Blessed Franz Jagerstatter was born in Austria in 1907. As a young man, his Catholic faith wasn’t very important to him, but he later had a profound conversion through the influence of his deeply devout wife. He developed a love for scripture, the stories of the saints, and the Mass. When Hitler annexed Austria in 1938, the vast majority of Austrians were in favor of it. But Jagerstatter was disturbed by the evil he recognized in Nazi ideology. His open opposition to the German regime made him very unpopular among his neighbors. Though conscripted, he refused to fight in Hitler’s army. This showed tremendous courage, for there were many Catholics, including priests and bishops, who were unsympathetic to Nazism but who tended to look for ways in which they could justify compliance rather than resist. But Jagerstatter accepted imprisonment rather than give in, even though it meant being separated from his wife and three children. His wife admired his principled stance and was supportive, but in some of her letters to him in prison she expressed her hope that he would change his mind and serve in the German army so that he might be free. The recent film, “A Hidden Life,” depicts with realism what Jagerstatter’s principled stance cost him. At first, he displays naïve confidence that the Lord would protect him. But this gives way to misgiving, disappointment, fear, and anguish. Finally, there comes a growing acceptance that even this part of the experience and part of the suffering can be entrusted to God and His renewal of all things. In July 1943, Jagerstatter was executed by the Nazi government as a traitor, his principled stance admired by almost no one among his contemporaries.
“Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, the Kingdom of God is theirs.” We like to think that righteousness is appreciated and valued. But it’s often self-righteousness that enjoys the esteem of the world. The self-righteous are the Pharisees who admire themselves for being good and upright as they observe the external precepts of the law (or the accepted social conventions of their age), all the while condemning those around them whom they perceive to be less observant. They take a certain satisfaction from being resented by people they see as their moral inferiors, and when criticized would make themselves out to be martyrs. These are not those whom Our Lord describes as blessed. Those who suffer for the sake of righteousness are. Christ tells us: “The Kingdom of God is theirs.” If we look at the other Beatitudes, Our Lord says the same thing about the poor in spirit. That’s because these qualities are connected. Those who are persecuted truly for the sake of righteousness are poor in spirit.
Jagerstatter knew that he was nothing without God, on Whom he depended for everything, including righteousness. To go along with something that contradicted the goodness of God, something that propagated terrible lies and evil on a massive scale, would be to turn away from Jesus – the One he loved and Whose Spirit filled his heart like the breath in his lungs. He knew that to cooperate with the evil of Nazism would be to deny the Source of all truth and life in order to embrace death. His steadfastness brought Jagerstatter the resentment of the world, but to live any other way was intolerable to him because of his poverty of spirit. This made him a coheir to the Kingdom of God, for Our Lord shared with him His whole inheritance as the Son of God – including persecution for the sake of righteousness.