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An Eyewitness Account of the Beatification of Franz Jagerstatter, October 2007

by Bernard Survil, priest of the Diocese of Greensburg, Pennsylvania

I’ve never been to the Holy Land. People who have say it helps them read the Gospels with a personalized per-spective. Once having seen the place, the Jesus Story has a setting their own eyes have seen, including traces of the Roman Empire which dominated peoples’ lives.

My twenty five years working as a priest in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Guatemala helped me read the Gospels as if Jesus had spent his 33 years on earth in a small town in Central America at the time it was dominated by, if not a colony of, the American Empire. And now my week in Austria in late October for the Beatification of Franz Jagerstatter who lived his last years under the domination of Hitler’s Imperial Germany has given me a feel for what a commitment to the King-dom Jesus spoke of, means for someone trying to render to Caesar what is Caesar and to God what is God’s in the mid-20th Century times of the Third Reich.

When Franz was told to take an oath to The Fuhrer, he refused because he was convinced it would override his baptismal commitment to the non-violent Jesus, replacing it with an oath to the most-violent Hitler. (See the front page story in the July-August issue of the Houston Catholic Worker )

Franz would have been 100 years old had he lived to see his giant-sized photo raised behind the main altar of the Cathedral in Linz, Austria the 26 th of October, 2007, to the applause of some 5,000 people, including several Cardinals and dozens of Bishops. Most of these are the successors to those Austrian prelates who “were not given the grace”– as Franz often observed — to refuse to cooperate with the Nazi Regime.  And there in the front pew just a few feet from where we priest-concelebrants sat, was Franz’ 94 year old widow, Franziska, as royal in her appearance as Queen Elizabeth herself. At her side were the couples’ three daughters, the youngest being Louisa, who was born the same month and year as myself.  (May, 1940).

Constant attention was given to Franziska at the Cathedral, and later in the day at an opera held in the old Cathedral & composed to honor Franz.  This opera portrayed the tender regard Franz always had for Franziska and their three children as he steadfastly prepared for his execution. Attention on Franziska at the Beatification was merited because the letters the two exchanged while Franz was in prison reveal the total support she provide for her husband despite the sacrifice his death would mean for herself and their children. The honors for Fransizka continued that evening at the palace of the Governor of Upper Austria where a reception was held and speeches made. In 1983 Austria issued a postage stamp in his honor and in 1997 annulled The Reich’s Court martial of Franz. Finally in 2007 does the Church call him a true martyr worthy of imitation. Let’s rejoice it happened

We pilgrims then made our way to the town of Ostermiething, three miles from Franz’ home village for a peace vigil in the parish church the evening of October 27th . More speeches were made but most significant for me were the presentations prepared by the town’s children and youth. One dramatized Franz’ dream of the “Train Going to Hell.” In Franz’ dream it was loaded with both adults and children who were willing to follow the Nazis to damnation. But in the drama that evening the children were asked: “Are you going to board this train to hell? And one by one each responded: “Nein!” and explained in a phrase why they would not. Then the teenagers sang an upbeat song all in German, except for the phrase in English: STAND UP! Stand up for the truth… Stand up against “that crooked game” as Franz called it. I could not help but see why so-called “old Europe” stood up against participating in invasion and occupation of Iraq. They’ve taken to heart Franz’ advice. Now it’s up to we Americans to take and live that advice as well. To do that, it helps to learn more about Franz Jagerstatter.

Sunday, October 28 th, Father Pickard and I met Fr. Steinkellner, pastor of Franz’ village parish.. He graciously lent us each an alb for the concelebrated liturgy, presided over by Bishop Ludwig Schwarz of Linz and accompanied by retired Bishop Maximilian Aichern and Innsbruck’s Bishop Manfred Scheuer who was postulator for the Cause of Franz’ beatification.

Those of us who arrived in St. Radegund early deposited prayer intentions we had brought with us and then prayed at Franz’ grave beside the south wall of the chapel. We then joined the procession starting outside town.  While this village’s favored son, Franz Jagerstatter was the reason his hometown’s celebration, Fransiska once again stole the show. While her daughters rode in an ornamental couch drawn by a pair of show horses, Fransizka joined the procession in a motorcycle sidecar, surely as a reminder to us all that she and Franz had traveled to Rome in the same way for their honeymoon in 1936. This sight brought cheers and tears of joy to the crowd.

The cheers and tears of joy were needed because Father Pickard, myself, and two Catholic laymen also visited the Nazi’s Austrian concentration camp at Mauthausen where 105,000 people were killed or perished as a result of the torments of camp life. With its gas chambers and crematory, it ranks with the better known camps at Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Dachau. These were the sites for humanity’s Calvary in 20 th Century Christian Europe. Franz’ Refusal (the title of a moving DVD available from: ccnvstore@centerforchristiannonviolence.org) and the Church’s recognition of this Martyr for the Faith, points to our way for avoiding the 20 st Century’s mistakes: We can do it by saying NO to war and preparation for war and being willing to take the consequences of this NO. And there are consequences. We might not be beatified like Franz, but we’re more likely to win The Crown promised to the faithful.

In 1977 Mark and Louise Zwick went to El Salvador under the auspices of Fr. Bernard, which began the whole adventure of Casa Juan Diego, the Houston Catholic Worker.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXVII, No. 6, November-December 2007.