Category Archives: conscience

Franz Jägerstätter – touched by the saints

When I was in high school, in the early sixties, I became more aware of the Holocaust and of the evils of Nazism. I also was struck by the failure of the Church to respond.

The 1963 play The Deputy, which laid much of the blame for the silence on Pope Pius XII, probably overstated the case. But Gordon Zahn’s German Catholics and Hitler’s Wars: A Study in Social Control presented a Church that almost completely acquiesced to Nazi militarism.

Zahn’s research led him to unearth the life and death of an Austrian peasant from the obscure village of Sankt Radegund, Franz Jägerstätter, who refused to serve in Hitler’s army and was beheaded on August 9, 1943. Zahn’s book, In Solitary Witness, appeared in 1963.

Jägerstätter fascinated me. He was not at first what one might be considered an exemplary Catholic and even had the first motorcycle in his village. But after his marriage he began to take his faith seriously.

He took it so seriously that he recognized the evil of Nazism and had the courage to speak out. He was the only one in his village to vote against the Nazi annexation of Austria.

Finally when called up to serve in Hitler’s army he refused. Priests and others tried to dissuade him, calling on him to realize that seminarians and other Catholics were serving in Hitler’s army and that his family would suffer.

But Franz stood firm.

In fact in his writings to his family from prison he shows an extraordinary clarity in regard to Nazism that many church leaders lacked.

Letter of Blessed Franz Jägerstätter

Letter of Blessed Franz Jägerstätter

In one of his writings, written before he was imprisoned, he relates a dream he had in 1938:

“I saw [in a dream] a wonderful train as it came around a mountain. With little regard for the adults, children flowed to this train and were not held back. There were present a few adults who did not go into the area. I do not want to give their names or describe them. Then a voice said to me, This train is going to hell.’ Immediately, it happened that someone took my hand, and the same voice said to me; ‘Now we are going to purgatory.’ What I glimpsed and perceived was fearful. If this voice had not told me that we were going to purgatory, I would have judged that I had found myself in hell.”

For him that train was Nazism and he would have not part in defending it.

He was tried and beheaded.

In 2007, his heroic act was recognized by the Church that had almost abandoned him. He was beatified in Linz, Austria.

Franz is for me a person who saw through the glitter of political evil, who held firm to his love of God and to his conscience, who was not held back by fear.

Would that we had more people like Franz, more people willing to stand firm in the face of injustice, evil, and war.

Would that I might learn from him how to be courageous and truthful in the face of evil.

Blessed Franz, pray for us.


The letter pictured above is on a side altar in the church of Saint Bartholomew in Rome, in the church of the new martyrs and witnesses of the twentieth century. A blog on the church can be found here.

Fidelity to conscience

Today is the feast of Saint Joan of Arc, the French peasant girl who led the troops of France against the English. She was captured, tried for heresy, and burned at the stake – at the age of nineteen.

There is much about Jean D’Arc, the Maid of Orleans, that is troubling. The saints whose voices urged her on – Saint Catherine and Saint Margaret – may never have existed. She also led troops in battle.

But, surprisingly, she was one of Dorothy Day’s favorite saints – and Dorothy Day was a firm opponent of war.

As Jim Forest notes in All Is Grace, in response to his query about her devotion to this “military” saint, Dorothy Day told him that “Joan of Arc is a saint to the fidelity to conscience.”

Yet, there is another aspect of Saint Joan. In All Saints, Robert Ellsberg, who worked with Dorothy Day at the Catholic Worker, writes (page 238):

An illiterate peasant girl, a shepherd, a “nobody.” she heeded a religious call to save her country when all the ”somebodies” of her time proved unable or unwilling to meet the challenge. She stood up before princes of the church and state and the most learned authorities of her world and refused to compromise her conscience or deny her special vocation. She paid the ultimate price for her stand. And in doing so she won a prize far more valuable than the gratitude of the Dauphin or the keys of Orleans.

Again, God chooses the poor of this world to confound the rich and powerful

A peasant witness against Nazism

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of Blessed Franz  Jägerstätter, who was killed by the Nazis on August 9, 1943, for refusing to serve in Hitler’s army.

Franz, an Austrian peasant, was a husband and father who saw through the deception of the Nazis and refused to cooperate with what he saw as an immoral regime and an immoral war. He not only refused to serve in Hitler’s army, but he had been the only person in his village to vote against the Nazi annexation of Austria.

He was urged by many, including a priest and a bishop, to cooperate but his conscience prevented him from collaboration in what he saw as immoral.

His story might have been forgotten had it not been unearthed by Gordon Zahn, a US Catholic sociologist and conscientious objector. Zahn published his research in the book In Solitary Witness, which included many of the letters he wrote from prison.

Since I read this book I have been moved by the witness of a peasant who held firm, despite all the pressure not only from the Nazis, but even from church authorities.

One of his most moving letters tells of a dream in 1938 of “a shining silver train circling around a mountain. ““This train is going to hell,” he hears. But people refuse to jump off. He identified this train as Nazism. A few years later he showed the world that he would not jump on the train.

In another of his letters he asked, “Is there anything the individual can do?” Though I think it is a limited response to the question his answer is worth praying over:

Today one can hear it said repeatedly that there is nothing any more than an individual can do. If someone were to speak out, it would mean only imprisonment and death. True, there is not much that can be done anymore to change the course of world events. I believe that should have begun a hundred or even more years ago. But as long as we live in the world, I believe that it is never too late to save ourselves and perhaps some other soul for Christ.

But the example of people like Franz Jägerstätter has changed the world, moving many people to be willing to speak up for justice and truth, without counting the cost.

Would that there may be more people like Franz.

A Catholic witness of conscience – against war

As the Catholic Church in the US ponders questions of conscience, it might be helpful to recall the example of  Ben Salmon, US Catholic pacifist, World War I conscientious objector, husband and father, who died eighty years ago on February 15, 1932.

Ben Salmon grew up in a working class Catholic family in Denver, only studying until the eighth grade. He was active in the church, a member of the Knights of Columbus, as well as in union organizing. He had a strong commitment to social justice and lived it.

He was a “doer of the word and not a hearer only,” to recall today’s lectionary reading from the first chapter of the Letter of James.

When World War I started,  he refused to serve, claiming that cooperation with war was a violation of his conscience. But the US would not recognize a Catholic pacifist and so he was arrested in 1918, court-martialed, and imprisoned, sentenced for twenty-five years in prison.

The end of the war did not bring his release. After a hunger strike he was released in 1920.

He may have felt alone in his witness, as prison chaplains tried to convince him that he was opposing the pope; some priests actually refused him the sacraments, seeing his pacifism as heresy.

But he persisted, and even wrote a two hundred page manuscript critiquing the just war theory in justification of his nonviolence.

He took a stand for life and suffered for it. This was not easy, but with a deep faith he persevered. His quiet witness has only recently come to light, especially in a 1989 biography by Torin R. T. Finney, Unsung Hero of the Great War.

The root of his simple, straightforward pacifism are clear from this quotation:

“I believe it is clear that, if we are going to show our love for our neighbor, we must adopt some other means besides tattooing his body with a Lewis machine gun. If you love me, I really prefer that you show your love in some other way besides massaging me with a bayonet. . . .

“Love, of course, is like everything else, relative. Christ does not expect me to love a stranger as much as I love my mother. But even though love is relative, it never reaches a level so low as to warrant an injury. The opposite of love is hate, and the amount of hate that finds an expression in every war, of which we found an appalling example in the recent conflict, warrants the conclusion that war is hate [and] peace is love.”