Saturday, March 2, 2013

Blessed Franz Jägerstätter (1907-1943)

The lives of the saints are always edifying, sometimes exhilarating, but occasionally downright unsettling, even disturbing. Such is the case with Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian husband and father who stood up to Hitler during World War II and paid for it with his life.

Born out of wedlock, Franz ran with a rowdy crowd, and he seems to have earned his reputation as a hellion. Among other things, he is remembered for being the first to own a motorcycle in his conservative rural village of St. Radegund.

Eventually, however, Franz’ Catholic upbringing bore fruit in a gradual and profound conversion. In 1936, Franz married, and he set himself to making good on his wedding vows by taking up the plow and working the family farm. He also became a daily Communicant, and served as the sexton at his local parish. Blessed with three daughters, Franz and his wife, Franziska, dedicated themselves to a simple, almost Benedictine-like rhythm of work and prayer, while Franz himself embraced a Franciscan spirituality by joining the Third Order of St. Francis of Assisi.

As the clouds of war gathered across Europe, Franz’ deep piety led him to reflect deeply on the Gospel call to always put Christ first, no matter the cost. In 1938, that reflection led Jägerstätter to publicly oppose the Nazi annexation of Austria—a singular act of defiance dismissed by many as madness. When called to serve in the army of the Third Reich two years later, Franz initially cooperated, but later became resolute in his refusal to serve. For this refusal, the young husband and father was jailed and then shipped off to Berlin for trial. 

Jägerstätter was no pacifist, and there is no indication that he would have avoided taking up arms in legitimate defense of his beloved homeland. Instead, Franz’ refusal to fight was based on his understanding of Catholic just war doctrine, for he discerned that there was nothing just in the Nazi cause. The Nazis, of course, rejected such arguments, and convicted Jägerstätter of sedition. He was executed by beheading on August 9, 1943.

Easter message to jailed Jägerstätter: "Dear father come soon!"
The unsettling character of Jägerstätter’s martyrdom has less to do with his refusal of military service than his rock solid commitment to his principles and his faith. Everyone around Franz—his wife, friends, priests, even his bishop—told him that the responsible, reasonable thing to do was acquiesce to the Nazi regime, serve in the army, and preserve his life to care for his family. Many thought Franz made a foolhardy choice borne of an extreme religiosity.

But Jägerstätter knew better. From prison, he wrote, “People worry about the obligations of conscience as they concern my wife and children. But I cannot believe that, just because one has a wife and children, a man is free to offend God."

Pope Benedict XVI beatified Jägerstätter on October 26, 2007. His feast is observed May 21.

A version of this story appeared in Franciscan Way, Franciscan University of Steubenville.