Folllowing His Conscience
The saints teach us that our past does not have to determine who we will become. No matter what our past might hold, we can have a different future.
This is a story about a married saint that you might not know. His name is Bl. Franz Jägerstätter (1907 - 1943) from Austria and he lived in the twentieth century. His early life was not easy, but after being a faithful youth then abandoning the Church, he came to re-embrace his Catholic faith before getting married and starting a family. Then he found himself with a tremendous moral dilemma that put everything in his life on the line.
Early Life on the Farm
Franz was born to Rosalia Huber and Franz Bachmeier in 1907 in Sankt Radegund, Austria. Rosalia and Franz were both servants on a farm and were too poor to get married. He was raised by his pious maternal grandmother who taught him the basics of the Catholic Faith. His father died in World War I before Franz had turned ten years old.
His life gained much more stability when in 1917 his mother Rosalia married Heinrich Jägerstätter who subsequently adopted Franz. Heinrich was a farmer and Franz was soon helping out on the farm with ever increasing responsibility as he grew older. Franz never received too much of a formal education due to his farm work, but he did learn to read as his father insisted that he should.
When he was able to go attend the one-room school, he was mocked for being born out of wedlock which made it difficult for him to focus on his lessons. However, he did receive a solid religious formation through the parish priest who taught at both the school and in Sunday school. He was considered a happy child and acted as a typical boy. Although Franz might have engaged in some typical hi-jinks for a teenager, he seemed to know where to draw the line and to not go too far.
Leaving Home and Losing His Faith and Returning Home and Regaining His Faith
When he was twenty, Franz thought that he might be able to earn more income elsewhere in order to support his family who earned very little from their small farm. From his hometown, he traveled north into Bavaria where he found work first as a day laborer and then later at an iron works.
Socialism was gaining popularity among the working class in that region. The influence of this ideology led Franz to abandon his practice of the Catholic faith and to lead a wilder social life than he had previously.
In 1930, he returned home in order to take over the running of the farm as his father and grandfather were no longer strong enough for the hard work. Over time, Franz began to return to practicing the Catholic faith. He spent much of his free time reading Catholic books and periodicals, and through them he realized the importance of taking his faith seriously. As a result of his learning more about his faith, he realized that there was no sense in being a mediocre Christian. Instead, the faithful Christian is to strive for perfection, and one possible path to perfection was the religious life.
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Called to be Married
Consequently, for a time, Franz spent some time discerning whether he was called to the religious life or to the married life. When he approached the parish priest, Franz received the blunt and pragmatic answer that he returned to Radegund to run the family farm so he should find a wife to help him with the farm and to raise children.
Soon after that Franz found the woman whom he thought would be his wife in Theresia Auer. His passion for her overcame his moral principles and he fathered a child with her. The relationship did not last, and according to Theresia they parted in peace with Franz asking her to forgive him. Franz noted that he considered it an honor to provide support for his child.
Not long after the ending of that relationship, Franz met Franziska Schwaninger who proved to be a much better match as she was a fervent Catholic. They became engaged and took their pre-marriage preparation very seriously as both tried to fully understand what was expected of them as husband and wife in a permanent union. Franziska and Franz were married on April 9, 1936 in the parish church in Sankt Radegund.
For their honeymoon the couple made a pilgrimage to Rome where they prayed at the tomb of St. Peter in thanksgiving for being members of Christ's Catholic Church. From all accounts, they had a very happy marriage, and they were blessed with three girls. Around the same time, Franz became the sacristan for the parish church and arranged funerals and prayer services, attended mass daily, and ministered to those who had lost loved ones.
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The Threat from Germany
Even as Franz and his wife were beginning their married life and enjoying their growing family, the Nazi party in Germany was beginning to flex its muscle. Franz was aware of the threat and from his experience with socialism and through reading about the Catholic faith, he knew that Nazism and Catholicism were not compatible. This conviction in his conscience would shape the remaining days of his life.
In March of 1938, the German Anschluss of Austria took place. When the perfunctory vote was taken in April in his hometown, Franz was the only one who voted against the annexation of their country by Nazi Germany. The voting official discounted Franz's vote in order to report a unanimous vote in favor of the German takeover. Franz had always been known for speaking his mind, but this was too much for the local townspeople who began to shun him and his family.
In 1940, Franz was called up for duty to serve in the German army. He underwent his training and initially served behind the lines. After this service, as a farmer, he was able to receive several agricultural deferments from being called up again.
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Being True to His Conscience
As Germany continued to aggressively take over other countries, Franz became more convinced that the war was an unjust one because it was not made in self defense but instead was waged simply in order to expand Germany's empire at the expense of innocent lives in these other countries. Additional information regarding the suppression of the Church and the extermination programs of the Nazis only further convinced him that he could not serve in the German army in good conscience.
After defeat at Stalingrad in early 1943 with the loss of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, the Nazis were desperately in need of more soldiers. Thus, on February 23, 1943, the agricultural deferments for Franz expired, and he was drafted again. When he arrived to report on March 1, he stated that he was a conscientious objector and offered to serve as a paramedic. This offer was flatly refused and Franz was immediately arrested on the charges of undermining morale.
The priest from his parish met with him in prison in order to get him to change his mind, but although Franz knew that the punishment would be his execution, he calmly stated that he had to act upon his conscience which would not allow him to actively support an unjust war and a government that was actively persecuting the Catholic Church. Franz felt supported in his lonely stand when he heard that a fellow Austrian, a priest, Fr. Franz Reinisch, had been executed for failing to take the Hitler oath.
Over the course of five months, Franz was transferred to several prisons until he ultimately was put in Brandenburg-Görden Prison in Berlin. Throughout his imprisonment, he was able to write a number of letters to his wife and children in which he expressed his deep love for them. His wife and daughters meant so much to him, and yet, he recognized that God might be calling his family and him to suffer at this time in order to be repaid many times over in the life to come. Although it was not easy to remain steadfast in his position, given his responsibility as a husband and father, he felt his first responsibility was to God. In order to meet that responsibility, he must follow his conscience which was clear that he could not be even a small part in the Nazi war machine.
His trial, in which he was convicted and sentenced to death, was held on July 6, 1943. Just a little over a month later, he was beheaded. He was 36 years old.
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Learn More About Bl. Franz Jägerstätter
This is an old, but very good movie that is faithful to the story of Bl. Franz Jägerstätter. Much of the dialogue is based on his notes and letters. It includes snippets of interviews from people who knew Franz. It is in German with English subtitles.
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Feast Day (Memorial): May 21st