THE BLESSED FRANZ JAEGERSTAETTER (Beatified 2007)

FJ was a  36 year old Austrian farmer who refused to join the army on the ground that at the time it served nazism which was opposed to Christianity. “Make decisions out of faith and take the responsibility,” he wrote. He was executed on the 9th August 1943 in Berlin. On Friday 26th October he was  declared a martyr in Linz Cathedral. 

The place was significant. Linz was where Hitler spent his early adulthood, and Eichmann was born there. The Bishop of Linz had tried to persuade FJ to put his family first, and to accept military service like everybody else. After his arrest Franz was imprisoned in the former Ursuline convent in Linz until he was moved  to Berlin. 

One of the remarkable features of the weekend (the beatification on the Friday and the Mass in the little village church of St Radegund on the Sunday) was the presence of his 94 year old widow Franziska accompanied by her four daughters. Physically frail but mobile and with all her faculties, she presented the presiding bishop with a relic of her husband in the Cathedral and led the offertory in the village church where husband and wife had both served as sacristans. 

Frau Jaegerstaetter still speaks about Franz when she is asked to. Only when a discussion gets sensitive does she withdraw. 

The sensitive aspects of the affair are still around. There was a time when the Blessed Franz's stand created resentment as it was seen as a challenge to those who opposed the Nazis but understandably sought a compromise position. Franz himself never criticised those who did not support him, although the fact that some clergy tried to dissuade him created sadness and doubt in him. Only the stand taken by others, including the Palatine priest Franz Rheinisch, helped his morale in prison. 
Local hostility now faded with time, but has been replaced among some local people by indifference and the image of Franz as eccentric. 

The other dispute is about the nature of Franz's position. The standard understanding is that he was not a pacifist, but objected to military service solely and entirely because it would have supported Nazism. It was the totalitarian aspect of Nazism, its claim to total obedience, which Franz said was incompatible with obedience to Christ. Some people suggest that in one of his letters from prison he took a fully pacifist position. 

The presence of Franziska  made these disputes somehow irrelevant. His title is martyr and family father. The letters show indisputably that Franz was devoted to Franziska and their daughters. Franz was aware of the pain his stand caused her, while Franziska nevertheless supported him even to her loss. 

Franz had been the first person in St Radegund to own a motor-bike. When the procession of the local band, the women in traditional dress, the bishop and other clergy came down the hill to the church on Sunday 28th, Franziska travelled in the middle - in the side-car of a motor-bike. 

There was a Mass in thanksgiving for the beatification of Franz Jaegerstaetter in Westminster Cathedral on Wednesday 21st November at 7.00pm. Bishop Malcolm McMahon O.P. of Nottingham, patron of Pax Christi, was the principal concelebrant. Bruce Kent spoke at the end of the Mass and the Austrian Ambassador spoke at the reception afterwards. 

 For the Pax Christi release  go to http://www.paxchristi.org.uk/press.HTML (You may have to go into the Archive page)


Bruce Kent, Vice President of Pax Christi, gave the following address after the Mass of Thanksgiving for the Beatification of Franz Jägerstätter at Westminster Cathedral 

 Dear Friends
I promise not to keep you very long before we all go off to celebrate in another way in the Cathedral Hall.
The recent events in Linz and in St Radegund have been something of a miracle. Those of us who went in 1975 to St. Radegund to find out more about this brave man Franz Jägerstätter would never have believed that in what, in church terms, is a very short time he would be called a martyr and beatified. That progress is a miracle on its own if any one is looking for miracles. You all know the details of his life and of the amazing, lonely courage shown both by him and his wife. In case there are those here who don't, Franz Jägerstätter was an Austrian farmer, the father of a young family, who refused to fight for Hitler or to take the unconditional oath of obedience. He was executed in 1943.

What is his message for us today? I move at once to the wise words written recently by Bishop Schwarz of Linz and Bishop Scheuer of Innsbruck.

Their perspective is the future. They do not want Jägerstätter to be seen as quaint piece of history - as happens in the case of quite a few Saints. This is what they said:

"It is your situation that is being dealt with here, it is your motivation that is at issue, it is your God that is under debate. What part does sacrifice play in your own life? How seriously do you take the question of whether there is something in your life so big that you would, if necessary, be willing to die for it?'

In other words. when does the time come for all of us to have to say 'No'?

Our 'NO' here in Britain will not lead to an execution. But it will cost promotion, popularity even some loss of liberty and certainly hard work. Why? 

The world we live in today is in many respects out of step with the world of the Gospels. The two Kingdoms do collide in values and life styles.

Today it is accepted that there is no limit to personal wealth.
Not by us.
Today it is accepted that you can make and sell whatever you want.
Not by us.
Today playing the investment market without responsibility for the conditions of those who work is thought normal.
Not by us.
Today it is thought reasonable to have two or even three homes while thousands are homeless.
Not by us.
Today it is usual to believe that peace comes from threatening others with weapons of mass destruction.
Not by us.
Today it is hardly noticed that as an answer to the problem of crime we lock up and forget 80,000 people, many uneducated and mentally ill.

We notice and we care.

Most of all we are people who will not accept the militarisation of our world - which spends over a trillion dollars a year on war and its preparations - and yet still bewails the problems of poverty.

This is not peace. 'Peace' said Pope Paul V1 'is the fruit of anxious daily care to see that everyone lives in the justice that God intends.' It is towards that true peace, not bogus peace, that Jägerstätter leads us. His witness challenges our Church to rethink it's attitude to war, peace, violence, and justice in practice. This means re-ordering our priorities of time, money, property, education and resources. No more statements, just action please.

By chance or providence, as I was thinking about what to say tonight someone sent me an e-mail. It was about a Turkish conscientious objector, Osman Murat -lke, who has spent some 2 1/2 years in prison for his refusal and is now out in some kind of legal limbo despite a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights. There are about 60 others in his country in prison or awaiting trial. Turkey is not alone. There are many other countries in which refusal of military service means prison or even death.

I told the man who sent me this e-mail, and I hope he is here tonight, that I would help if I could. Then came another e-mail, this time from Osman himself. Said he 'I am delighted that you are going to commemorate Franz Jägerstätter, whose life has been an inspiration for me for many years, and I am deeply honoured by the possibility of being mentioned next to him'. 

The Jägerstätter story spreads in ever widening circles.

In many parts of the world there will be those who have been inspired by his example to say their own 'No'.

Some refuse military taxation. Some refuse to take part in all wars. Some are selective conscientious objectors. Let me also praise those in the military who have, with great courage, refused to take part in illegal wars like Iraq or in illegal occupations - like the young Israelis who refuse to serve in the occupation of the Palestinian West Bank. Perhaps we should make Franz the patron of all conscientious objectors everywhere. 

May 15th in the annual international day in honour of conscientious objectors. Every year in London we have a ceremony for all COs in Tavistock Square, by a great granite stone memorial to them. We list those by name who have said 'No', century by century.

I understand that May 21 is to be Franz's feast day. Perhaps we should be a jump ahead of Rome and make May 15th our own day to remember him here and in every cathedral and church up and down the country.

Too long has the reproach been that Christians have been people of war. In the spirit of Jesus Christ, who told us to turn the other cheek and to forgive 70 times 7, let's now prove the opposite. We should make May 15th a day for people of all faiths - and faith in humanity is also a faith - to come together to say collectively that we can and must live together in peace and that war belongs to a barbaric past.

'No' to the past. 'Yes' to the future.

What a wonderful way to remember the witness and courage of 'our' Franz.

The Austrian Ambassador to the UK, Dr Gabriele Matzner-Holzer gave the following address at a reception in Westminster Cathedral Hall

 Franz Jägerstätter, a Catholic peasant from Upper Austria, was executed by the Nazi regime on August 9, 1943. Not a pacifist in principle, but profoundly religious, he concluded that the war unleashed by the regime was criminal. He eventually refused to serve in this criminal war of aggression and rejected any compromise to save his life. In his steadfastness he was supported by his wife Franziska who shared his religious ethos.

Tens of thousands of German soldiers, which at the time included Austrians, were sentenced by military courts and executed for dodging military service, endangering Germany's military strength, deserting from the army or just displeasing authorities, between 1939 and 1945. As in most other cases involving military service in the Nazi regime the verdict against Jägerstätter was only repealed decades later, by the Berlin court in 1997, upon request by the widow and her daughters.

Jägerstätter was nevertheless very special. His soft-spoken and kind heroism was, to my knowledge, first documented by the American historian Gordon Zahn, in 1964. It became the subject of a very popular movie produced by the renowned Austrian film maker Axel Corti in 1971. The interest in Jägerstätter has grown steadily and inspired scholars and artists in many countries. His strength and fate moved and moves people deeply. 

It is well known that open resistance to the Nazi regime was rare, also in Austria. Most kept quiet, many participated in the crimes. But we should not forget those who disagreed and, by words and deeds, risked and lost freedom and life. In Austria 2700 were executed and some 27.000 died in prisons and concentration camps, for political reasons. This is in addition to the 65.000 murdered Austrian Jews.

As most Austrians were and are Catholic, we may assume that the majority of both political victims and perpetrators of Nazism in Austria were or had originally been Catholics. By far the single largest group opposed to Nazism and persecuted by the regime were communists. 

Hundreds of Austrian priests were incarcerated and put into concentration camps, many perished or were executed. About 1500 Austrian priests were banned from preaching or teaching. In addition to Jägerstätter,three more Austrian victims of Nazism were beatified since 1945, the Jesuit Jakob Gapp, the priest Otto Neururer and the nun Restituta Kafka.

The Catholic leadership in Austria did not openly oppose the illegal annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany in 1938. Cardinal Innitzer did not welcome Hitler in person, but he recommended that Austrians accept the fait accompli. Most did, in the farcical referendum staged by the Nazis in already occupied Austria, in April 38, and from which 8% of the population were excluded beforehand.

But, very soon, with the onslaught of anti-Catholic Nazi politics, many Catholics, including Innitzer, changed their minds. In October 1938 at least 7000 young Catholics marched against the regime in the centre of Vienna, shouting "Christus ist unser Führer", "Christ is our Leader". It was and remained the largest demonstration ever against Hitler in the German realm, since he came to power in Germany 5 years earlier. It was brutally quashed.

Ladies and gentlemen, motives to resist mass violations of human rights are manifold. Some are religious. Whatever the spiritual sources, self-sacrificing demonstrations of decency such as J's deserve our greatest admiration. They should inspire others, especially world leaders, to prevent situations in which choices of life or death have to be made by decent human beings.