Thursday, October 25, 2007

Franz Jägerstätter to Be Beatified Tomorrow

Franz Jägerstätter was introduced to me early on in life by my father as an exemplary twentieth century martyr and saint. Uncle Mark brought it to my attention that the Catholic Church is beatifying Jägerstätter tomorrow. An inspiring essay about his faith and practice is written up in First Things. A portion of the article is reproduced below.

Jägerstätter... became an outspoken opponent of the Nazi regime and refused all cooperation. When a storm destroyed his crops, he declined any assistance from Germany. He stopped attending social events to avoid heated arguments with Nazi apologists.

As the takeover of Austria proceeded, Jägerstätter knew he would be asked to collaborate at some point. In early 1943, it came: He was ordered to appear at the induction center at Enns, where he declared his intention not to serve. The next day, he was hauled off to a military prison at Linz, to await his fate. “All he knew when he arrived,” writes Zahn, “was that he was subject to summary execution at any moment.”

A parade of people—relatives, friends, spiritual advisers, even his own bishop—pleaded with Jägerstätter to change his mind. Some did not disagree with his anti-Nazi convictions or his moral stance; they simply argued he could not be held guilty in the eyes of God if he offered minimal cooperation under such duress, given the extreme alternative.

Jägerstätter... believed Christians were called precisely to meet the highest possible standards—“be thou perfect,” said Our Lord—even at the cost of one’s life, if fundamental Christian principles were at stake. Serving Germany in a nonmilitary post would simply make it easier for someone else to commit war crimes. He could not participate in the Nazi death machine, even indirectly. He would not be swayed: “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.” Indeed, he added, “the important thing is to fear God more than man.”

After several months of imprisonment in Linz, Jägerstätter was taken to Berlin, where he stood military trial. According to witnesses, Jägerstätter was quite eloquent in his defense, but he was sentenced to death for sedition. On August 9, 1943, Jägerstätter was informed he would be beheaded that day. His last words as he was taken to the gallows were ones of peace, testifying to his faith: “I am completely bound in inner union with the Lord.” The prison chaplain who ministered to him that day later remarked, “I can say with certainty that this simple man is the only saint I have met in my lifetime.”

During his ordeal, many of Jägerstätter’s neighbors considered his act unnecessary and foolish, a sentiment that remained long after his death. Zahn, who interviewed Jägerstätter’s critics, examines all the explanations offered to question Jägerstätter’s sacrifice—that he was selfish, reckless, spiritually vainglorious, or even disturbed—and makes a convincing case that none of them hold.

The most unfair charge is that Jägerstätter put himself above his family. “I have faith that God will still give me a sign if some other course would be better,” he wrote, as he struggled to find a solution to his dilemma. Images of the Passion filled his mind: “Christ, too, prayed on the Mount of Olives that the Heavenly Father might permit the chalice of sorrow to pass from His lips—but we must never forget this part of his prayer: ‘Lord, not my will be done but rather Thine.’”

In the end, however, after it became clear that Jägerstätter would be asked to betray his conscience, there was only one path he could take, a hard and narrow path chosen by the very few: Better to die for Christ than scandalize his faith and family by becoming a Nazi. The letters and statements he made to his wife and family at this time show the anguish his decision brought; he was overwhelmed with the sense that he was abandoning them and feared reprisals against them lay ahead. But Jägerstätter knew that God was watching and would ultimately avenge his elect, and so expressed hope of a reunion yet to come: “I will surely beg the dear God, if I am permitted to enter heaven soon, that he may also set aside a little place in heaven for all of you.” And again to his daughters: “I greet you, my dear little girls. May the child Jesus and the dear Mother of Heaven protect you until we see one another again.” (William Doino Jr.)