Blessed Franz Jägerstätter’s story illustrates that faith can take root and become one’s guiding principle despite the irregularity of one’s background. Born an illegitimate child in 1907, he also fathered an illegitimate daughter, Hildegard, in 1933. Yet Blessed Franz would go on to stand up as a witness to the Gospel in such a way that caused his death — recognized as a martyr in 2007 by Pope Benedict XVI.
It seems that many regarded Blessed Franz as something of a free spirit in his young adulthood. Beyond his promiscuity, Blessed Franz was not afraid to settle disagreements with a fistfight. Other than going to church when expected, no one in his circle of friends or family would have thought he was on the path to sainthood.
Although he was not to raise Hildegard, he did not abandon her. He took responsibility, to the extent the girl’s mother allowed, maintaining a relationship with her and providing other means of support. A few years later, after Blessed Franz was married with children of his own, he offered to adopt the girl, although her mother declined the offer.
The experience seems to have awakened Blessed Franz’s faith. By the time he met his future wife, he already had given serious consideration to entrance at a monastery. Blessed Franz and Franziska married in 1936 and raised a family of three daughters together on the farm he inherited from his foster father. The couple desired to help each other grow in the practice of their religion. As Franziska would later comment: “We helped one another go forward in faith.” Blessed Franz and his wife were incredibly happy in marriage. He once commented to his wife, “I could have never imagined that being married could be so wonderful.”
The fact that Franz had more than a superficial attachment to his faith — that he was a dedicated and conscientious Catholic — was appealing to the young Franziska, who also previously had considered religious life. The thoughtfulness with which Blessed Franz appropriated the Faith is what would go on to prove the strength of his character and virtue.
A few years after his marriage to Franziska, Blessed Franz was disturbed by the fact that everyone in his village supported Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria. What ensued for him was a path of resistance, grounded in his Catholic faith, that ultimately ended at his death in a Nazi prison on Aug. 9, 1943 — exactly one year after the death of another Holocaust martyr, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein).
Ongoing spiritual development, aided by his profession as a Third Order Franciscan in 1940, strengthened Blessed Franz in his commitment to resist the project of the Nazis. Ultimately forced into active duty in the Nazi army, he stated when he arrived at the military camp that he refused to fight on the grounds that he conscientiously objected. He offered to work as a paramedic, but that was rejected.
For his refusal to participate in the Nazi army, Blessed Franz was accused of weakening the military morale. After a trial, he was sentenced to death and executed by guillotine at a Nazi prison at age 36.
Many criticized Blessed Franz at the time of his death for being negligent in his duty to his country and his family. With his 2007 beatification, the Church put to bed those concerns and reiterated that Blessed Franz chose the better path. Out of all the canonized and beatified figures to emerge from the World War II era, Blessed Franz remains the sole layman declared a martyr after a death precipitated by refusing to fight in defense of the Third Reich.
His feast day is May 21.
Michael R. Heinlein is editor of Simply Catholic. Follow him on Twitter at @HeinleinMichael.