The pages of Christian history are filled with countless names of those who came from virtual anonymity and proceeded to leave an indelible mark. St. Teresa of Calcutta is a prime example. Many others have reached the eternal heights of spiritual greatness but are not so well known. One of these is Franz Jagerstatter.
Franz was born in Austria in 1907. His father was killed in World War I and when Franz was around eight years old, his mom married Heinrich Jagerstatter who adopted young Franz, giving him his name.
Franz received a basic education in the local schools and excelled at reading and writing. He learned religion from his maternal grandmother and would read the Bible and other religious works. His faith nestled itself into his soul. As Franz grew older and wiser, his faith grew right along with him.
In 1933, Franz inherited his adopted father’s farm. He then met Franziska Schwaninger, a deeply religious Catholic woman, and they fell in love. They were married Holy Thursday, 1936, and after the ceremony proceeded on a pilgrimage to Rome. This is also when Franz’s spiritual life became his primary focus in all things.
Now possessing a deeply imbedded faith and love of Jesus, he soon was serving as a sexton at his local parish. He resolved never to deviate from things that were “not right.” Some perceived him as “overly pious.”
He stopped going to taverns because, as a defender of truth, he was always getting into arguments about Nazism and wanted to avoid that. He stopped accepting donations he received as the church sexton and gave the money to the needy even though he and his growing family were poor too. Even though some folks mocked him, he was determined to do “what was right.”
In 1938, German soldiers began moving into Austria. Immediately, they began implementing the Nazification of the once peaceful nation. The “Anschluss,” which was the creation of a German-Austrian State, was put to a vote in Franz’s village and he was the only one in his town to vote “no.” The authorities rejected his vote and claimed the vote was unanimous. However, Franz was now being watched by the Nazis.
It did not matter to Franz. He knew he must do the right thing and remained openly anti-Nazi. He joined the Third Order of St. Francis and began serving as a sacristan at the local parish. He managed to get several exemptions from military service. But time was not to be Franz’s friend.
In 1940, when he was 33, Franz was conscripted into the German army. He finished basic training but managed to stay out of the active service because he qualified for an exemption given to farmers. Back home he began to evaluate the morality of war and conscientious objection, even discussing the subject with his bishop.
And so it was that on February 23, 1943, Franz Jagerstatter was called to active duty. He and Franziska now had three daughters, the oldest only six. Franz stood faithful to his conscience and refused to fight for the godless Third Reich. He declared himself a “conscientious objector” and offered to serve as a paramedic. He was ignored. A priest from his town came to talk him into serving, but he refused. He was immediately put in prison.
Against all advice to stop resisting, Franz persisted in his opposition to the Nazis. Spiritual advisors pointed out his obligation to his family. Others noted the need to obey “legitimate” authorities. A friend told him, “Just say yes. You don’t even have to shoot straight. But take the oath.” Franz rejected all arguments. Atheistic Nazism could not be supported. He was determined to do the “right thing.”
Franz wrote, “Everyone tells me, of course, that I should not do what I am doing because of the danger of death. I believe it is better to sacrifice one’s life right away than to place oneself in the grave danger of committing sin and then dying.”
Franz Jagerstatter held fast to his principles. On July 6, 1943, he was tried and sentenced to death. On August 9, 1943, he was executed by guillotine at Brandenburg-Gorden prison. He was 36 years old.
Franz Jagerstatter led an obscure life and his death was no different. But a priest by the name of Father Jochmann spoke to Franz right before his execution. He said later that Franz was the only saint he had ever met.
In 1964 the American sociologist Gordon Zahn wrote a book about Franz Jagerstatter titled In Solitary Witness. That was followed by the renowned Trappist Thomas Merton writing a chapter about Franz in one his books, Faith & Violence.
Eventually, a cause for canonization made its way to the Vatican. Benedict XVI recognized him a martyr in June of 2007. On October 27, 2007, Franz Jagerstatter was beatified at a ceremony celebrated by Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins in Linz, Austria.
Franz believed that Jesus wanted him to do the “right thing.” He believed it so much he gave his life to do it. He is known as the patron of “conscientious objectors.”
Blessed Franz Jagerstatter, please pray for us.