When Jagerstatter was sentenced to death in Berlin 1943 he spoke of how nothing could separate him from the love of God. He was recognised as a martyr, encouraged to stand up for peace, justice and human dignity.
“Obviously God gives so much strength to those who love Him and who do not give priority to the world rather than to eternity. Neither in prison, nor chains, nor sentence of death, can separate me from the love of God can rob a man of his faith and his free will. The power of God cannot be overcome”.
These powerful words came from Franz Jägerstätter, aged 37, just after his court martial in Berlin in 1943 where he was sentenced to death. What gave this man such conviction and courage? What was he standing against and why?
Franz Jägerstätter, a farmer, was born on 20 May 1907 in St Radegund, Upper Austria. Married to Franziska, a strong influence in his life, they had three daughters. When the national socialists took power in Austria in 1938 Franz began his journey of non-cooperation with the system. Franz wrote of a dream he had at that time in which a splendid express train was coming round a mountain and thousands of people were trying to get on board and no one could stop them. He describes hearing a voice saying “This train is going to hell.” At which point he awoke and associated the ‘train’ with Nazism.
Franz received his call up for military service in 1940 but was twice declared by his home village as an essential worker. During this time he wrote “ Which Catholic would dare to declare these raids, which Germany had already undertaken in some countries, and continues to carry out, to be a just and holy war?… Who can manage to be a soldier for Christ and at the same time a soldier of national socialism?” When recalled in 1943 Franz reported to his company but immediately declared “that he would act against his religious conscience if he were to fight for the national socialist state;… he could not be a national socialist and a Catholic at the same time”.
Such brave, clear words from a man who was under pressure from family, friends and his local priest, to conform and agree to sign-up. Even the Bishop of Linz, from whom Franz sought advice, urged him to forget his objections and do his duty. Franz’ conscience had been firmly formed – he took his faith seriously and his conviction that the war was wicked did not change. So, to prison he went, where through letters and writings he continued to share his convictions until his execution by beheading in Brandenburg/Havel prison on 9th August 1943.
The British section of Pax Christi, the international Catholic movement for peace, has worked to keep the story and memory of Franz alive through its annual commemoration service, at Westminster Cathedral in the Crypt Chapel. On 26 October 2007, years after his death, Franz Jägerstätter was recognised as a martyr and beatified by the Catholic Church. On hearing the news of the Beatification Pax Christi president,Bishop Malcolm McMahon said “The extraordinary courage of Franz Jägerstätter, a faithful Catholic, has been an inspiration to many and a powerful witness to peace and nonviolence. In an age of war and violence we urgently need the example of those who use their consciences to make judgements about what is evil – and refuse to take part in it. The recognition of this man’s holiness by the Church should encourage us all to stand up for peace, justice and human dignity”. His feast day is 21 May.
Pax Christi is an international Catholic movement for peace, active in more than 50 countries. The work of Pax Christi – the Peace of Christ – is based on the gospel and inspired by faith. Our vision is of a world where people can live in peace, without fear of violence in all its forms.
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