By: Jo Siedlecka
The annual peace prayer service, organised by Pax Christi, was held last night in the Crypt Chapel of Westminster Cathedral, to remember the victims of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, to mark the anniversary of the execution of Blessed Franz Jagerstatter in 1943 for refusing to serve in Hitler's army, and to pray for all conscientious objectors and those who work for peace. There were also prayers for a peaceful solution to the present standoff between the US and North Korea.
The service was followed by the peace walk to the London Peace Pagoda in Battersea Park. through pouring rain. The interfaith service, led by the Rev Gyoro Nagase from the Nipponzan Myhoji Buddhist Order was held in a small marquee by the pagoda. There were Christian and Buddhist prayers and ceremonies, but as heavy rain and wind showed no sign of abating, the organisers decided to postpone the lantern floating ceremony to another time.
At the end of his reflection on Blessed Franz Jagerstatter at the Cathedral, Bruce Kent, vice president of CND, said: “The North Korea - United States nuclear standoff is very dangerous indeed since the leaders of both countries are acting irrationally in a way that puts us all in great danger.
"Our country is well on the way to spending something like £205 billion on another generation of nuclear weapons –instruments of mass destruction and slaughter, yet we can’t find the millions to keep our NHS running as it should. We sell weapons to almost country able to pay the price, however unsavoury the regime. Next month will see once more a major arm sales exhibition right here in London.
"We go along with ‘ charity ‘ legislation which makes it almost impossible for ‘anti poverty charities’ to acknowledge that global militarisation is a major cause of the poverty which they are meant to be relieving.
"There is much to do and much that will perhaps not make us popular today . But we learn from Franz Jagerstatter that popularity is not the issue. Being faithful to the Gospel most certainly is.”
Watch Bruce Kent’s address here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=FKpiGpOMwDE
The full text of Bruce Kent’s reflection follows below.
It is many years since Pax Christi organised its first visit to St Radegund, the tiny Austrian village, just north of Salzburg and beside the Salzach river which separates Austria from Germany.
I don’t think many people had even heard of Jägerstätter in 1975. Inspired by reading In Solitary Witness - Gordon Zahn’s book about Franz Jägerstätter - our pilgrimage was a spontaneous, hit and miss affair. No great planning. We simply wrote to other European Pax Christi sections and peace organisations telling them that we would be in the village Inn one September morning. ‘Turn up if you want to,’ was our invitation, ‘and we hope you will’.
Turn up they did, from France, Germany and Poland, as well as other parts of Austria. Most wonderfully Fr Karobath, a friend and pastor to Franz,who had been pushed out of the parish by the Nazis, came too, as did Franz’s wife and daughters, and young people from St Radegund itself who knew little about their local hero. It was a great day of greetings and memories, as we learned more about Franz’s story and celebrated Mass.
We visited his grave by the wall of the church, and also the memorial to all the village dead of WW2 on which, not without local protest, Franz's name had been added as well.
Franz was the only person in his village of St Radegund who voted against the Nazi take-over of Austria in 1938. His opposition surprised his neighbours because, otherwise, he seemed just like them. After leaving school with basic education, and a few wild years during which he fathered an illegitimate daughter, Franz had settled down as a happily married farmer. His wife Franziska, whom he loved dearly, (and who welcomed us warmly), was also from the region and together they had, by 1943, three little girls. Franz and Franziska took their faith very seriously. They read the bible together and Franz became sacristan of St Radegund’s tiny church.
It was that faith which led him along the lonely path of resistance. Franz had completed six months army training in 1940-41 but was released to go back to his farm. By 1943 his opposition had grown. He had decided it was impossible as a Catholic to obey a dictator who was, in his words, ‘gobbling up’ other countries and killing so many people.
I do not think, Franz can be defined as a pacifist. He might well in other circumstances have defended his country militarily, but Hitler’s war was one which, in good conscience, he could not support.
Reaching this decision took many months of prayerful thought. He consulted parish clergy and the local bishop – all of whom advised him to compromise and fight like everyone else. Knowing that refusal meant the death penalty, his relations and friends tried to dissuade him. Although Franziska hoped that there might be some way to save his life without betraying his conscience, she alone supported Franz to the end. He was finally condemned to death in July and then beheaded in Brandenburg prison on the 9th of August 1943.
On the night of Franz’s execution the prison chaplain told some Austrian nuns that Franz was the only saint he had ever met. Those nuns took Franz’s ashes back to St Radegund, after the war, to be buried by the little village church.
For several decades Franz remained a controversial figure, challenging Austrians who had acted differently. Too many families had lost husbands, fathers and brothers to think kindly of someone who had refused to fight. Franziska was ostracised by neighbours and unable to claim the pension available to other war widows. For her, managing the farm and bringing up three young children, was a lonely struggle.
The significance of Franz’s Christian heroism began to be appreciated with the publication of Zahn’s book. In the 1980s a biography by journalist Erna Putz further influenced the attitudes of fellow Austrians.
Since then the heroism of Franz – and Franziska - has been recognised by Church and State. People now come to St Radegund from all over the world to honour the man who had the courage to say NO.
I remember receiving a message from a conscientious objector in prison in Turkey. Said he ‘I am delighted that you are going to commemorate Franz Jagerstatter whose life had been an inspiration for me for many years and I am deeply honoured by the possibility of being mentioned next to him.’
Ten years ago, in 2007, Franz was beatified as a Christian martyr at a celebration in Linz cathedral in the presence of his widow, all his four daughters, and his grandchildren. The congregation gave Franziska a standing ovation in recognition of her own sacrifice and faith. She died in 2013, just two weeks after reaching her hundredth birthday.
Franz’s feast day is the 21st May - a day to remember that there are times when we Christians, whatever our role, have to say ‘No’ to the policies of the powers and principalities. Our Kingdom is in but not of this world. It is not only soldiers who have sometimes to refuse – that challenge comes to all of us at some time if we are serious about our Christianity - though few of us will have to pay anything like the price Franz paid.
We have our own personal challenges today. The North Korea /United States nuclear standoff is very dangerous indeed since the leaders of both countries are acting irrationally in a way that puts us all in great danger. Our country is well on the way to spending something like £205 billion on another generation of nuclear weapons –instruments of mass destruction and slaughter, yet we can’t find the millions to keep our NHS running as it should. We sell weapons to almost country able to pay the price, however unsavoury the regime. Next month will see once more a major arm sales exhibition right here in London. We go along with ‘ charity ‘ legislation which makes it almost impossible for ‘anti poverty charities’ to acknowledge that global militarisation is a major cause of the poverty which they are meant to be relieving .
There is much to do and much that will perhaps not make us popular today . But we learn from Franz Jagerstatter that popularity is not the issue. Being faithful to the Gospel most certainly is.
“I am convinced that it is still best that I speak the truth, even if it costs me my life. For you will not find it written in any of the commandments of God or of the Church that a man is obliged under pain of sin to take an oath committing him to obey whatever might be commanded of him by a secular ruler.” (Franz, Letter from Prison, 1943)
“I already look forward to meeting again in heaven, where no war can ever divide us again.” (Franziska, Letter after her husband’s execution, 1943)