The Legacy of Franz Jagerstatter

Two weeks ago, on October 26, 2007, an astonishing event happened in the Catholic Church. Anti-war hero Franz Jagerstatter was beatified, (that is, officially recognized as "blessed" by God), in the Cathedral in Linz, Austria. This event, ignored by religious and mainstream media in the U.S., was for me, one of the most political and best events in the institutional Church in recent decades, and a real sign of hope. The church was declaring publicly that nearly all Catholics of Austria and Germany, including Joseph Ratzinger, now the Pope, were wrong, that this uneducated farmer was right, and that we are all called to live and practice the radical nonviolence of the peacemaking Jesus. The political implications of this event for Catholics around the world are staggering, and very exciting.

The witness of Franz Jagerstatter has been with me nearly all my life. My grandmother gave me a booklet about Franz when I was a student at Duke University in the late 1970s, trying to decide what to do with my life. I was stunned by this story of a young father, husband, and farmer, born on May 20, 1907, who was called into active service by the Nazis in February, 1943, politely refused, was imprisoned in Linz, condemned to death for "undermining military morale," and beheaded on August 9, 1943. His witness encouraged me to become a Jesuit and an advocate for peace, justice and nonviolence. "Consider two things: from where, to where," Franz wrote his godson from prison, just a few weeks before his execution. "Then your life will have its true meaning." I've been trying to take his good advice.

In 1985, I read Gordon Zahn's ground-breaking biography, "In Solitary Witness," while living in a refugee camp in El Salvador. In the 1990s, I made a pilgrimage to St. Radegund to pray at Franz' grave and visit his widow Franziska and the Jagerstatter family.

On the night before the celebration, nearly a hundred Pax Christi members from Austria, England and the U.S. gathered for a meal and reflections on Franz's life. The two hour Mass on Friday morning was broadcast live on national TV in Austria and Germany. At one point, 94 year-old Franziska presented a gold box of his relics, kissed them, gave them for the altar, then wept. She knows now that Franz no longer belongs to Austria. Now he belongs to the world.

Franz he is still a force of controversy throughout Austria, but he is the closest saint in recent centuries to resemble those daring, early Christians. If we accept the social and political implications of this ceremony, then no Catholic can ever again support war. Every Catholic has to obey the nonviolent Jesus, resist the culture of war, speak out for peace, work for justice, and combine the full mystical and political dimensions of faith and nonviolence.

During those days of celebration, many of us in the U.S. delegation talked about a dream which Franz had in 1938 which pushed him to say No to war. One night, he dreamt of a beautiful train and huge crowds rushing to board it. Then he heard a voice saying, "This train is going to hell!" Next he saw a vision of many people suffering. He awoke terrified and told Franziska, then later wrote about it from prison. The dream, he wrote, was about Nazi patriotism, idolatry and warmaking.

But I wonder if his nightmare was about all patriotism, idolatry and warmaking, our global rush to violence, killing, war and nuclear weapons. His dream describes our quiet, steady support for American imperialism, military domination, war on Iraq and Afghanistan, corporate greed, environmental destruction, and ignoring the cry of the world's poor. Franz wrote fiercely about the loss of our soul. We are losing our souls and we don't know it, he said. "I would like to call out to everyone who is riding in this train: 'Jump out before this train reaches its destination, even if it costs you your life!'"

That is what many of us are saying today. Like Franz, we're trying not to get on the train to hell, even though crowds rush to board it. We're crying out, "Don't get on this train. Don't support the culture of war. Don't make nuclear weapons at Los Alamos. Don't spend your life becoming rich while 900 million starve. Don't worship the flag of empire. Become a conscientious objector, a nonviolent resister, a public peacemaker."

But what astonishes me most is that Franz didn't just reason his way to oppose an unjust war (which is what most good people conclude about him: he realized that Nazi warfare was unjust, so he refused to fight, and did the right thing.) I believe Franz went much farther. With Franziska, he climbed the heights of faith, the kind that moves mountains. "He prayed all day long," one of his cellmates testified. He received the sacraments, gave to those in need, spoke out as necessary, tried to teach his priests and bishops, prepared for death and did all things for the honor of the God of love. He became a person of deep mystical prayer, and made the connection between Gospel politics and Gospel spirituality. By the time of his death, I submit, Franz understood that to follow the nonviolent Jesus and give one's entire life to God meant that you could never kill, support war, or compromise with evil. Most of us today are a long way from making that connection.

"Just as those who believe in Nazism tell themselves that their struggle is for survival," he wrote from prison, "so must we, too, convince ourselves that our struggle is for God's eternal reign. But with this difference: we need no rifles or pistols for our battle but, instead, spiritual weapons...Let us love our enemies, bless those who curse us, pray for those who persecute us. For love will conquer and will endure for all eternity. And happy are they who live and die in God's love."

On the morning of his death, Father Albert Jochmann, the pastor of Brandenburg, visited Franz in his cell. He offered Franz a Bible. "I am completely united with God and any reading would disrupt my union with God," Franz said to the priest's amazement. That day, he wrote to Franziska in his last letter, "The heart of Jesus, the heart of Mary and my heart are one, united for time and eternity."

Who dares say such a thing? The recent collection of letters by Mother Teresa, which I read on the plane to Austria, testify clearly that she never felt such union with God. Few do. Franz did. It was the natural culmination of his steadfast, wholehearted pursuit of God and God's reign of peace, which required both nonviolent resistance to idolatry, empire and war, and full-time devotion to prayer, worship and nonviolent love. As the world's violence worsens, I think Franz will emerge as one of history's greatest saints.

Franz never gave up on the church, even though every single priest, pastor, chaplain and bishop he knew advised him to fight for the Nazis, for the sake of his wife and children. He held his ground, felt sad, and prayed for them. On the day of his execution, Father Jochmann told Franz about an Austrian priest, Fr. Franz Reinisch, who had recently been executed for refusing to fight. This report consoled Franz a great deal. (Now we know that some 4,000 priests were killed by the Nazis.) Like Franz, we have to reach out and convert every priest, pastor, bishop and cardinal who supports war, nuclear weapons, and patriotic imperialism to the Gospel wisdom of active love, nonviolent resistance and steadfast peacemaking.

Unlike Franz Jagerstatter, we do not have to do this work alone. Yes, we may be harassed, even arrested and imprisoned, but unlike Franz, we will not be alone. We can join and form communities of peace and justice to help each other take a stand for peace, support one another, and speak out in one voice against our nation's wars and injustices. Together, we can build movements to say our No to the School of the Americas, the U.S. war on Iraq, threats against Iran, and nuclear weapons at Los Alamos, and like Franz, help one another plumb the mystical depths of Gospel nonviolence until we, too, are completely united with Jesus, Mary and the God of peace.

"We must do everything in our power to strive toward the Eternal Homeland and to preserve a good conscience," Franz wrote from prison. "Though we must bear our daily sorrows and reap little reward in this world for doing so, we can still become richer than millionaires--for those who need not fear death are the richest and happiest of all And these riches are there for the asking." "There have always been heroes and martyrs who gave their lives for Christ and their faith. If we hope to reach our goal some day, then we, too, must become heroes of the faith."

"If one harbors no thought of vengeance against others and can forgive everyone," he wrote, "he will be at peace in his heart--and what is there in all this world more lovely than peace? Let us pray to God that a real and lasting peace may soon descend upon this world."

"A prophet with a global view and a penetrating insight." "A shining example in his fidelity to the claims of his conscience." "An advocate of nonviolence and peace, a voice of warning against ideologies, a deep-believing person for whom God really was the core and center of life." This is how the Bishop of Linz described blessed Franz. Let's take heart from the life and witness of Franz Jagerstatter, be encouraged by the turn of events in Austria, and carry on like him in our steadfast stand against war and for a new world of peace.

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