Cover story -- Franz Jägerstätter
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Issue Date:  November 9, 2007

Pax Christi cofounder's book advanced Jägerstätter's cause

Few in the world knew of the Austrian farmer who refused to join the German war effort before Gordon Zahn wrote In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jägerstätter. The book was published in 1964 and quickly became an essential text for Catholics worldwide, but especially those in the United States, dealing with issues of conscientious objection and one’s obligation when a Christian believes that what a state demands conflicts with conscience.

Zahn is a sociologist with a doctorate from The Catholic University of America, a writer and university professor for much of his life, and a founder, with the late pacifist Eileen Egan, of Pax Christi USA, the Catholic peace organization. He came upon the Jägerstätter story “quite by chance,” he wrote, when he came upon a book about an Austrian priest, Franz Reinisch, who was executed for refusing to take an oath of obedience to Hitler.

“Inspiring as I found the Reinisch story to be,” Zahn wrote in In Solitary Witness, “I was even more deeply impressed by a brief appendix chapter which told of another man, ‘Franz II’ as the author identified him, who was executed a year later for a similar ‘crime’ against the Third Reich. What made the case exceptionally interesting, I felt, was the fact that Franz Jägerstätter came from a social background that one would ordinarily not associate with such an overtly rebellious act. He was a relatively untutored man from a remote and isolated rural village. Even more important, he ... was a married man with a wife and children for whom he was responsible and whose future welfare he was morally bound to consider.”

Zahn, 89, has suffered with Alzheimer’s disease for years and in recent weeks was admitted to hospice care. He carried out his research in the 1960s for the Jägerstätter book by interviewing townspeople of St. Radegund, members of the family, former pastors, prison chaplains and by reading through the correspondence between Franz and his wife, Franziska. It was remarkable, someone noted during an event before the beatification, that Franziska had kept the documentation for so long because often the families of resisters destroyed such evidence before the end of the war for fear of reprisals.

The beatification “was the culmination of Gordon’s work,” said Michael Hovey, director of the office for Catholic social teaching in the Detroit archdiocese, who previously served as an assistant to Zahn. Hovey said Zahn would have been extremely pleased at the development.

“For many years, the peace movement in the U.S. has been marginalized,” said Hovey during a gathering of international Pax Christi members in Linz. “We are not respected and are made to feel that it is not truly Catholic to oppose war. We now have no apologies to make to anyone. We have Blessed Franz as our model.”

Some, of course, felt no need to wait for a beatification. One of those is Cardinal Christoph Schönborn who, in two written notes to Hovey, recounted that he had read Zahn’s book when he was a 22-year-old seminarian in 1967 and immediately wrote his first article about Jägerstätter and has been following the story ever since.

He said he developed a personal devotion to Jägerstätter, praying to him as if he were a saint. On the day of the ceremony, he told Hovey that “this is a day I’ve been waiting for for 40 years.”

Erna Putz, the local journalist who befriended the Jägerstätter family in the early 1980s, conducting her own research into Franz’s story, has organized an annual celebration in his honor. She said Schönborn, a good friend of Pope Benedict XVI, has been “very influential” in advancing Jägerstätter’s cause.

Zahn’s book has influenced a range of people active in working for nonviolence and against war. Jesuit Fr. Daniel Berrigan, who has been a relentless campaigner against U.S. militarism since the Vietnam years, spoke often of Jägerstätter as a model of resisting a state’s demands to wage war. He had a large wood sculpture of Jägerstätter in his New York apartment until recently, when it was moved for display to St. Malachy Parish in North Philadelphia.

A Berrigan protégé, Jesuit Fr. John Dear, whose mission from the order is to promote peace and nonviolence, said he first read the Zahn book when he was in college at Duke University. “I was moved and inspired by his life, witness and death. He helped me to choose to become Jesuit and work for peace,” he said. Dear wrote a formal testimony in the mid-1980s for the bishop of Linz that was used in the beatification process.

The story has inspired the likes of Kathy Kelly, an unyielding advocate of nonviolence who has opposed the wars and sanctions against Iraq since the early ’90s. In her years as a high school teacher, the life of Franz Jägerstätter was a staple of her classroom curriculum.

In Berrigan’s words, “Zahn gave Jägerstätter to the world and Jägerstätter’s been a mentor for many of us over the years. He helped steady us in some difficult times as we went to court and to jail. He’s never more needed than today. It’s amazing that the church is catching up.”

Or as put by the bishop of Linz, Ludwig Schwarz, at the end of his sermon: “Franz Jägerstätter is, at the same time, a bright, hopeful sign of light and direction which God is placing before us in a time with its own challenges.”

-- Tom Roberts

National Catholic Reporter, November 9, 2007

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