Courage and MartyrdomDONALD DEMARCO
Martyrdom is the supreme witness given to the truth of faith. It means bearing witness to the faith even unto death. The very etymology of the word (martyros in Greek) means witness. The martyr accepts this death with courage as a witness to the faith and to the presence of the kingdom of God.
The well-known writer, Norman Cousins, once denounced "any man in the pulpit who, by his words and acts, encourages his congregation to believe that the main purpose of the church or the synagogue is to provide social respectability for its members." This denunciation resonates well with the secular society's general intolerance of preaching the Word of God to promote the image of a "holier-than-thou" social respectability.
The most definitive contradiction of "religion as hypocrisy" is martyrdom. The fact of martyrdom is the ultimate and unequivocal witness, not of the world or of the self, but of God. It is the price that must be paid to silence the detractors and make the presence of God known to a world of skeptics.
Franz Jägerstätter is a martyr for our modern world whose witness should be more widely known. Initially, a martyr such as Jägerstätter may be a "solitary witness." But there is no limit to the number of people who can bear witness to his witness. Jägerstätter's witness might have remained virtually solitary except for the witness of another Catholic sociologist Gordan Zahn. It was Zahn, a University of Massachusetts professor, who discovered Jägerstätter's inspiring story of courage and unyielding commitment to God, and published it in his 1964 book, In Solitary Witness. The book has now been translated into several languages, including German, French, Italian, and Greek.
Franz Jägerstätter was born in 1909 in St. Radegund, a small village in Upper Austria about 30 kilometers from Braunau-am-Inn, the birthplace of Adolph Hitler. In 1936, he married a woman from a nearby village, and the two went to Rome for their honeymoon. A Catholic by birth, Franz experienced a spiritual reawakening of his faith around the time of his marriage and served his parish church in the capacity of a sexton.
On March 11, 1938, Hitler's forces crossed into Austria and two days later incorporated it into Grossdeutschland. In due time, the invaders presented Jägerstätter, and all the other able-bodied men of St. Radegund, their orders to swear allegiance to Hitler and serve in the Nazi army. Jägerstätter, alone, refused to comply. He was a Catholic, and in conscience could neither honor nor serve the evil purposes of an intrinsically immoral regime. He refused, knowing that his refusal would cost him his life. The drama, in the words of Professor Zahn, was "nothing less than a repetition of an old story, the ever-recurring confrontation between Christ and Caesar."
Matter of conscience
Jägerstätter was also married and father to three little girls. He was urged by many of his neighbors to be "prudent" and not risk his life by offending the Nazis. But Jägerstätter was resolved. While in prison and awaiting execution, he wrote: "Again and again people stress the obligations of conscience as they concern my wife and children. Yet I cannot believe that just because one has a wife and children, he is free to offend God by lying (not to mention all the other things he would be called upon to do). Did not Christ Himself say, 'He who loves father, mother, or children more than Me is not deserving of My love?'" Just a few hours before his death, he stated in a letter to his family, "I will surely beg the dear God, if I am permitted to enter heaven soon, that He may also set aside a little place in heaven for all of you."
On August 9, 1943, in a Berlin prison, Franz Jägerstätter, like St. Thomas More, was beheaded.
The night before the execution, a Fr. Jochmann visited Jägerstätter in his cell. The priest found the prisoner, who had already received the last sacraments earlier that day, completely calm and prepared. The opportunity to avoid death was still available. On the table before him lay a document that Jägerstätter had only to sign in order to have his life spared. When the priest called his attention to it, Jägerstätter provided a simple explanation: "I cannot and may not take an oath in favor of a government that is fighting an unjust war."
Joy and hope
Jägerstätter remained calm and composed as he walked to the scaffold. On that very same evening, in the company of a group of Austrian nuns, Fr. Jochmann said: "I can only congratulate you on this countryman of yours who lived as a saint and has now died a hero. I say with certainty that this simple man is the only saint that I have ever met in my lifetime."
Jägerstätter died convinced that his manner of death would pass unnoticed by the world and would completely fade from human memory with the passing of the handful of people who had known him personally. He was a martyr, not a prophet. In December 1984, responding to a nationwide petition, the president of Austria formally issued a special posthumous Award of Honor to Franz Jägerstätter. At Vatican II, an English archbishop called upon his fellow bishops "to consider this man [Franz Jägerstätter] and his sacrifice in a spirit of gratitude" and let his example "inspire our deliberations." The document that issued from the deliberations would be eventually known as The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.
DeMarco, Donald. "Courage and Martyrdom." Lay Witness (April 2001).
This article is reprinted with permission from Lay Witness magazine.
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