Home » Nonviolence » Of Franz … and ants
Franz and Franziska Jägerstätter

Franz and Franziska Jägerstätter (Franz und Franziska Jägerstätter Institut)

On this Tuesday, May 21 (his baptismal day), we celebrate a still too little known figure: Blessed Franz Jägerstätter (beatified 2007). The conscientious objector and martyr refused participation in the Austrian army under the Nazi regime and was executed on Aug. 9, 1943.


Franz, alongside his wife Franziska, raised a family on their small farm in Austria where they practiced a simple life. Franz farmed in the pastures. He helped at the parish. He was the village sexton.

After the Anschluss, the Nazi Germany annexation of Austria in 1938, Franz declared that participation in war was a serious sin, refused to buy into the Nazi regime, rejected the government’s benefits, and openly berated clergy for praising the Nazi Party.

When Franz was conscripted in February 1943, he refused and was subsequently arrested. Throughout his custody and trial, both his parish priest and local bishop attempted to dissuade him from his conscientious objector’s stance. As a poor rural farmer, what could Franz know of such grand moral questions and ethical reasoning? They urged him to consider his other commitments as a citizen, son, husband and father to three children.

Yet Franz responded:

If I must write … with my hands in chains, I find that much better than if my will were in chains. Neither prison nor chains nor sentence of death can rob a man of the Faith and his free will. God gives so much strength that it is possible to bear any suffering.

He was condemned to death for sedition and was executed on Aug. 9.

I so admire the story of Franz (and Franziska). It certainly is heroic, defying the Nazis unto death. But even more so, I love the story because the rejection in the participation of war was the outflowing of a simple life, of daily prayer and of discernment between a husband and wife. I think there are two implications for this in my life in El Salvador this month.

First, the witness of Franz upholds conscience as the highest moral agent, which is done in concert with a community.

Franz reasoned in concert with his wife Franziska. Together, they carefully examined his roles as husband, father, Christian and citizen, discerning within a complex matrix of responsibilities and obligations. The Jägerstätters remind us that acting on one’s conscience is not a private act. Upholding conscience is done in a community; for the Jägerstätters, marriage was such a place.

In El Salvador, we Maryknollers meet monthly. We talk about the reality of the people we serve and our responses to it. We listen to each other and try to make decisions together, and prayerfully. I am grateful for this time together. It reminds me that responding to the signs of the times is not done alone but in community, and in prayer.

Franz always sought the grace of the Holy Spirit to be able to make decisions, even when the religious and moral authorities tried to convince him otherwise. We, too, ask for the grace to be able to respond to the needs in El Salvador, and for the reality of Salvadorans to inform our conscience.

Second, Franz’s nonviolent life was rather ordinary. Though his nonviolence may be most fully expressed in his martyrdom, the lion’s share of it was lived out in small, ordinary ways: when he attended to his pastures, his cows, his parish, his wife, and his daughters. His was a life steeped in prayer. For Franz, following Christ wasn’t about following a categorical rule or doctrine. It was about living in a certain kind of way.

Lanza del Vasto writes in Warriors of Peace:

Much more than going into the street… the most efficient action and the most significant testimony in favor of nonviolence and truth is living: living a life that is one, where everything goes in the same sense, from prayer and meditation to laboring for our daily bread, from the teaching of the doctrine to the making of manure, from cooking to singing and dancing around the fire; living a life in which there is no violence or unfairness.…

What matters is to show that such a life is possible and even not more difficult than a life of gain, nor more unpleasant than a life of pleasure, nor less natural than an ‘ordinary’ life.

Ants on wall

Stock photo by schankz via Canva

Our commitment to nonviolence commits us precisely to live … an “ordinary” life, like the Jägerstätters. Sometimes we practice nonviolence in big, public moments, but more often than not, in small moments. We are called to the ordinary life.

In one perhaps asinine example, I am, of late, in a battle with ants. Yes, the ants need to stop chewing through my walls, but could I approach them with reverence? Maybe even wonder? They’re so delicate, and yet so stubborn. Even as I work to eradicate them from my home, I can do so while seeing them as marvelously made by the Creator. And I can laugh at myself when they inevitably return the next day!

In El Salvador, I am witness to the “ordinary” life of Salvadorans. Maybe their testimony is not as bold as Franz’s martyrdom. But they testify to nonviolence and truth in the way that they forgive, or the way they labor honestly for their daily bread. Last week, a hastily programmed church event provoked a lot of stress for the local coordinator. His wife told him simply: “Don’t be angry, dear. You don’t know what’s going on in that person’s life. Just let it go.” And he did.

That is the ordinary holiness of life, something we are all called to cultivate with conscience and with community, from the mountains of Austria to the volcanoes of El Salvador and everywhere in between.

 

Sarah Bueter
Sarah Bueter joined Maryknoll Lay Missioners in 2023 and is serving in El Salvador.