Vatican to beatify Austrian conscientious objector

“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.” — Franz Jagerstatter

Franz Jagerstatter was a rare soul and could be compared to the great contemplatives and saints. He was a simple Austrian farmer who stubbornly refused to serve in the armies of the German Third Reich and to support the Nazi party and was executed as a consequence. Jagerstatter became one of the outstanding figures of Christian resistance to National Socialism.

On June 1, Pope Benedict XVI authorized Jagerstatter’s beatification, which will take place Oct. 27 in Lintz, Austria. Jagerstatter was born in 1907 in St. Radegund, a community by the River Salzach in the western part of Upper Austria where everyone was a farmer. After Jagerstatter’s father was killed in World War I, his mother married Herr Jagerstatter, who adopted him. In 1936 Jagerstatter married Franziska Schwaninger and adopted the life of a peasant. A strong and ardent believer, Jagerstatter began serving as sexton of the parish church. He was known for his diligent and devout service.

Jagerstatter was also known for his opposition to the Nazi regime. The thought of fighting in Hitler’s war was unconscionable to him and he regarded it as a matter of personal guilt and serious sin. When Jagerstatter was called to active duty in the military, he sought counsel from at least three priests and his bishop. Each tried to assure him that military service was compatible with his Christianity. Jagerstatter knew that bishops and priests would be arrested if they said anything other than what the government permitted. Yet he asked, “If the church stays silent in the face of what is happening, what difference would it make if no church were ever opened again?”

Jagerstatter knew that he couldn’t change world affairs but he wanted his refusal to fight to be a sign to others lest they be carried away with the tide. Jagerstatter reconciled his church’s advice of subservience to the governing authorities with his conscience by reporting to the induction center but refusing to serve. After being imprisoned in Linz and Berlin, Jagerstatter was convicted in a military trial at which he explained that if he fought for the nationalist socialist state, he would be acting against his religious conscience. He had reached the conviction that as a believing Catholic he could not perform military service. Jagerstatter, however, offered to serve as a medical orderly. The court did not respond to his request.

Jagerstatter was then taken from Berlin to Brandenburg/Havel on Aug. 9, 1943. He was told that his death sentence would be carried out later that day. A priest by the name of Father Jochmann spent considerable time with the condemned man and was impressed by his calmness and composure. That night, Father Jochmann told some Austrian nuns that Jagerstatter was the only saint he had met in his life.

On Aug. 9, Jagerstatter was beheaded, the first of 16 victims. The nuns planted flowers on the site where Jagerstatter’s urn was buried, and on their first trip to their motherhouse in Vocklabruck after the war, they brought the urn containing Jagerstatter’s ashes to his homeland.

The urn was buried by the church wall in St. Radegund. His wife and three young daughters survived Jagerstatter. At the time of his death he said he would rather his children have a father martyred for following Christ than a Nazi for a father.

On Oct 25, St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Binghamton, NY will host a liturgy to honor Jagerstatter’s beatification. “This is a powerful and teachable moment for us about how we are forming our conscience,” said pastor of St. Catherine’s, Father Timothy Taugher. “It’s the call of the Gospel to peace.” Sponsored by the St. James Justice and Peace Council, it will offer an opportunity to learn more about Jagerstatter and about facing the military challenge with a conscientious objector status.

Four men from the Central New York and Pennsylvania areas and who are actively involved in the justice and peace movement will be traveling to Austria to witness the beatification of Jagerstatter. Along with Father Bill Pickard, who is Director of Urban Ministries at the Diocese of Scranton, Pa., activist, author, speaker and teacher Jack Gilroy, PAX Christi member Dick Keough and Father Bernard Survil of Greensburg, Pa., will be attending the beatification.

Keough said he is looking forward to visiting the village where Jagerstatter lived. “It’s a great opportunity to be on holy ground,” said Keough. “Jagerstatter was a true child of God.” He believes that the courage Jagerstatter displayed when he refused to fight in the war is extremely inspiring. Jagerstatter knew he was alone. He had the support only of his wife. “It’s inspiring, especially for young people who haven’t had the teaching of conscientious objection,” said Keough. “We shortchanged our young people in failing to teach them the non-violent Jesus. Jesus calls us all to be nonviolent and He told us to love our enemies.”

Gilroy said he wanted to attend because he will feel a sense of power against powerful government control. He noted that for the last 1,700 years, the Catholic Church has caved into the government’s training to kill. “Now we are accepting to any government rule,” said Gilroy. “People should take to heart the fact that Jagerstatter stood up against war. The priests and the bishop have to work on changing the hearts of parishioners — to not let them cave in to the power of government initiatives. If people were willing to stand up like Jagerstatter, there wouldn’t have been a World War II.”

The original story can be found at the Catholic Sun.

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