On Becoming a Christian

He’s not an official Catholic saint yet, but in October the Church beatified Nazi resister Franz Jagerstatter at the cathedral in Linz, Austria—thus taking the second of three steps toward official canonization or sainthood.

As writer and activist Jeanie Wylie said, “We smile to think of the saints of God in all times who have listened in the night and done whatever they could to show us the love of God.” In this liturgical season where we are steeped in images of Christ putting on our humanness and as we prepare for the slow cavalcade of Lent, I’m drawn to Jager­statter’s story, to what happened when he “listened in the night.”

Franz Jagerstatter, born in 1907, lived in St. Radegund, Austria, only a few miles from Hitler’s birthplace in Braunau. Jagerstatter’s parents were too poor for a marriage ceremony. At age 27 Franz considered entering a Catholic monastery as a lay brother, but was advised against it by his parish priest who thought Franz should take over the family farm and care for his mother.

In 1936, Franz married Franziska Schwaninger and, by all accounts, his life changed dramatically for the better. In reflecting on their marriage, Franziska recalled, “We helped one another go forward in faith.” Franz himself said, “I could never have imagined that being married could be so wonderful.”

In 1938, Nazi Germany “unified” Austria. The German-controlled Austrian Nazi Party held a rigged plebiscite to approve the unification. It passed with 99.73 percent support. The public humiliation and arrest of Jews began almost immediately. Hitler commented on the annexation of Austria, “Not as tyrants have we come, but as liberators.”

WHILE THE MAJORITY Austrian Catholic Church gave full and complete support to Nazism, there was a faithful remnant who opposed it. A stronghold of resistance was the Diocese of Linz. Bishop Johannes Gföllner, who opposed the Nazis for more than two decades, wrote a pastoral letter on true and false nationalism in which he stated: “Nazism is spiritually sick with materialistic racial delusions, un-Christian nationalism, a nationalistic view of religion, with what is quite simply sham Christianity.”

Franz Jagerstatter watched and studied what was happening. He read the newspapers carefully. He observed the actions of the new government and the majority of churches. “The way things look,” he wrote, “we’re not going to see any bloody persecution of Christians here after all, as the Church now does almost everything the Nazi Party wants or orders.”

Jagerstatter wrestled with his conscience in prayer. “How is it possible to raise one’s children to be true Catholics nowadays, when one is supposed to explain that what used to be very sinful is now good?” he asked. “What Catholic dares to declare that the predatory raids which Germany has already made, and is still carrying on in several countries, are a righteous and holy war?” He spoke with local priests and bishops who, though no supporters of the Nazis, suggested that he “go along to get along”—don’t endanger his family, keep his head down. But Franz concluded, “What God has put into my heart is clear enough for me to decide whether I’m a Nazi or a Catholic.”

He voted “no” in the local plebiscite to accept German unification. He refused to contribute money to the Nazi’s “charitable” Winter Relief Organization. He wouldn’t accept the Nazi farm subsidies. In 1940, he took the radical step of becoming a member of a lay religious community dedicated to the vision and ideals of Francis of Assisi.

Then, in February 1943, Franz received his orders to report for military service. On March 2, he arrived at the barracks in Enns and stated his refusal to serve. He was immediately remanded to the military prison in Linz. He spent five incarcerated months and in July was court-martialed and sentenced to death. On August 9, at 4 p.m., Franz Jagerstatter, found guilty of impeding the war effort, was beheaded. He was 36 years old.

W.H. Auden wrote, “A Christian is never something one is, only something one can pray to become.” Franz Jagerstatter had no desire for martyrdom and no aspirations to be a saint. However, he was determined—in his own Lent, in his own time—to follow Jesus. This is whom he wrestled with in the night. This is whom he listened to. In doing so, he became, as Auden put it, a Christian.

Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.

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