" ...It was not possible for me to free you from the pain that you must now suffer on my account. How hard it must have been for our dear Savior when, through His sufferings and death, he had to prepare such a great sorrow for His Mother -- and together They bore all of this out of great love for us sinners..... And now your husband, son, father, son-in-law and brother-in-law greets you once more before his final journey. The heart of Jesus, the heart of Mary, and my heart are one in time and eternity...." From his last letter to his family before he was beheaded by the Nazis; his wife had consistently support his refusal to serve in the German military, even when his mother and others in his village begged him to recant.
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Information from an email to a CatholiCity discussion forum:
Franz was born on May 20, 1907. He was an illegitimate son of two young
people. The father supported Franz's mother, but was killed in WW I.
Sometime later Franz' mother married a gentleman with the last name of
Jaegerstaetter. Franz grew up in the small village of St. Radegund.
During his adolescence and early adulthood, Franz was a member of a minor
village "gang" who drank heavily and fought with rival gangs from other
villages. The fighting was not just play -- the gangs used such weapons as
knives and heavy chains. Franz was a "natural leader", even then.
Sometime in 1934 he went to work in the Steiermark iron mines. There he
experienced a religious conversion; attending Holy Mass frequently. He
left his gang membership & found himself drawn to deep prayer and lectio
divina. He even thought very seriously about whether God was calling him
to religious life. A local priest talked him out of it; pointing out that
Franz was the sole support of his parents and their little farm.
So Franz returned to St. Radegund -- a thoroughly converted young man, to
the astonishment of the villagers who'd known him during his extended "wild
days". He continued to deepen his spiritual life; and married a devout
young woman named Francesca. His daily life included fasting until noon
each day; Holy Mass; and -- although he & his wife were not at all
well-to-do -- giving generously to the poor. He began to earn a
reputation, of course, as a "fanatic". The very villagers who had
denounced his wild youth now denounced his conversion to Gospel living.
Franz "despised the Nazi movement, & took advantage of every opportunity to
speak out against it", according to author Boniface Hanley, O.F.M. At
every juncture during the gathering storm -- whether it was facing the
choice to stay or leave the "National Austrian Farmers' Association" as it
became more & more supportive; or choosing which way to vote when Austrians
were asked to cast ballots concerning their approval or disapproval of
German occupation of their country; Franz was visibly demonstrative in his
abhorrence of all things Nazi. His village priest admired Franz' stance,
yet warned him that he was courting serious danger, since the Nazis brooked
no opposition -- even the mildest forms. The pastor officially advised
Franz to vote "yes" to the German annexation of Austria; but Franz
responded "Father, I respect and love you as a priest of God, but my
conscience will not let me vote Yes" (Hanley; 1983). The priest could not
stop him, but did warn him that he had a certain obligation to "go with
the flow" because he was a husband and father; and caretaker of his parents
& their farm.
Franz understood all this, but maintained that he could not lie, because
the Hitler regime was inherently evil. "Besides, Father, I believe that
God asks me to live by my conscience. If I do what I think He wants me to
do, then I know He will take care of my wife & family" (Hanley; 1983).
When the Austrian people cast a near-unanimous vote in 1938 to accept Nazi
occupation of their homeland, Franz wrote later "I believe that what took
place in the spring of 1938 was not much different from what happened that
Holy Thursday nineteen hundred years ago when the crowd was given a free
choice between the innocent Savior & the criminal Barrabas."
In late 1939 Franz was drafted into the national army; assigned to the
motor corps. Apparently he spent several months in training but then --
through Divine intervention? -- was deferred, perhaps because he was a
farmer. This several months of national training only convinced him
further that he would NEVER serve in the Third Reich's army: "If they call
me up, I will not serve", he told his wife.
When Franz returned to St. Radegund his slightly-outspoken village priest
had already been removed & punished by the Nazis; replacing the priest with
Father Furthauer. This new priest noticed Franz' holiness and asked him to
serve as sacristan, a very solemn duty in any Catholic church.
Franz continued to face the inner spiritual battle of what God was asking
him to do in the face of Nazi encroachment. Fr. Furthauer said he couldn't
solve Franz' problem, and sent him onward to consult other priests.
Ultimately, Franz ended up consulting the Bishop of Linz! Problem: every
single priest advised him to accept military service if he was called up.
As Hanley says, "Their judgment was based on this reasoning: Franz' refusal
to serve would make little or no difference to the Nazi war machine.
However, his DEATH -- the law demanding capital punishment for those who
refused to serve -- would 'bring grave harm to his wife & children'..."
Indeed, Franz was pressured not only by well-intentioned priests and
prelates, but also by his own wife and mother. Even the local police chief
offered to try & get Franz a noncombatant post: "please don't put me in the
terrible position of having to arrest such a good man as you!", the police
Franz loved & cherished his family deeply; and was of course troubled by
the dire consequences his continued actions might wreak upon the heads of
wife, children, and parents. After all, the Nazis often persecuted ALL
family members when a single one refused to cooperate in any way. Yet
Franz decided, after much prayer, that he was not permitted by God to lie
"even for the sake of one's family."
The pressure intensified as friends added their voices to the moral fracas.
Yet Franz responded, "I cannot believe that just because one has a wife
and children, he is free to offend God. Did not Christ himself say 'He who
loves father, mother or children more than me is not deserving of my
kingdom' ?" (ibid).
Franz faced the Big Moment in February 1943, when the government ordered
him to report for military duty. He told his wife he would refuse to take
the oath of loyalty to Hitler when he showed up for service. Everyone
involved knew what this meant: arrest and death for Franz!
Indeed, he was immediately sent to prison; and knew he could be taken out
for execution at any moment without warning. He lived his life "hour by
hour", praying the Rosary and conversing deeply with God in his heart.
At one point he wrote to his wife, "There is practically nothing to do here
in the prison, but that does not mean that I have to let my days pass by
without putting them to some use. AS LONG AS I CAN PRAY, and there is
plenty of time for that, MY LIFE IS NOT IN VAIN."
He also compiled a special catechism for his godson, consisting of
reflections, prison letters, and the moral & political obligations Catholic
teaching imposes on those who believe. Of both this catechism & Franz'
other writings in prison, Hanley points out most clearly: "With a sharp and
devastating blade of simplicity Franz cut through the fine web of
theological reasoning that permitted a Catholic to support the German war.
He saw the tragedy as the INEVITABLE RESULT OF THE PAGANISM THAT BOTH
ALLIED AND AXIS POWERS SERVED. As a citizen of the kingdom of heaven he
could in no way serve the powers of darkness" (ibid).
Further, Franz wrote:
"There is but this difference: WE need no rifles or pistols for battle,
but instead SPIRITUAL WEAPONS; and the foremost among these is prayer.
'For prayer', as St. Clare says, 'is the shield which the flaming arrow of
the Evil One cannot pierce'. St. Clare constantly implored NEW grace from
God, SINCE, WITHOUT GOD'S HELP & GRACE, IT WOULD BE IMPOSSIBLE FOR US TO PRESERVE THE FAITH AND BE TRUE TO HIS COMMANDMENTS..."
The pressure upon Franz to comply never ceased. The priestly prison
chaplain implored Franz' recapitulation as a "duty". Upon sudden transfer
to a Nazi prison in Berlin, new pressures were added. A variety of clergy
appeared at Franz' cell to further impress upon him that there was "no
inherent dichotomy between serving Christ & serving one's Fatherland --
especially if the former means you will lose your life & leave your family
'abandoned'." When each clergyman, succeeding in higher hierarchical stance
than the one before him, asked Franz how he could possibly "refuse" to obey
this increasing array of powerful prelates, in EACH INSTANCE Franz would
only very humbly -- almost sorrowfully & embarrassedly -- and yet very
"I'm sorry, your Reverence....but you just haven't been given the
WOW !!!!!!!!! And this was no know-it-all wise guy, remember, but a most
humble and devout obedient son of the Church. Yet he knew God was not
asking him to join the Nazis -- even as a "medic", etc. -- and thereby in
any manner support the Nazi death machine.
During his Trial Franz was initially lectured nastily with the standard
arguments by the German judge & attendant Nazi officers. At each turn,
Franz simply responded humbly that "this regime is evil and I cannot
support it in any way."
As Hanley says, "This is how the dialogue between the humble farmer and the
powerful officers began. As it continued, (a witness) remembered, a
strange dynamic occurred. The officers, who had begun imperiously,
gradually softened their attitude until at the end they were PLEADING with
Franz" !!! They literally began to BEG this man to reconsider -- they
offered him the most "civil" and non-combat-related posts in existence.
"PLEASE listen to us !!", they begged.
Ultimately, of course, the court decided it had no recourse in the face of
Franz' firm conscience, but to recommend that he receive the full
punishment for the crime: death by guillotine, with the prisoner's
non-blindfolded head facing upwards towards the blade, instead of face down
(e.g., as in the French Revolution).
Up to the VERY END -- i.e., to the night BEFORE his beheading -- priests
and even Nazi wardens & officials were still begging Franz to "just sign
this piece of paper & at least we can spare you from death". Many --
including Nazi officials and guards -- wept openly as they begged him.
But Franz gently & lovingly told one & all he could not even sign the most
watered-down of documents in order to at least spare his life, if not free
In his last letter to his wife, he wrote:
"...It was not possible for me to free you from the pain that you must now
suffer on my account. How hard it must have been for our dear Savior when,
through His sufferings and death, he had to prepare such a great sorrow for
His Mother -- and together They bore all of this out of great love for us
sinners..... And now your husband, son, father, son-in-law and brother-in-law greets
you once more before his final journey. The heart of Jesus, the heart of
Mary, and my heart are one in time and eternity...."
The night before the beheading the chaplain noted that many of the
condemned men were reacting to their scheduled fate with disorientation;
crying & shouting; insanity; and deep despair. In Franz' cell all was
different. "To the end of his days", Hanley writes, "(the chaplain) Father
Jochmann remembered Franz' eyes shining with joy & confidence, his face
full of peace."
Fr. Jochmann also walked with dear Franz to the scaffold. Franz remained
calm, obviously deeply in prayer. His beheading was swift and silent.
This chaplain returned to the nearby Catholic hospital afterwards, and told
"The military beheaded a great man today. I can only congratulate you on
this countryman of yours who lived as a saint and has now died a hero. I
feel with certainty that this simple man is the only saint that I have ever
met in my lifetime."
The Nazis cremated his body. His ashes were conveyed 3 years later to the
little church at St. Radegund. A German "wayside-shrine"-style crucifix
with little roof stands above a plaque honoring Franz' faith-filled life
and shining example of Catholicism lived to the heights of holiness. His
cause is before Rome.
(And by the way -- he died on August 9, the same day as Blessed Edith Stein
was gassed in Auschwitz.........)
Two good book about Franz:
(1) "No Strangers To Violence; No Strangers to Love", by Boniface Hanley
O.F.M., Ave Maria Press, 1983. (I believe this book is still in print....)
This volume contains brief but thorough biographies of a number of 20th
century spiritual warriors and heroes, including Blessed Miguel Pro;
Blessed Titus Brandsma, Blessed Edith Stein; Blessed Charles de Foucauld &
(2) "In Solitary Witness: The Life & Death of Franz Jaegerstaetter"; 1982,
The Liturgical Press (no author given).
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