here. Whatever else “synodality” may mean, it surely must mean that decisions bearing on everyone should involve as broad a consultation and as global a reflection as possible. Bishops who agree should make their concerns known now, not after the Amazonian synod meets.

Featured image by Vatican Media | CNA