Fr. Roy Bourgeois, M.M. and Franziska Jägerstätter
By Roy Bourgeois, M.M.
In June 2007, Pope Benedict XVI named Franz Jägerstätter, a 37 year old farmer, husband and father of three, an authentic martyr of the Catholic Church. Four months later, on October 26, Franz was beatified in the cathedral in Linz, Austria.
As a Catholic priest with the Maryknoll Order, I was deeply inspired and found hope over the years in the story of Franz, as told by Gordon Zahn in his book, In Solitary Witness. I felt it was important to join friends from the SOA Watch and Pax Christi and go on a spiritual pilgrimage to Austria to honor a great saint and peacemaker.
While a household name in Austria, Franz is practically unknown in the U.S. Let me tell his story …
In his little town of St. Radegund, with a population of 500, Franz was known in his youth as a tough guy who didn’t care much about religion. This suddenly changed when he married Franziska, a devout Catholic, who blessed him with three daughters. Franz started going to daily Mass in the town’s tiny church and his fellow farmers could hear him singing hymns as he worked on the family farm.
In 1938, Hitler’s army marched into Austria and, in the city of Linz, Hitler was given a warm welcome by thousands of Austrians, including Catholic church leaders. Soon after, all men in Austria, including those in St. Radegund, were ordered to enlist in the military and swear allegiance to Hitler. From the very beginning, Franz saw Hitler and the Nazis as evil and, therefore, refused. He stated that, in conscience, he could not participate in this immoral and unjust war and, as a Catholic, he must follow the teachings of God, not of Hitler.
The consequences of not joining the military at this time meant prison and getting sentenced to death. His townspeople, his wife, his parish priest and the bishop all tried to convince Franz to join Hitler’s army in order to protect his family, especially his three sweet little daughters.
Franz felt that having a wife and children were not an excuse for betraying his faith in God and, as a parent, following his conscience would set a good example for his children. He said,
“We need no rifles or pistols for our battle but, instead, spiritual weapons – and the foremost among these is prayer. The true christian is to be recognized more in his works and deeds than in his speech. The surest mark of all is found in the deeds showing love of neighbor.”
Shortly after refusing to enter the military, Franz was arrested and sent to prison in Linz. While in prison, he longed for his wife and three daughters, the oldest just under 6 years old, and they for him. In one of his letters he wrote,
“Should it be God’s will that I do not see you again in this world, let us then hope to meet again soon in heaven. Learn to become a family, loving one another and forgiving whatever may come. Forgive all those who might cause you hardship, and me, too. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for all the love which you have brought to me.”
After three months in prison, Franz was sentenced to death and transferred to another prison in Berlin, Germany. In the morning of August 9, 1943, Franz was informed that he would be executed at 4 PM that day. Around noon, a Catholic priest visited Franz and offered him some religious material to read. Franz replied,
“I am completely bound in inner union with the Lord, and any reading would only interrupt my communication with my God.”
At 4 PM, Franz was beheaded. His remains were later brought to his family in St. Radegund. He was buried next to the little church where he attended daily Mass.
For the next 20 years Franz was ignored by his townspeople, his country and his church. Then, through God’s divine grace and with the help of Gordon Zahn’s book, In Solitary Witness, the story and deep faith of this humble peasant farmer began to spread. People started showing up at his grave to pray. The Vatican began an investigation and determined that Franz was a true martyr of the Catholic church.
On October 26, thousands from Austria and throughout Europe filled the cathedral in Linz for the beatification ceremony and it was a great blessing for our delegation from the U. S. to be present. We were treated warmly and met many kindred spirits working for world peace.
An especially moving experience was to go to St. Radegund three days before the ceremony to meet Franziska, now 94 and doing well, and her daughters. We also attended Mass in the little church just down the road and prayed by Franz’s grave.
Going to Austria on this spiritual pilgrimage and learning more about Franz was very important. It is now my hope that the story of Franz will become known in the U.S. – as in Austria. For Catholics, and all people of faith, I believe Franz’s message is very relevant to us in the United States. Especially as our country is at war in Iraq.
In the midst of untold suffering and death of so many, our leaders are asking us to put our trust in weapons and militarism. As a christian, Franz had to choose between the teachings of God and the teachings of Caesar. He went with God and found eternal life.
May we have faith, wisdom and courage to follow in the footsteps of Blessed Franz Jägerstätter and say “NO” to war and violence!