Solitary, but not alone

Meet the martyr/dad Franz Jagerstatter

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: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”