Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Conscientious Courage: Franz Jagerstatter Paved the Way for Those Who Object to War by Following a Higher Order

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Conscientious Courage: Franz Jagerstatter Paved the Way for Those Who Object to War by Following a Higher Order

Article excerpt

IN APRIL 1974, WHILE SERVING AT THE U.S. NAVY BASE in Sasebo, Japan, I visited the Atomic Bomb Memorial Museum in the nearby city of Nagasaki, the second city destroyed by an atomic bomb dropped by U.S. forces.

I was horrified to realize that, in killing more than 70,000 women, men, and children instantly, our country demonstrated that it was--and, sadly, still is today--ready, able, and willing to engage in acts condemned by our Catholic Church. "Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities or of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation," reads the Second Vatican Council's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes).

Remembering that the council's bishops also supported "those who for reasons of conscience refuse to bear arms," I decided to apply for a discharge from the Navy as a conscientious objector. I believed that, by continuing to serve in our nation's military, I would truly be living in a "near occasion of sin."

A younger Catholic chaplain supported me, but the senior Catholic chaplain said, 'Tm a priest and I've been in the Navy for 17 years. I don't see your problem!" If my request were denied, I knew I would end up in prison. Thankfully, after eight months of interviews, interrogations, and anxiously waiting to hear from the Pentagon, I was honorably discharged on Feb. 11, 1976, as a conscientious objector to war and military service.

I WAS THEREFORE OVERWHELMED WITH JOY AND A sense of peaceful vindication as I stood with 5,000 other Catholics in the Mariendom Cathedral in Linz, Austria on Oct. 26, 2007, to witness the beatification of Blessed Franz Jagerstatter, a 36-year-old Austrian farmer, husband, and father of four daughters. Jagerstatter had refused to serve in the Nazi army, was sent to prison, and was ultimately beheaded in Berlin on Aug. 9, 1943, for his conscientious objection.


His 94-year-old widow, Franziska, and daughters Hildegard, Rosalie, Maria, and Aloisia sat in the front pew with tears in their eyes as they listened to Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, say: "In a time like ours the testimonial of Blessed Franz, his unbroken bravery, and his imperturbable strong conscience is a shining example."

I first learned of Jagerstatter's heroic witness when I worked with Gordon Zahn at the Pax Christi Center on Conscience and War in 1982. Zahn, himself a conscientious objector in World War II, "discovered" the story of Jagerstatter's faithful and courageous martyrdom.

Jagerstatter kept a journal, so when Zahn researched his path to sanctity, it was easy to sense what motivated him to eventually offer his life in sacrifice rather than violate his conscience. …

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