Derek Worlock (February 4, 1920 – February 6. 1996) was an English priest in the Roman Catholic Church and the Archbishop of Liverpool.
Worlock was committed to collaboration with all his fellow Christians. Worlock co-authored the books Better Together and With Hope in our Hearts (1995) with the Anglican Bishop of Liverpool, David Sheppard. Worklock’s motto was Caritas Christi eluceat (“For the Shining Light of Christ”).
In 1994 Archbishop Worlock was awarded the Freedom of the City of Liverpool award and appointed as a Companion of Honour in 1996. At his death that year, a memorial for him was planned. It was commissioned in 2005 and made possible through public donations. It was designed by British sculptor Stephen Broadbent (b. 1961). The memorial is situated at the halfway point of Liverpool’s Hope Street. Hope Street joins both the Anglican and Roman Catholic cathedrals. See it here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/newfolder/2535308455
The aim of the statue was to create a lasting memorial to the work of the two religious leaders—Catholic archbishop Worklock and Anglican Bishop David Sheppard— who aimed to heal their churches’ deep religious divisions and serve as a unifying force in Liverpool.
I am my brother’s keeper, and he’s sleeping pretty rough these days. London OBSERVER, December 16, 1990. (On the homeless).
Sheppard-Worlock Statue by Stephen Broadbent. Above: Catholic Archbishop Derek Worlock. Commissioned in 2005 and paid for with public donations, the statue sits halfway between the Catholic and Anglican cathedrals that are both situated on Hope Street in Liverpool. The statue memorializes the two religious leaders who worked together as a unifying force to heal religious divisions among their churches and in the city. Below: Anglican bishop David Sheppard.
Coat of Arms, Most Rev. Derek Worlock, Metropolitan Archbishop of Liverpool. It contains Worklock’s motto: Caritas Christi eluceat (“For the Shining Light of Christ”).
PHOTO SOURCES: File: Detail full length Sheppard-Worlock Statue 2017-2.jpg CreatorRodhullandemu License CC BY-SA 4.0 Source WikiCommons.
File: Detail from the statue of Derek Worlock, the former Catholic Archbishop of Liverpool 2.jpg Created: 18 September 2008 CC BY-SA 2.0
File: Detail from the Sheppard-Worlock statue Liverpool. Anglican Bishop David Sheppard. Man vyi – Self-photographed. Own work, all rights released (Public domain)/
One day John XXIII visited the Hospital of the Holy Spirit in Rome. Deeply stirred by the pope’s visit, the mother superior whose nuns administered the hospital, went up to introduce herself. “Most Holy Father,” she announced, “I am the Superior of the Holy Spirit!” “Well, I must say you’re lucky,” the pope said. “I’m only the Vicar of Jesus Christ!”Wit and Wisdom of Good Pope John, collected by Henri Fesquet.
“Giovanni, why don’t you sleep? Is it the Pope or the Holy Spirit who governs the church? It’s the Holy Spirit, no? Well, then, go to sleep, Giovanni!” Wit and Wisdom of Good Pope John, collected by Henri Fesquet.
Photographic portrait, John Henry Cardinal Newman, 1880.
Introduction by John P. Walsh
John Henry Newman (1801-1890) was a theologian and poet who was first an Anglican priest and later a Roman Catholic priest and cardinal. In the 1830’s and until his conversion to Catholicism in 1845, Newman was a leading figure in the Oxford Movement. They were a group of Anglicans who looked to create a bridge between the Church of England and the Catholic Church by adopting many Catholic beliefs and liturgical rituals from before the English Reformation. Newman eventually came to believe for himself that these religious efforts proved insufficient and he left the Anglican Communion for the Catholic Church in 1845. Already an articulate and influential religious leader in Britain, Newman’s decision brought with it the burden of having upset his friends as well as being challenged by them and others for his changed religious opinions on polemical grounds. Newman, a longtime writer and speaker, responded after a while with his now-celebrated Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1865–1866), which served as a defense of his religious opinions after he quit his position as Anglican vicar at Oxford. Newman, a 19th-century master of English prose and poetry, had already published The Idea of a University (1852) and went on to publish Grammar of Assent (1870) as well as several poems, some of which were set to music or served as hymns. In 1879, at the age of 78 years old, Pope Leo XIII named Newman a cardinal for his work on behalf of the Catholic Church in England as well as his having co-founded the Catholic University of Ireland in 1854, which today as University College Dublin is Ireland’s largest institution of higher learning. On October 13, 2019, John Henry Newman was canonized a Catholic saint at the Vatican by Pope Francis. St. John Henry Newman became the first saint canonized from Britain since 1976. In remarks by Prince Charles who led the British delegation to the Vatican for Newman’s canonization, the Prince of Wales said: “In the age in which he [Newman] attains sainthood, his example is needed more than ever – for the manner in which, at his best, he could advocate without accusation, could disagree without disrespect and, perhaps most of all, could see differences as places of encounter rather than exclusion.” London-born Cardinal Newman died in England in 1890 at 89 years old. He founded the Oratory at Birmingham in 1848 and through his writings spoke to many about the issues of faith, education, and conscience.
“A given opinion, as held by several individuals, even when of the most congenial views, is as distinct as are their faces.” Oxford University sermons, 1843.
“It is as absurd to argue men, as to torture them, into believing.” Oxford University sermon, December 11, 1831.
“From the age of fifteen, dogma has been the fundamental principle of my religion: I know of no other religion; I cannot enter into the idea of any other sort of religion; religion, as a mere sentiment, is to me a dream and a mockery.” Apologia Pro Vita Sua, 1864.
“I used to wish the Arabian Tales were true; my imagination ran on unknown influences, on magical powers, and talismans. I thought life might be a dream, or I an Angel, and all this world a deception, my fellow-angels by a playful device concealing themselves from me, and deceiving me from the semblance of a material world.” Apologia Pro Vita Sua (Up to 1833).
“I was brought up from a child to take great delight in reading the Bible; but I had formed no religious convictions till I was fifteen. Of course I had perfect knowledge of my Catechism.” Apologia Pro Vita Sua (Up to 1833).
“I read Joseph Milner’s Church History, and was nothing short of enamoured of the long extracts from St. Augustine and the other Fathers which I found there. I read them as being the religion of the primitive Christians.” Apologia Pro Vita Sua (Part III).
“I read Newton on the Prophecies, and in consequence became most firmly convinced that the Pope was the Antichrist predicted by Daniel, St. Paul and St. John. My imagination was stained by the effects of this doctrine up to the year 1843.” Apologia Pro Vita Sua (Part III).
“There are virtues indeed, which the world is not fitted to judge about or to uphold, such as faith, hope and charity; but it can judge about Truthfulness; it can judge about the natural virtues, and truthfulness is one of them. Natural virtues may also become supernatural; Truthfulness is such…” Apologia Pro Vita Sua (Part II).
“Catholics on the other hand shade and soften the awful antagonism between good and evil, which is one of their dogmas, by holding that there are different degrees of justification, that there is a great difference in point of gravity between sin and sin, that there is a possibility and the danger of falling away, and that there is no certain knowledge given to anyone that he is simply in a state of grace, and much less that he is to persevere to the end.” Apologia Pro Vita Sua (Part III).
“Let is seek the grace of a cheerful heart, an even temper, sweetness, gentleness, and brightness of mind, as well as walking in His light, and by His grace. Let us pray to Him to give us the ever-abundant, ever-springing love, which overpowers and sweeps away the vexations of life by its own richness and strength, and which above all unites us to Him, Who is the fountain and center of all mercy, loving kindness and joy.” 17, Religious Joy (Sermon for Christmas Day), 1868.
“Ex Umbris et Imaginibus in Veritatem! (From shadows and symbols into the truth!), Epitaph at Edgbaston.
“Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom; Lead thou me on! The night is dark, and I am far from home; Lead thou me on! Keep thou my feet: I do not ask to see the distant scene; one step enough for me.” The Pillar of the Cloud, 1833.
This is what the Church is said to want, not party men, but sensible, temperate, sober, well-judging persons, to guide it through the channel of no-meaning, between the Scylla and Charybdis of Aye and no. St. John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1890), Apologia Pro Vita Sua, “History of My Religious Opinions from 1839-1841” (1864).
August 14 is the Feast of St. Maximilian Kolbe (1894-1941). Fr. Kolbe died in a Nazi concentration camp (Auschwitz) after he traded places with another camp prisoner condemned to die who was a stranger. That camp prisoner, a husband and father, survived the war. He testified to Kolbe’s heroic and charitable action as a martyr during Kolbe’s canonization process in the Roman Catholic Church. Kolbe was pronounced a saint on October 10, 1982 by St. Pope John Paul II (1920-2005).
Another Catholic martyr out of the Nazi camps who is also much worth knowing is Blessed Titus Brandsma (1881-1942). Brandsma died in Dachau concentration camp, the Nazi’s first concentration camp. Opened in 1933 Dachau’s initial purpose was to imprison political opponents of the Third Reich. Kolbe was a Polish Franciscan and Brandsma was a Dutch Carmelite. In 1985 Fr. Brandsma was declared a Blessed of the Church by St. Pope John Paul II setting him too on the road to sainthood.
Franciscan friar Fr. Maximilian Kolbe. His father was German and his mother was Polish. A journalist by trade he had dedicated his work to the Virgin Mary. Arrested in Poland on February 17, 1941 for sheltering Jews and anti-Nazi publishing, Kolbe was sent to Auschwitz on May 28, 1941. He died on August 14, 1941 after he traded places with another prisoner, a total stranger, who had been condemned to die in a retribution killing by the Nazis. In 1982 Kolbe was made a saint by St. Pope John Paul II.
Blessed Titus Brandsma as a young Carmelite friar. He became an ordained priest.
Both Frs. Kolbe and Brandsma were dedicated journalists. Brandsma was a university founder and teacher as well as a modern art advocate. In 1921 he famously defended the artistic freedom of the leading Symbolist and Expressionist painter in Belgium, Albert Servaes (1883-1966). The artist, a committed Catholic, once said “I have had only two masters. The Gospels and nature.” Yet his new art work for the Stations of the Cross caused an uproar among some Catholics who were offended by the contemporary depictions of Christ’s Passion. Brandsma supported Servaes’ work for the church of the Discalced Carmelites in Luythagen, a suburb of Antwerp (they can be found today in the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Koningshoeven in Tilburg, Netherlands). Brandsma arranged for the new art to be accompanied by Brandsma’s own meditations on them and published together in a newly-founded Catholic cultural review called Opgang, This helped present and clarify the profound religious content of the art work which worked to inspire the Catholic Flemish people as well as placate irate Carmelite superiors in Rome.
Much has been said and written on Titus Brandsma since his death in 1942 in Dachau concentration camp. One major theme about Brandsma from those who crossed paths with him in his lifetime was that he was a man of positive vitality, charity and cheer.
When the Nazis invaded the Netherlands in 1940, the Catholic bishops named Titus Brandsma as the spokesman for the freedom of Catholic education and the press. Brandsma did his job seriously and effectively. Father Brandsma, who was a prolific writer published in scores of publications, had vociferously and publicly opposed Nazi ideology since 1933 when Hitler came to power in Germany. In July 1941 Brandsma authored a Pastoral Letter on behalf of the bishops that was read in all Catholic parishes. The letter officially condemned the Nazis’s anti-Semitic laws and Dutch Catholics were informed that they would be denied the sacraments if they supported the Nazi party.
Brandsma had been vehemently opposed to Nazi ideology from the time Hitler rose to power in Germany in 1933. By speaking out and writing against it many times before the Second World War, he was finally arrested and imprisoned by the Nazis in their infamous Dachau concentration camp where he died.
The Nazis hated Brandsma’s vehement and active long opposition to them. They finally arrested him and tried and condemned him as an “enemy of the state” in January 1942. Just seven months later, in July 1942, Titus Brandsma was dead. His death was caused by the terrible sufferings inflicted on him by the Nazis. At the very end, Brandsma, like other prisoners, was used as a guinea pig for Nazi “doctors.” To combat malaria affecting German soldiers, the Nazis experimented on prisoners, in this instance, involuntarily infecting them with malaria and then using exotic and dangerous drugs in an attempt at a cure. At that point in his captivity, Brandsma, already worthless to the Nazis since he couldn’t work—and whose convictions they could not beat or dehumanize out of him — became a dead man walking.
There were around 40 million Protestants and 20 million Catholics in Nazi Germany. A vast majority of Germans including Germany’s 20,000 Catholic priests lived under Hitler’s ideology and were not persecuted by the Nazis. The Nazis wanted all culture and thought to bend to their ideology and whoever spoke or acted against that imperative were imprisoned and often murdered. The first clergymen to arrive at Dachau were Polish priests sent there in 1939 for helping the Polish Resistance against the Nazi invasion. Many of these nearly 2,000 Polish priests suffered the same brutal treatment as did Titus Brandsma — a regimen of starvation, beatings, and involuntary medical experimentation. From 1933 to 1945, of the 3,000 clergymen who were inmates at Dachau—whether Catholic, Protestant, Greek Orthodox, or Muslim — about 1,100 perished. Nearly one-third of Dachau’s 200,000 prisoners (or 65,000) were Jews, many of them Germans and Austrians.
Titus Brandsma as a young Carmelite friar.
Titus Brandsma as a 30 year old Dutch Carmelite priest. Brandsma was a teacher, journalist, and modern religious art advocate.
Brandsma as a teacher in 1924.
Bradsma was university rector at Nijmegan in 1934. Hitler had rose to power in neighboring Germany the year before which Brandsma vehemently opposed for the rest of his life.
For weeks since his arrival into Dachau concentration camp just outside cheery Munich, Brandsma had been starved and savagely beaten regularly. His body depleted of strength, Brandsma became infected with camp plague. Refusing to go to the camp hospital called by camp prisoners “a hell within hell,” Brandsma was eventually admitted. Its doctors, having no mission to heal and restore their patients often used them, as they did Brandsma, for cruel medical experimentation. In the end, the camp doctor assigned to Brandsma’s case ordered that his patient, now dying of terminal renal failure, be given a lethal injection administered by a camp nurse. The woman, a lapsed Catholic and SS functionary, survived the war and, having at that time returned to her faith, testified to Brandsma’s cause of death that afternoon in the summer of 1942. She remembered his last moments and that he reached into his tattered pocket to give her his only personal possession. It was a crude rosary made and given to Brandsma by another Dutch prisoner who had been executed.
One of the last photographs of Titus Brandsma before his arrest and condemnation by the Nazis as an “enemy of the state.” Brandsma had been appointed by the Catholic Bishops in Holland as their chief spokesman to defend the freedom of Catholic education and the press. After Brandsma authored a Pastoral Letter on behalf of the bishops that was read in all Catholic parishes in July 1941 that officially condemned the Nazis’s anti-Semitic laws and informed Dutch Catholics that they would be denied the sacraments if they supported the Nazi party, the Nazis arrested the Carmelite friar. Brandsma spent most of the winter and spring of 1942 in Nazi jails in Holland and was taken to Dachau concentration camp in June 1942 where he died in July 1942.
A drawing of Titus Brandsma in Amersfoort prison in Holland in spring 1942. It was drawn by a fellow prisoner who was executed by the Nazis on May 6, 1942.
When the Nazis arrested Brandsma in Holland for his exercise of free speech, the journalist-priest marveled at his bad luck: “I’m 60 years old and I’m going to jail.” Confined in assorted jails of worsening condition all that winter and into spring he arrived at Dachau in June 1942. Brandsma worked to keep a positive, indeed charitable, attitude as far as possible within a hideously barbaric situation. When he went so far as to encourage other Catholic camp prisoners to include the Nazi guards in their prayers, the other prisoners violently demurred. Brandsma retorted: “I didn’t say you ought to pray for them all day long!”
Titus Brandsma’s signature with the abbreviation “O.Carm.” after it indicating his being part of the Carmelite Order.
When Brandsma died at, and in, Nazi hands on July 26, 1942, three days later camp staff took his remains and burned them in the camp’s old furnaces. By 1943 Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler (1900-1945) had ordered and installed new and bigger furnaces. They were used around the clock to dispose of prisoner remains until April 29, 1945 when Dachau was liberated by a large force of American soldiers. The Nazis scraped Brandsma’s ashes out of the furnace and disposed of them in the camp’s unmarked pit among thousands of other victims at Dachau. Inside this once-mass killing facility set within a leafy, banal German suburb that gives it its name, it is unknown the precise number of actual prisoner deaths that occurred here between 1933 and 1945, although 32,000 deaths are recorded.
Furnaces in the crematorium at Dachau. More than 31,000 prisoners died in Dachau concentration camp from 1933 to its liberation by American soldiers in 1945. The former concentration camp is situated in the middle of a leafy, banal German suburb of the same name.
At the Dachau Memorial Site, a Carmelite convent of contemplative nuns is one of the memorials close by. Built on the site of a gravel pit where prisoners were sent to work when punished for breaking camp rules, the convent’s entrance is through a former Dachau guard tower.
Always the writer, Titus Brandsma kept writing even in prison. These prison writings are a source for amazement and inspiration today. In the depth of his own terrible suffering at the hands of others, Titus Brandsma wrote: “In the depths of our being we come upon the activity of God by which he sustains us and we are led and guided by him. We have to go to its deepest source to rediscover ourselves in God.”
The author at Dachau concentration camp in July 1984. The sculpture memorial to Dachau prisoners from 1933 to 1945 by Yugoslav sculptor Nandor Glid (1924-1997) is just behind me. Glid was a Holocaust survivor who had been a forced laborer and partisan during the war and whose father and most of his family were murdered in Auschwitz.
My photograph of the entrance gate into the camp during a visit in July 1984.
Another of my photographs from Dachau in July 1984 — barbed wire, ditch, and a watch tower. The broad expanse of the prisoner barracks were dismantled leaving only their graveled footprint.
Brief newspaper announcement of the death of Blessed Fr. Titus Brandsma, Carmelite Order. Brandsma’s cause for sainthood continues to go forward today.
Oil painting by Steve Trizna of the stages of life of Blessed Fr. Titus Brandsma, O. Carm.. Photograph by author.
Featured image above: Detail from St. Francis Receiving the Franciscan Order from Pope Honorius III by Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494). The fresco, painted in the mid1480s (1483-85), was originally for Santa Trinita in Florence, Italy. It is today in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence. Ghirlandaio’s complete fresco image is included in this post.
Below: Giotto (1267-1337), St. Francis with two men (detail), 1297-1300, Upper Church, Basilica di S. Francesco, Assisi, Italy.
By John P. Walsh
A plenary indulgence in the Roman Catholic Church wipes clean all punishment for sins during a person’s entire lifetime. For something that may assure a soul is heaven bound, there are specific and precise earthly requirements to be followed. A plenary indulgence means that the punishment for sins that could well be experienced on earth or after death in purgatory are expiated or removed. A plenary indulgence stands in contrast to the more common partial indulgences which are less comprehensive and come in a far broader range.
The plenary indulgence granted by the Pope in 1216 to the Portiuncula, a lowly Franciscan chapel outside Assisi — the so-called Portiuncula Indulgence — is remarkable in church history. As with most things associated with the life of St. Francis of Assisi (c.1181-1226), the episode turned the church’s indulgence system on its head. The new pope, Honorius III (1150-1227, reign 1216-1227), who followed the powerful and influential Pope Innocent III (reign, 1198-1216), was asked by St. Francis himself for the plenary indulgence linked to the Portiuncula, the one-room chapel given to the Franciscans and the central place for many of their founder’s most profound religious experiences.
The Portiuncula (or “Little Portion”) is a 9th century chapel given to the Franciscans by local Benedictine monks. It was here that St. Francis of Assisi received his calling to be a mendicant or beggar following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. Since the mid-17th century it has been enshrined within a massive basilica in Assisi called Santa Maria degli Angeli (“Our Lady of the Angels”).
Honorius III listened to the little poor man Francis and expressed extreme reluctance to grant his request. How could the mighty church bestow its fullest plenary indulgence on an obscure, rundown 180 square foot chapel when a holy place such as that might normally receive only a partial indulgence? Churches, usually at their dedication, would gain a partial indulgence of days or perhaps a year or two. The Portiuncula Indulgence which begins each year at sunset on the evening of August 1 and extends until sunset of the following day, is a plenary (or lifetime) indulgence that was approved at the highest levels of the church by virtue of St. Francis of Assisi’s bold request. The saint always insisted it was not he, but Jesus Christ Himself who was asking for the plenary Portiuncula Indulgence.
Pope Francis who when elected in 2013 took his name from St. Francis of Assisi sits inside the Portiuncula chapel during his visit to Assisi in 2016 for World Day of Prayer For Peace.
In the early 13th century the church’s only plenary indulgence was for the Crusades in the Holy Land — at first for the Crusaders themselves and later for those who provided their spiritual and material support. Interestingly, the distribution of and sharing in this sole plenary indulgence had been granted to the Franciscans. The new order (1209) which started in Assisi under St. Francis had quickly spread not only throughout Europe in Francis’s lifetime but the known world. The Franciscan Order would soon embrace both men and women, religious and laity. St. Francis’s own vocation started dramatically in 1208 at the Portiuncula, the tiny dilapidated chapel on a wide plain below Assisi, no more than an hour’s walk from the hill town’s main square.
Francis’s request to the pope who was holding court in Perugia was a bold one. The pope greatly hesitated; then assented. The cardinals and the Curia—as well as the local bishops—were opposed to the idea of a plenary indulgence for the Portiuncula. Francis’s “Little Portion” was just that and unworthy of the church’s fullest indulgence especially as an international banking system was watching and to which the church had become increasingly aligned. Unable to quash outright the Poverello’s request with its papal approbation, the cardinals and Curia worked successfully to limit its temporal parameters, that is, allowing the plenary indulgence for the Little Portion to work for the littlest of time. The plenary indulgence would be one day each year, from sunset of August 1 to sunset of August 2. This has remained its arrangement for more than 800 years.
St. Francis Receiving Confirmation of the Franciscan Order from Pope Honorious III, by Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494), originally in a central position in the Santa Trinita, Florence, Italy. It is housed today at the Piazza della Signoria. The approval of the Franciscan order by Honorius III depicted in this fresco occurred in 1223 which was about 7 years after the Portiuncula Indulgence, This late 15th-century art work provides insight into the almost public event that any papal encounter entailed.
To acquire any plenary indulgence including the Portiuncula Indulgence requires taking action regarding the work to which the indulgence is attached -– in this case, it began with pilgrimage to the Portiuncula in Assisi. It also means fulfilling three more conditions. The applicant must (1) make a sacramental confession, (2) receive holy communion, and (3) pray for the intentions of the pope. To acquire a plenary indulgence also means that not even the smallest attachment to any sin is permitted.
After their meeting in 1216 the pope offered Francis the appropriate paperwork for his extraordinary indulgence but like many times before and on integral events in the life of the Franciscan Order, Francis waved it off. This great saint concluded that even church documents could be superfluous to the actual manifestation of God’s work.
Simone Martini (c. 1285-1344), St. Francis with the Stigmata, Basilica di San Francesco, Assisi, Italy.
After St. Francis died on October 3, 1226 at the Portiuncula, its plenary indulgence’s lack of a contemporary document and continued animosity from grandiose church figures led early Franciscans to not highlight the privilege. By the 1270’s with the last of the Franciscans who personally knew Francis dying off, those brothers who had been at Perugia in 1216 to witness the Portiuncula indulgence set about making notarized statements attesting to its veracity.
In this first quarter of the 21st century Franciscans and other pilgrims continue to arrive to Assisi in a constant stream as they have since the 13th century. Their visits often include traveling the short distance to the Portiuncula which is the spiritual home of St. Francis and the Franciscan movement, all of which has made a noteworthy impact on world history. But not every visit— especially among 13th century Franciscans—provides easy historical documentation of their witness to the Portiuncula’s plenary indulgence in August.
In a certain way, the origin of the Portiuncula indulgence attributed to St. Francis is shrouded in history as much as possibly legend. In 2019 the Portiuncula indulgence will be in effect, as it has since 1216, from the evening of August 1 to that of August 2.
In addition to the sacramental requirements, its plenary indulgence may be received by visiting any Franciscan church in the world and that the pilgrim— in the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi— has that tiny terra sancta called the Portiuncula uppermost in mind so that out of that place its graces may flow.
St. Francis of Assisi, Johannes Jörgensen, translated from the Danish with the author’s sanction by T. O’Conor Sloane, Image Books in association with Longmans, Green & Company, Inc, 1955.
Manual of Indulgences, USCCB Publishing , 2006.
Civilisation, Kenneth Clark, Harper & Row Publishers, New York and Evanston, 1969.
One hour’s drive (about 40 miles) south of downtown Chicago– and 90 minutes drive from the University of Notre Dame near South Bend, Indiana, is The Shrine of Christ’s Passion. Within a 30-acre site whose landscaped rocks, hills, and trees envelop the visitor, the shrine is located on busy U.S. 41 at 10630 Wicker Avenue in St. John, Indiana. A pioneer town settled in 1837, St. John still sits among farm fields though there is increasingly more development only minutes from the Indiana-Illinois state line.
On the historic Wachter family farm, the level terrain is a perfect outdoor setting for an array of multi-media and interactive attractions. Most visitors, whether as individuals or in groups, come to the shrine to traverse the half-mile winding concrete pathway that contain over 40 life-sized bronze sculptures which dramatize the Passion of Jesus Christ in the Bible.
The visit to the shrine begins in the well-stocked gift shop and leads directly outdoors to the dramatization of Jesus at The Last Supper and into the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prays. This is followed by the 14 traditional Stations of the Cross. The visit ends at Jesus’s empty tomb and his appearance to Mary Magdalene. Finally there is the dramatic Ascension of the Risen Jesus into Heaven on Mount Olivet.
The shrine opened in 2011 and added its latest attraction– namely, a re-creation of the rock-filled path up Mount Sinai to where Moses has received the 10 Commandments –in 2017.
The Shrine of Christ’s Passion required a decade of planning and over $10 million dollars to build. Each setting or station for Christ’s passion has an orientation kiosk. Each features the well-known recorded voice of American television journalist Bill Kurtis. A push of a button has Mr. Kurtis’s voice over the kiosks’ speakers provide a clear and brief description in English of the sculptures’ scenes followed by a short meditation.
Along the broad concrete pathway the prayer trail is meditative and its easy progression from station to station lends itself to discovery. Formed hills, planted trees, bushes, and grasses as well as many large boulders, provide a complete landscape far from the outside world. The design creates a terrain that is self-contained and works to evoke the arid climate of the Holy Land where the last days of Christ can become vibrant today.
Upon exiting the gift shop with its walls and shelves of tempting religious articles and other items for purchase — all proceeds apparently go to the upkeep of the shrine– one steps into an outdoor pastoral setting which offers the immediate transition into the world of the Bible and following in the footsteps of Christ during his darkest moments. Visitors share the trail with others from around the nation and world. This is part of what makes each visit to the shrine unique and alive. Yet there is ample space and freedom to enjoy one’s own completely personal experience.
Whenever one may visit the shrine — it is open 361 days a year– the prayer trail has an atmosphere that is quiet and respectful. There is always a place to sit and drink in the sculpture art detailing the greatest story ever told. Among its flora, evocative rock and land formations, and realistically-rendered life-sized sculptures depicting Jesus Christ’s suffering –- one witnesses in a a new way Christ’s mission which triumphed over sin and death.
A large and impressive place, The Shrine of Christ’s Passion retains a human scale along with giving the visitor a sense of being serenely out in nature. Depending on how much time a visitor can spend, a visit to the shrine could possibly be accomplished in as little as 30 minutes though at least an hour should be allowed to see and begin to savor everything it has to offer.
In addition to the main prayer trail and gift shop, the shrine includes more attractions such as the Moses, Mount Sinai, and the 10 Commandments trail; The Sanctity of Life Shrine; and Our Lady of The New Millennium, a monumental three-story (34 feet) tall statue of the Virgin Mary constructed out of over 8,000 pounds of stainless steel.
The Shrine is operated by a non-denominational nonprofit, private foundation. Admission to all attractions at the shrine is free. The Shrine is open daily from 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m., Thursdays until 8:00 p.m.The Prayer Trail is open year round, weather permitting.
Main Entrance on U.S. 41 at 10630 Wicker Avenue in St. John, Indiana, minutes from the Illinois-Indiana state line. Just 40 minutes from downtown Chicago, there is ample free parking and tour buses are welcome.
The Gift Shoppe.
The Last Supper Luke 22:19
“And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”
Garden of Gethsemane Mark 14:34
soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” Jesus said to
them. “Stay here and keep watch.”
THE 14 STATIONS OF THE CROSS AT THE SHRINE OF CHRIST’S PASSION, ST. JOHN, INDIANA.
1. Jesus is condemned to death Matthew 27: 19-26
“Pilate had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.”
2. Jesus carries His cross John 19:16-17
“Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha).”
3. Jesus falls for the first time Isaiah 53:1-3
“He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.”
4. Jesus meets His mother, Mary Lamentations 1:12
“Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look around and see. Is any suffering like my suffering that was inflicted on me..?”
5. Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry the cross Luke 23:26
“They seized Simon from Cyrene, who was on his way in from the country, and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus.”
6. Veronica wipes the face of Jesus Psalm 17:15
“As for me, I will be vindicated and will see your face; when I awake, I will be satisfied with seeing your likeness.”
7. Jesus falls for the second time Isaiah 53:4-6
“Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.”
8. Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem Luke 23:27-31
“A large number of people followed him, including women who mourned and wailed for him. 28 Jesus turned and said to them, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children.”
9. Jesus falls for the third time Isaiah 53:10-11
“Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand….”
10. Jesus is stripped of His clothes Matthew 27:27-31
“They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand. Then they knelt in front of him and mocked him.”
11. Jesus is nailed to the cross Luke 23:33-34
“When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left.”
12. Jesus dies on the cross Luke 23:44-49
“Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last.”
13. Jesus is taken down from the cross Mark 15:39
“When the centurion who stood facing him saw how Jesus breathed his last he said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God!'”
14. Jesus is placed in the tomb Luke 23:50-53
“Going to Pilate, Joseph of Arimathea asked for Jesus’ body. Then he took it down, wrapped it in linen cloth and placed it in a tomb cut in the rock, one in which no one had yet been laid.”
Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene John 20:16
“Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned
toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!”
Images from the Prayer Trail
The Ascension Acts of the Apostles 1:9
“…Jesus was taken up before their very eyes,
and a cloud hid him from their sight.”
Flames engulf Notre Dame de Paris in an historic early evening blaze on Monday, April 15, 2019. The fire left the 850-year-old Gothic cathedral standing, but suffering serious damage.
Hundreds of Paris firefighters battled the blaze for hours at Notre Dame de Paris on April 15, 2019. They saved the cathedral though its expansive timber roof, frame and spire burned crashed into the nave.
Fire broke out at Mass with 1,000 people inside the building
Notre Dame de Paris suffered a devastating fire on April 15, 2019 causing most of its roof and a 300-foot oak spire to collapse. The fire broke out during an early evening Mass when more than 1,000 people were in the cathedral which is the most touristic site in the center of the most touristic city in the world. The priest had been in the middle of reading that day’s Gospel of John. It was Holy Monday, the first day of Holy Week where the gospel tells the story of Mary pouring oil over the feet of Jesus which will anoint him for burial. Judas complains the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor.1
Pledges to rebuild
Notre Dame de Paris (“Our Lady of Paris” named in honor of the Virgin Mary) will take years, even decades, to rebuild and at great expense. This will be the case whether the edifice is simply restored or, as some have argued for, more creatively re-imagined for modern times. Whichever rebuilding vision or visions are followed – and there will be voices from many quarters involved in the restoration process ahead – French president Emmanuel Macron promised to complete its rebuilding by around 2024. Within 48 hours of the fire, donations poured in from around the world to rebuild the cathedral amounting to more than one billion dollars whose substantial amount may prove inadequate to fully cover rebuilding costs.2
Maintenace holes in an 850-year-old stone and wood building in the middle of a major European city
While the fire’s precise ultimate cause is yet to be fully determined, the conditions surrounding the blaze are recognizably available:
its spotty maintenance record over 10 centuries;
the anachronistic methods and complexity of its 21st century renovation going on when the fire broke out;
the twelfth and thirteenth century flammable oak “forest’” that constitutes the building’s roof and frame;
and the challenges encountered by hundreds of firefighters owing to the cathedral’s size and the fire’s location and breadth.
Almost ironically, the Cathedral roof that burned—a major attic fire— was one of the larger parts of the original 12th century cathedral builder’s monied investment.3
Architectural History of a World Icon
Notre Dame de Paris is one of Paris’s famous icons–an historical and religious treasure–and one of France’s great cathedrals along with Reims (which was nearly destroyed by fire during World War I) and Chartres (reconstructed after a fire in 1194). Others on any short list of great French cathedrals would include Amiens and Bourges, among others.
Above: Notre Dame de Paris before the April 15, 2019 blaze. The Roman Catholic cathedral is the tourist mecca in the most touristed city in the world.
Below: The Cathedral’s great nave in the immediate aftermath of the April 15, 2020 fire.
Reims Cathedral on fire in World War 1. The site of the coronation of French kings, the Gothic cathedral was virtually destroyed by bombing. After the war, the massive cathedral was completely rebuilt.
In 1163 when it became time to roof the superstructure of Notre Dame de Paris’s choir which was the first part of the church to be constructed, Paris bishop Maurice de Sully (1120-1196) provided 5000 French livres so that it could be richly and securely layered with lead. That and other of the Cathedral roof’s protective lead covering was stolen during the French Revolution in the eighteenth century. The roof’s space and design provided a large part of the church’s riddle of secret passages – including spiral staircases in the nave’s columns – that served mainly for the needs of the religious complex’s maintenance. Obviously twelfth and thirteenth century engineering proved resilient but not impregnable over ten centuries. The 2019 blaze caused serious damage leaving questions to be answered about the medieval stone and timber building’s ultimate stability. This is highly symbolic as Notre Dame de Paris is Paris Point Zero – the very center not only of the Île-de la-Cité and Paris, but the place from which all distances in France and, by extension, the world are to be judged.4
The Paris bishop Maurice de Sully (1120-1196) who with his chapter of cathedral canons started the building of Notre Dame de Paris in 1163. The structure was completed in 1250.
Episodes from the life of a bishop, c.1500, oil on panel, 61.5 x 47 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Though about 300 years after the death of Bishop de Sully, this artwork captures some of the grandeur and long history of the archbishop at his cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris.
The story of the Gothic cathedral, such as Notre Dame de Paris, is essentially a French story. By the end of the Gothic Movement in the late 14th century, all corners of France -– and points between — possessed a Gothic church that displayed pointed arch, stained glass, and buttresses, some of them magnificently flying. The style and power of Gothic art reflected not only a new theological thinking in the Renaissance of the 12th century but also an assertion of royal power.5
Notre Dame de Paris viewed from the south side of the Seine. Its magnificent flying buttresses can be seen supporting the nave and apse as well as its oak spire erected in 1860 that burned and crashed into the nave during the April 15, 2019 fire.
Collégiale Notre-Dame-et-Saint-Laurent d’Eu in far northeastern France is a Gothic church constructed between 1186 and 1240, roughly contemporaneous to Notre Dame de Paris. The subterranean crypt contains the tomb (excepting his heart which is at Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin) of Irish St. Laurence O’Toole (1128-1180). The main impetus for the building of the new Gothic Collégiale Notre-Dame-et-Saint-Laurent d’Eu was to accommodate the pilgrims who came to venerate at the saint’s tomb. French Gothic building efforts stretched from a Collégiale Notre-Dame-et-Saint-Laurent d’Eu (1186) in northeastern France to Toulouse Cathedral (13th century) in the south in France’s historic Languedoc.
Impact of the Crusades on Notre Dame de Paris
It was the age of international crusades of Western conquest to the Holy Land where a French king, King Louis IX, or St. Louis (1214-1270) led its seventh manifestation from 1248 to 1254 and died while on its Eighth. Here the king purchased relics to bring back to France, including the highly prized Crown of Thorns reputedly worn by Jesus Christ at his crucifixion. During the April 2019 fire, scores of ordinary people and cathedral personnel formed a human chain to save the cathedral’s many irreplaceable artifacts and preventing them from being consumed forever into the hellish blaze.
Louis IX (St. Louis) with his counselors and mother Blanche de Castile (1188-1252) in a miniature of the 15th century.
King Louis IX, or St. Louis (1214-1270) led the Seventh Crusade from 1248 to 1254.
As one of the first cathedrals built Notre Dame de Paris is of enduring architectural significance. Monday, April 15, 2019 was a tragic day in history as fire broke out in the 850-year old edifice while the world watched. Thousands of people gathered in the streets of Paris, and transmitted pictures of the dramatic blaze from smartphones and other devices onto the internet and television. It caused many to shed tears as well as express consternation and questions about what lies ahead for one of the most famous and beloved symbols of Paris.
Notre Dame de Paris is on fire, April 15, 2019. Countless pictures were taken and transmitted instantaneously around the world on the internet.
Extent of the fire damage (in red) at Notre Dame de Paris on April 15, 2019.
The fire’s immediate aftermath.
In the immediate aftermath of the 2019 fire, workers
aimed to secure and protect the edifice which will take several months to
finalize. By May 2019, the north tower was stabilized and secured while the
transept’s beams were declared in good condition. Although the interior was not
damaged, the structural integrity of the high vaults that protected it remains
precariously uncertain and requires further close study to determine its ultimate
fate. The cathedral is undergoing a major effort to remove fire debris
including the oak spire (or flèche)
dating from 1860 and the arch that fell into the nave.
To the highest degree possible, each bit of fallen debris will be deciphered, cataloged and saved for potential reuse in a restoration. Just one month after the fire, it would be premature to determine if the building is completely stable and it could still suffer some sort of collapse. Working on the cathedral in the 21st century are virtually the same type of skilled laborers who built it in the first place in the 12th and 13th centuries – namely, masons, stonecutters, carpenters, roofers, iron workers, and master glassmakers.6 The work associated with the Notre Dame de Paris in the aftermath of the 2019 fire promises to concentrate long centuries of history into one place looking to sustain its continued thriving existence for future generations.
1. “Vows to Restore Notre Dame Following a Harrowing
Rescue,” by Sam Schechner and Stacy Meichtry, The Wall Street Journal, April 17, 2019; see Gospel of John, Chapter 12.
All text by John P. Walsh unless otherwise noted. Color photographs by author are noted.
FIRST SUNDAY IN ADVENT.
During World War II in Germany, Alfred Delp, S.J. (1907 – Berlin, 2 February 1945) was a member of the Kreisauer Kreis (The Kreisau Circle) composed of German men and women from a variety of backgrounds who opposed Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime. Fr. Delp was arrested by the Nazis in 1944 and, after six months in prison in shackles, the German Catholic priest and Jesuit was sentenced to death for high treason and executed by hanging on Candlemas 1945. Following the Allied victory, Delp’s prison writings were assembled into a posthumous book called Facing Death (German: Im Angesicht des Todes). A highlight of the 37-year-old Delp’s writings are his seasonal sermons and meditations for Advent and Christmas which were written as he languished in a cell “three steps wide” surrounded by Nazi guards. His writings, scrawled on numerous slips of paper and smuggled out before his death, have been compared to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison also written in Tegel prison in Berlin, Germany, during World War II. Father Delp was developing his thoughts and writing about the annual Advent drama at least as early as 1933 so his prison writings became a concluding chapter of a lasting adult interest as he faced his death.
German-born Alfred Delp S.J. (15 September 1907 – Berlin, 2 February 1945) wrote his meditations and sermons on Advent and Christmas when he was a political prisoner of the Nazis in Germany in World War II.
From Alfred Delp, S.J., “Figures of Advent,” Advent of the Heart, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2006 (adapted):
“I see this year’s Advent (December 1944 in Berlin’s Tegel Prison) with an intensity and discomposure like never before….Along with these thoughts comes the memory of an angel that a good person gave me for Advent in 1942. It held a banner: ‘Rejoice, for the Lord is near.’ A war bomb destroyed the angel as well as that good person although I often sense that she continues to do angel-services for me. It is the knowledge of the quiet angels of annunciation, who speak their message of blessing into the distress of our world situation and scatter their blessing’s seeds which begin to grow in the middle of the night which informs and encourages us of the truth of a situation. These angels of Advent are not loud angels of public jubilation and fulfillment but, silent and unnoticed, they come into private and shabby rooms and appear before our hearts as they did long ago. Silently they bring the questions of God and proclaim to us the miracles of God, with whom nothing is impossible. Advent is a time of refuge because it has received a message – and so to believe in God’s auspicious seeds that the angels offer an open heart are the first things we must do with our lives. The next is to go through the days as announcing messengers ourselves. We wait in faith for the abundance of the coming harvest – not because we trust the earth or the stars or our own good sense and courage – but only because we have perceived God’s messages and know about His herald angels – and even have ourselves encountered one.”
SECOND SUNDAY IN ADVENT.
Thomas Merton in his introduction to Alfred Delp’s Prison Writings – a modern compilation of a young German Jesuit’s writings in prison in Berlin before he was executed for high treason as a Nazi resister in World War II – states that Delp was condemned because he and others “hoped to build a new Germany on Christian principles.” (p. xxv.) Merton links Delp’s political activity in the Kreisau Circle—an underground group of about twenty-five German dissidents of diverse backgrounds opposed to the Nazi regime—to broader Church doctrine and the western tradition of liberalism in evidence since the Ancient Greeks that “always hoped to attain a more equitable world order by peaceful collaboration among nations.” (ibid.) For Delp, according to Merton, the stark choice before human beings remained the crucial one of global order or global destruction. Father Delp observed that even religious people in his time had fallen into the militaristic government’s syllogistic trap of “conquest first and a new and better world later.” Delp’s concern when making this sort of choice is that “if the person who says it tolerates or helps further conditions which are fatal to mankind…or weakens his or her own spiritual, moral, and religious sense” – then even “the most pious prayer can become a blasphemy.” (ibid.) Delp proposed that any human indifference to honesty and justice originating in passionate conviction vitiates human nature which is left to then express itself in a vicious circle of fear and arrogance. From Delp’s perspective, his active participation in Kreisauer Kreis for which he was executed by the Nazis in February 1945 pointed to the eschatological character of the Advent drama by Delp’s hope in his time for the political and social ruin of Germany which had sunk into bitter darkness and that it would find its way ahead by the light of each person’s burning candle “for honesty and justice.”
From Alfred Delp S.J., Prison Writings, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 2004:
“So this Sunday we must again fold our hands and kneel humbly before God in order that his salvation may be active in us and that we may be ready to call upon him and be moved by his presence. The arrogance so typical of modern men and women is deflated here. At the same time, the icy loneliness and helplessness into which we are frozen melts under the divine warmth that fills and blesses us …If we are terrified by a dawning realization of our true condition, that terror is completely calmed by the certain knowledge that God is on the way and actually approaching. Our fate, no matter how much it may be entwined with the inescapable logic of circumstance, is still nothing more than the way to God, the way God has chosen for the ultimate consummation of his purpose, for his permanent ends. Light your candles – such candles as you possess – for they are the appropriate symbol for all that must happen in Advent if we are to live.”
THIRD SUNDAY IN ADVENT.
On Friday, July 28, 1944, two Gestapo men were waiting outside St. George’s church in Munich, a simple Baroque pile in an almost pastoral setting near the Englischer Garten. Eight days before there had been an assassination attempt on Hitler’s life which failed. For active German dissidents to the Nazi regime in custody and, for the time being, still walking free – things were going to get worse. Helmuth James Graf von Moltke (1907 – 1945), one of the leaders of the Kreisau Circle, a type of anti-Nazi salon, had been in prison since January 1944. Now, following the failed bombing at the Wolf’s Lair, the other leader of the Kreisau Circle, Peter Yorck von Wartenburg (1904 –1944), was arrested immediately, sent to Berlin and tried and executed on August 8, 1944.
Interior, St. Georg München-Bogenhausen. Parish church of German resister and martyr Alfred Delp, S.J. who was serving as its pastor in World War II.
One of the two Gestapo men waiting outside St. George’s to arrest Father Alfred Delp, S.J. happened to be an old schoolmate of his. Like other Catholic bishops and priests who were de facto dissenters working against the Nazi regime, especially its social and racial ideologies and practices, Delp too had long been under close surveillance by the Gestapo. As a member of the Kreisau Circle – a group of professionals of varying religious, social, and political backgrounds but all of them dyed-in-the-wool anti-Nazis – Delp was their social scientist with a Ph.D. who illumined their minds to cutting-edge labor issues including the German worker’s role after the war in a post-Nazi Germany.
Helmuth James Graf von Moltke (March 11, 1907 – January 23, 1945). Count Moltke had close sympathies with the democratic forces of the day and expressed open criticism as he watched the rise of Hitler. In 1933 he refused to accept Nazi appointments. After the outbreak of World War II, as an expert adviser on international law and the laws of war he served as war administration councilor in the Office for Foreign Affairs/Counterintelligence in the Armed Forces High Command in Berlin. He was particularly active in advocating for humane treatment of prisoners of war and observance of international law. In 1940 Moltke with Peter Graf Yorck von Wartenburg became the leading figures in a group that emerged as the Kreisau Circle with its discussions held in Berlin and Kreisau. Moltke, formulating memoranda on the establishment of a new political order in Germany, systematically extended his contacts to Protestant and Catholic church leaders and to leaders of the social democratic political opposition. Moltke was arrested on January 19, 1944 after he had warned members of the Solf Circle that they were under Gestapo surveillance. His involvement in the plans for a coup against Hitler was not exposed until after the failure of the assassination attempt of July 20, 1944. Helmuth James Graf von Moltke was sentenced to death by the People’s Court on January 11, 1945 and executed on January 23, 1945 in Berlin-Plötzensee. http://www.gdw-berlin.de/home/
Once under arrest, Delp disappeared into Nazi prisons in Munich and Berlin for almost three weeks. None of his friends could find him. At Lehrterstrasse, a Gestapo prison in Berlin that specifically dealt with German resisters, the doctor-priest was regularly beaten. Delp was charged by the National Socialists with a half dozen crimes—being in Kriesau Circle; holding resistance meetings; knowing von Moltke and other anti-Nazis; knowing Claus von Stauffenberg who placed the bomb on July 20, 1944 to assassinate Hitler; knowing in advance of the assassination plot; and, displaying a general attitude of anti-Nazism. The charge of knowing about the assassination plot before it happened greatly concerned Delp. He categorically denied it and, consequently, worked vigorously through his lawyer to disprove it.
On August 15, 1944, having moved to Tegel Prison in Berlin on August 8, Delp’s whereabouts were finally discovered by Marianne Hapig (1894-1973), a social worker and indefatigable friend to German resistance. Delp found another significant friend at Tegel—Harald Poelchau (1907-1972) the prison’s Lutheran chaplain since 1933. With the agency of chaplain Poelchau, Catholic Father Delp had wafers and wine to say mass and messages could be smuggled in and out by way of the laundry. It was through such a clandestine route that Father Delp made his final vows as a Jesuit on December 8, 1944. In front of a visiting witness, Fr. Delp pronounced the vow formula and, later apologizing for the emotion, sank into a prison chair and wept.
Marianne Hapig (March 5, 1894 – March 23, 1973) discovered Father Delp’s presence at Tegel prison in Berlin after his disappearance following his arrest in Munich three weeks earlier. A career social worker and anti-Nazi Marianne Hapig and her lifelong jurist friend Marianne Pünder managed to smuggle Alfred Delp’s prison writings out of Tegel prison where soon after the war they were published.
Harald Poelchau (October 5, 1903 – April 29, 1972). He gained his doctorate in 1931 under Paul Tillich, the leading representative of Religious Socialism. At the end of 1932, Poelchau applied for a prison chaplain’s post in Berlin and became the first cleric to be employed by the National Socialist regime in a penal institution. As an official in the Justice Department he rapidly became an important source of support for the victims of National Socialist violence, and gave spiritual comfort to hundreds of people sentenced to death as they faced execution. From 1941 onwards he was a member of the circle around Helmuth James Graf von Moltke and attended the first major Kreisau Conference. After the failed coup attempt of July 20, 1944 Poelchau was able to pass on last messages and farewell letters to the relatives of many of those sentenced to death. Harald Poelchau managed to avoid being investigated by the Gestapo and survived the war.
Many of Delp’s Advent writings come from these months in prison, smuggled out by Marianne Hapig and her lifelong friend Marianne Pünder. For more than a decade, Delp had written extensively on the Christian season of expectant waiting for the coming of Christmas. During these months in prison, his hands almost always in chains, Delp had identified with a specific artwork as he wrote his Advent thoughts onto endless slips of paper. It was a sixteenth century German wood sculpture of St. Sebastian known as Die gefesselten Hände (English:“Bound Hands”) by Tilman Riemenschneider (c.1460-1531).
Die gefesselten Hände (“Bound Hands”) by Tilman Riemenschneider (c.1460-1531). In his months in prison, Delp’s hands almost always in chains, the Catholic priest and Nazi resister identified with this specific artwork as he wrote down his thoughts.
At his two-day trial in January 1945, rabid Nazi judge Roland Freisler was interested in one charge against Delp – his association with von Moltke. The leader of Kreisauer Kreis would be soon on death row and executed on January 23, 1945. Friesler’s reign of terror already included five thousand death sentences as president of the People’s Court since 1942. It did not help that Delp was a Catholic priest and Jesuit. So with Hitler, Friesler was maniacally anticlerical. Although many Nazis grew up as Catholics, in adulthood such notorious men as Hitler, Josef Goebbels, Martin Bormann, Heinrich Himmler, and others, held Christianity in utter and complete contempt. (Ian Kershaw; Hitler: a Biography; pp. 381–82). Once in power, Hitler believed that Christianity signified “the systematic cultivation of the human failure” and that its religious organization and central beliefs had to be marginalized and eventually purged from a heroic German worldview (Alan Bullock; Hitler: a Study in Tyranny; p. 218). When Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939, the Superior-General of the Jesuits was just then a Pole, Wlodimir Ledóchowski, S.J. (1866 –1942). Ledóchowski who was in charge of neutral Vatican Radio made international broadcasts about Nazi wartime atrocities in many languages.
Wlodimir Ledóchowski, S.J. (1866 –1942) had been the Polish Superior-General of the Jesuits since 1915 when Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, setting off World War II. A renowned institutional builder, Ledóchowski established several notable institutes and colleges in Rome. In January 1940, Vatican Radio controlled by the Jesuits and with Pope Pius XII’s authorization broadcast the details of the Polish wartime situation. When the German ambassador protested the German language broadcasts, the Pope honored the request. But Vatican Radio broadcasts in other languages of the Poland situation continued and in even more explicit detail. The British press at the time hailed Vatican Radio as “tortured Poland’s powerful advocate.” (Peter Hebblethwaite; Paul VI The First Modern Pope, Paulist Press, 1993, p. 140.)
That Father Delp remained a Jesuit—even after he was offered a plea deal by the Nazis to walk free of all charges if he renounced his religious faith—undoubtedly deserved the death penalty in Freisler’s court. After the death sentence was pronounced on January 11, 1945, the typical procedure of immediate execution was delayed. During this time, the bombing by British and Americans intensified. Delp desperately hoped that the Allies would arrive in time to set political prisoners like him free. But, finally, on February 2, 1945, at Berlin-Plötzensee Alfred Delp was taken from his holding pen by the Nazi executioner and executed by hanging. The next day, February 3, 1945, Roland Freisler presiding in his People’s Court, was killed by collateral damage in an Allied bombing attack.
Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (French, 1873-1897) traced and painted this image of the Holy Face of Jesus and tacked it to wool for hanging as a gift to her sister Céline who was at home at Les Buissonnets taking care of their widower father who was suffering from illness. The National Shrine of St. Thérèse in Darien, Illinois. A similar sort of facial expression may be expected to be found on Father Delp for his condemnation and execution by the Nazis on February 2, 1945 for “hop[ing] to build a new Germany on Christian principles.”
From Alfred Delp, S.J., “Meditation for the Third Sunday of Advent Written in Tegel Prison, Berlin, December 1944” (adapted), Advent of the Heart, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2006:
“Mankind is challenged again to stand and deliver. Only man does not merely exchange one set of chains for another – God’s calls are always creative. They increase the very reality within us that is called upon – precisely because of their realness and authenticity…Freedom is the breath of life. We sit in musty bomb cellars and cramped prisons and groan under the bursting and destructive blows of fate. We should finally stop giving everything a false glamour and unrealistic value and begin to bear it for what it is – unredeemed life. As soon as we do this, the jangling of chains and the trembling of nerves and the faintness of heart transform themselves into a small prayer – “Drop down, dew…” We should much more definitively unite our concrete destiny with those kind of connections and call upon God’s redeeming freedom. Then the narrowness widens, our lungs breathe in fresh air again, and the horizon has promises again. Existence still weeps and mourns, but already a soft, joyous melody of longing and knowledge is ringing through the mourners’ broken voices. With this knowledge and attitude humanity releases itself from the lonely relationship to things and circumstances. A person finds wholesomeness and healing – not the goal-oriented, cool distance of calculation, mechanization, and organization. It is rather that higher level of freedom, the perspective given to someone looking from the heights to what lies below. The voice of such a person is not so quickly silenced!”
“The conditions for true joy have nothing to do with conditions of our exterior life but consist of humanity’s interior frame of mind and competence, which make it possible now and again for the person to sense, even in adverse circumstances, what life is really about…And the first answer is found in the figure of John the Baptist who personifies Advent. Humanity must be brought to an absolute clarity about himself and honestly before himself and others. He must come down from all the pedestals of arrogance onto which he always climbs…From the high-horses of vanity and self-deception that, for a time, let themselves be trotted out so proudly. Those horses though finally throw off their “master” in the wilderness…Two criteria identify whether we are following an authentic impulse or not…Both are found once again in John the Baptist. The first is service – human honesty requires a person to see himself as a servant and perceive his reality as mission and an assignment…The second criterion keeps us on track- annunciation, which calls us to praise of God. An extended personal effort is required to keep giving oneself the impulse to rise above, move away from self. But at the same time this is how a human being attains the necessary openness in which he or she must continue if sincerely wanting to strive toward the great realities God has prepared for him or her.”
FOURTH SUNDAY IN ADVENT.
Merton makes clear about Father Delp that his writings on Advent are usually a simple presentation of the traditional Christian faith with no special originality to his images. (p. xxxv, Prison Writings). It is Delp’s application of those facts based in his personal experience – that is, as an active dissident and prisoner of a Germany in ruins during World War II – that infuses a sometimes hackneyed outcome to Advent of its original hope. In Fr. Delp’s world, if humanity is fully alert to the desperation and bitterness of the times, Advent’s basic image of God-made-man becomes opportune, favorable, for humanity’s future although not holding any foregone conclusions or sudden outcomes.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.” Luke 4:18-19.
Thomas Merton views Father Delp’s Advent meditations in Pauline terms, although Delp himself found St. Paul had a ‘tendency to over-emphasize.’ (p. 55, ibid.). Humanity hopes in God’s close alliance so to win back or have restored a future that is not any longer in ruins and in which humanity – and even life itself – is absurdly helpless to fix.
From Alfred Delp S.J., Prison Writings, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 2004:
“God in the Christmas encounter is still the challenging God. The greatest misconceptions all center round the typical Christmas picture of God. Humanity becomes so wrapped up in appearance that the breathtaking reality of the birth of God as a human child scarcely enters our mind and the soul doesn’t grasp its significance….Of course the externals, the sweet sentimental pictures, carols, cribs and so on, are a comfort….but there is a great deal more to the nativity than that. The truth of it is too tremendous to be appreciated unless one concentrates on it fully. Since the birth of God, humanity has been confirmed in the hope that when we turn to God’s throne for favor that God is on our side. This does not mean that God has dethroned Himself any more than it means that human life has become a primrose path in the wake of that stupendous event. We need to look critically at the tendency to sentimentalize the divine attributes by personifying them in an innocent child or over-beautifying the adult Jesus. The glamorizing of the nativity story – the making the whole tone of Christ’s life equal to a Baroque sermon full of ominous warnings and grave moralizing – has contributed quite a lot to the West’s being paralyzed in the face of those conditions that hinder us and keep us trapped. God became man but nevertheless is God, master of all creation. Human beings must approach the God-made-man with reverence and adoration – disenthralling themselves in order to find themselves. It is the only way.”
Bullock, Alan, Hitler: a Study in Tyranny, Completely Revised Edition, Harper & Row, New York, 1964.
Delp, S.J., Alfred, Advent of the Heart, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2006.
Delp, S.J., Alfred, Prison Writings, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 2004.
Hebblethwaite, Peter, Paul VI The First Modern Pope, Paulist Press, New York, 1993.
Kershaw, Ian, Hitler: a Biography, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010.
Kidder, Annemarie S., Ultimate Price Testimonies of Christians who Resisted the Third Reich, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 2012.
Royal, Robert, The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century A Comprehensive World History, Crossroad, New York, 2000.
In his 17-minute speech at the TED conference in April 2017, Pope Francis talked about the importance of human interdependence, equality, and inclusion. Perhaps surprisingly, the pope stressed the power of the human individual to affect positive change. While one might expect a pope to wax on communal connections reflected in a Gospel passage such as, “For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20), Pope Francis looked instead to the radical nature of the single individual to bring about a message of hope into the world. Pope Francis said: “A single individual is enough for hope to exist and only then it turns into ‘us.’ And so, does hope only exist when it turns into us? – No. Hope starts with the individual ‘you.’ When there is an us, it starts a revolution.” Grounded in an individual’s conscience and action, hope for the world can begin. The pope is savvy enough to know that this message of hope by way of a single individual—and he encourages his TED auditors to be that individual— does not comes without its price. What Mother Teresa of Calcutta said on love the pope adapted to any message of hope: that it cannot be done “unless it comes at your own expense.”
The power of an individual to be the cause of hope with potential to revolutionize even a nation is what Richard Attenborough (1923-2014) dramatizes from history in his 1983 Academy-Award-winning bio-pic film, Gandhi (1983). Early in the three-hour film, in segregated South Africa, young Indian lawyer Mohandas K. Gandhi (Ben Kingsley) is visited at his ashram by an equally young American journalist (Martin Sheen) who tells Gandhi he is an awfully small minority to be taking on governments and empires. But Gandhi replies: “If you are a minority of one – the truth is the truth.”
Questions of the conflict of the morality of individual conscience and the social morality which is directed to the attainment and conservation of the values represented by the state and the nation is part of what the young American journalist, in the film Gandhi, warned the hero about—and which remains in tension in any era, including today. The debate surrounding the nature or limits of individual conscience as well as its interaction with cultural earthly values and things is bound to be— at least philosophically and even theologically— complex and indefinite. Arguments and subtleties become rife when these topics are raised. Following some of the definitions and descriptions of conscience from Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) — and as only part of the range for hope that Pope Francis alludes to in his TED speech— the conscience’s normal function relates to resisting action demanded from within or outside the self. Although conscience, according to Bonhoeffer, is not called upon in the face of good—it simply acts—nor includes the whole fabric of life, when the individual conscience encounters a forbidden act, it views it as “a peril to life as a whole, that is to say, disunion with oneself.” Bonhoeffer’s Protestant theology will not boast of having a good conscience except to say that, by it, humans importantly discover their lack of knowledge of God as well as their own corruption and that by this self-knowledge expressed in conscience find a road to God. Bonhoeffer writes: “All knowledge is now based on self-knowledge….Knowledge now means the establishment of the relationship to oneself; it means the recognition in all things to oneself and of oneself in all things. For man who is in disunion with God, all things are in this disunion, what is and what should be, life and law, knowledge and action, idea and reality, reason and instinct, duty and inclination, conviction and advantage, necessity and freedom, exertion and genius, universal and concrete, individual and collective; even truth, justice, beauty and love come into opposition with one another, just as do pleasure and displeasure, happiness and sorrow…All these disunions are varieties of the disunion in the knowledge of good and evil. The point of decision of the specifically ethical experience is always conflict. But in conflict the judge is invoked; and the judge is the knowledge of good and evil; he is man.”
On October 26, 2007 at St. Mary Cathedral in Linz, Austria, Pope Benedict XVI in front of 5,000 pilgrims beatified Franz Jägerstätter, a relatively unknown 36-year-old Austrian farmer who was executed by the Nazis in August 1943 because—similar to Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music—he was anti-Nazi and refused to fight in their armed forces. Blessed Jägerstätter’s 94-year-old widow, Franziska (1914-2013), and his four daughters, one from a previous relationship, attended the beatification. Franziska rode to the cathedral in the sidecar of a motorcycle, in memory of her husband’s love of motorcycling. After being drafted three times into the German army, Franz Jägerstätter decided after his training and noncombatant military service ended in April 1941 that he would not comply with any future compulsory enlistment in the Third Reich. To this end, he compiled gut-wrenching notes with his opinions on his conscientious objection in the face of the Nazi régime. After her husband’s arrest in early 1943, Franziska hid his writings and brought them into the light of day after the war. By that time, Franz Jägerstätter lay buried in an obscure and sometimes defaced grave in St. Radegund, Austria, a mountainous village northwest of Salzburg. In notes written during his erratic military service—Jägerstätter had been sworn into the German army on June 17, 1940 at Braunau Am Inn which lasted only a few days before he received a deferment and then called-up again to serve from October 1940 to April 1941 until another deferment —the Austrian farmer examined issues surrounding his refusal to fight anymore. By expounding in writing as well as posing argumentative questions Jägerstätter judged what he should do in response to his deep-seated antipathy to the Nazi régime and its war effort.
For his beatification in 2007—a first step to Catholic sainthood—Jägerstätter’s family and supporters recalled his clear rejection of National Socialism because of their racial policies, including the myth of racial purity; war glorification; state deification; and their declared program of annihilating all faith and religion. Jägerstätter’s total rejection of Nazism echoed Bishop Johannes Maria Gföllner of Linz (1867-1941) whose extensive writings and sermons in this period provided a phrase Jägerstätter would consider his motto: “It is impossible to be a good Catholic and a true Nazi.” When Hitler came to Linz on March 12, 1938 Bishop Gföllner refused to meet with him and lamented other bishops in Austria who were more ingratiating. Bishop Gföllner regarded the myth of racial purity propagated by Nazism as “a backsliding into an abhorrent heathenism.” In 1933 Gföllner wrote: “The Nazi standpoint on race is completely incompatible with Christianity and must therefore be resolutely rejected. This also applies to the radical anti-Semitic racism preached by Nazism. To despise, hate and persecute the Jewish people just because of their ancestry is inhuman and against Christian principles … “
Adopting St. Thomas More, St Thérèse of Lisieux and other saints (including the patron of Switzerland) as his role models, Jägerstätter challenged virtually everyone he knew or came into contact with—be it his mother, neighbors, or church or civil representatives— with his developing conviction to refuse to fight for the Third Reich. What was seen to be his civic duty and the only action he could concievably follow so to “save his life” Jägerstätter was having serious doubts over. Even Jägerstätter’s loving wife Franziska argued that he should comply with any conscription order. Less than two years before, in April 1938, Franziska had to insist that he not shirk attending the Anschluss plebiscite which Jägerstätter declared he had every intention to do. On March 12, 1938, less than one month before the plebiscite, German troops occupied Austria and, that same day, Hitler personally crossed the long-closed border to visit Linz. Under penalty of being sent to a concentration camp for electoral truancy, the official turnout for the Anschluss plebiscite was reported at 99.71%—with 99.73% in favor of annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany. Thirty-year-old Franz Jägerstätter formed part of that microscopic minority in Austria who voted “no” to Hitler’s Anschluss and was the only one of St. Radegund’s 500 citizens to do so. Though never part of an organized resistance, Franz Jägerstätter was soon identified by an informer to the Gestapo as anti-Nazi which the town mayor—who on his own initiative did not report Jägerstätter’s vote to the authorities and had obtained Jägerstätter’s two deferments —quashed. Now as 1941 turned into 1942 and 1943, Franziska once and for all decided to stand by her husband in this matter of his refusal to fight for Hitler in the Wehrmacht after seeing him for many months and years argue his points alone. “If I had not stood by him,” she later explained, “he would have had no one.”
While firmly against Nazi ideology, Franz’s ultimate refusal to serve in the German armed forces developed more deliberately. After being conscripted twice in 1940, it was during basic training on December 8, 1940 in Enns that Jägerstätter entered the Secular Franciscans. After taking “Third Order” vows in St. Radegund church in 1941, he grew more determined to be a pacifist in regard to the German war effort. Jägerstätter believed as an individual who formed his conscience and acted upon it —in his case, saying a resolute “no” to Nazism, including as a conscientious objector— would “change nothing in world affairs.” But Jägerstätter hoped that his conscientious objection would be “a sign” that not everyone let themselves be “carried away with the tide.” Jägerstätter acted on his conscience until, as Mother Teresa of Calcutta observed, “it came at his own expense.” Any of his thoughtful wrangling—if he hoped it would sway others—did not occur. Almost thirty years after the fall of the Third Reich, some villagers continued to view Jägerstätter’s brand of pacifism as unnecessary, extreme, “religious,” and even traitorous in terms of national defense. At war’s end, except for his wife and daughters—and they were denied state benefits until the 1990’s—there was a handful of anti-Nazi resisters—some of whom were Catholic priests— who supported or otherwise mirrored Jägerstätter’s brand of conscientious objection. But many of the individuals who, like Jägerstätter, acted on what they recognized as a Biblical call to social justice laid in their own obscure, premature graves because they, too, had been condemned as enemies of the state.
EXCERPTS OF FRANZ JÄGERSTÄTTER’S WRITINGS:
ON CALLS TO PATRIOTIC DUTY.
“Who dares to assert that among the German people in this war only one person bears the responsibility, and why then did so many millions of Germans have to give their ‘Yes’ or ‘No’? Can one be reproached today for lacking patriotism? Do we still even have a mother country in this world? For if a country is supposed to be my mother country, it may not just impose duties—one must also have rights, and do we have rights here today? If someone becomes ineducable and might be a burden on the state, what happens to them? Would such a mother country be worth defending at all? Which we cannot speak of anyway, because Germany was attacked by no one. Once, I believe, we would have had the right to defend ourselves, and that was four years ago when we were still Austrians…”
ON THE ANSCHLUSS.
“Let’s just ask ourselves: are Austria and Bavaria blameless that we now have a Nazi government instead of a Christian one? Did Nazism just simply drop on us from the sky? I believe we needn’t waste many words about it, for anyone who hasn’t slept through the past decade knows well enough how and why everything has come about in the way it has…In March 1938, what horror stories weren’t spread and invented here in Austria against Chancellor [Kurt] Schuschnigg (1897-1977), a still Christian-minded man, and against the clergy? Those few who didn’t catch the madness and who couldn’t be persuaded to cast that misguided ‘Yes’ vote were simply labeled fools or Communists, yet today the Nazis still haven’t given up the struggle to maybe win those fools over to the Nazi movement after all, or at least to sacrifice them to their ideology!”
ON WHETHER IT IS A JUST WAR. “What Catholic can dare to say that these raids which Germany has carried out in several countries, and is still carrying out, constitute a just and holy war?”
ON THE CONSEQUENCES OF HITLER’S PROGRAM “Oh, we poor German people, bedazzled by delusions of grandeur, will we ever return to reason again? As the saying goes: ‘Nothing comes about by chance, everything comes from above.’ Then did this war, which we Germans are already waging against almost all the peoples of the world, break over us as suddenly as, perhaps, a terrible hailstorm, which one is forced to watch powerlessly, only praying that it will soon stop without causing too much damage? For, thanks to the radio, newspapers, rallies, etc., nearly all of us knew what program Hitler was planning to carry out, and that the shrugging off of the debts and the demonetization of the Reich mark would bring about the very consequences which have now occurred in plenty …”
ON THE GERMAN INVASION OF THE SOVIET UNION.
“It is very sad to hear again and again from Catholics that this war, waged by Germany, is perhaps not so unjust because it will wipe out Bolshevism. It is true that at present most of our soldiers are stuck in the worst Bolshevist country, and simply want to make harmless and defenseless the people who live there and defend themselves. But now a question: what are they fighting in this country – Bolshevism or the Russian people? When our Catholic missionaries went to a pagan country to make them Christians did they advance with machine guns and bombs in order to convert and improve them? Most of these noble warriors for Christianity wrote home that if they only had the means to hand things out, everything would go much faster… If we look back a little into history, we note almost the same thing again and again: if a conqueror attacks another country with war, they have not normally invaded the country to improve people or even perhaps give them something, but usually to get something for themselves. If we fight the Russian people, we will get much from that country which is of use to us here. If one were merely fighting Bolshevism, these others things – minerals, oil wells or good farmland – would not be a factor.”
ON BEING MARRIED WITH YOUNG CHILDREN.
“Again and again, people try to trouble my conscience over my wife and children. Is an action any better because one is married and has children? Is it better or worse because thousands of other Catholics are doing the same?”
ON THE CHURCH HIERARCHY.
“If the Church stays silent in the face of what is happening, what difference would it make if no church were ever opened again?”
ON THE CAUSE OF ALL THE INJUSTICE AND SUFFERING.
“Ever since people have existed on this earth, experience teaches us that God gives people free will and has only very seldom noticeably interfered in the fate of individuals and peoples, and that therefore it will be no different in the future either, except at the end of the world. Adam and Eve already completely ruined their destiny through their disobedience towards God; God gave them free will and they would never have had to suffer if they had listened more to God than to the tempter. Even His beloved Son would then have been spared infinite suffering. And so it will remain until the end of the world: that every sin has consequences. But woe to us if we always try to avoid shouldering those consequences and aren’t willing to do penance for our sins and errors.”
Austrian layman Blessed Franz Jägerstätter depicted in stained glass in St. Radegund with his beloved motorcycle . Quote by Jägerstätter: “I can say from my own experience how painful life often is when one lives as a halfway Christian; it is more like vegetating than living.”
Franz Jägerstätter sought advice from friends and clergy about his intention to be a conscientious objector. His decision caused arguments in his family and among his friends. One local priest told Jägerstätter that his decision to not serve in the Nazi military was “suicidal” and although the church hierarchy had accommodated Nazism under the rationale to keep Austrian Catholic parish church doors open to bestow the sacraments, Jägerstätter was, at least in this instance, refused absolution. Since Bishop Gföllner’s pastoral letters had significant influence on Franz Jägerstätter’s evaluation of Nazism, he hoped to receive helpful advice from Gföllner’s successor, Bishop Joseph Calasanz Fliesser (1896-1960). Prepared as usual, Jägerstätter brought eleven difficult questions to ask the bishop. But this new bishop, the Anschluss already in place, was taciturn. Fliesser did not resolve Jägerstätter’s questions but reminded him of his family responsibility. Jägerstätter bristled, however, at the bishop’s traditional advice that as a soldier he would not be held accountable by the church for following orders. Jägerstätter wrote: “We may just as well strike out the gifts of wisdom and understanding from the Seven Gifts for which we pray to the Holy Spirit. For if we’re supposed to obey the Führer blindly anyway, why should we need wisdom and understanding?” To be fair to the bishop, some have claimed his cautious response was that he feared Jägerstätter could be a Nazi spy. Others claim that such a pall of collective dread had settled over the populace that the bishop could not understand or accept how one individual farmer could be so truly courageous. Later, at Jägerstätter’s trial that condemned him, Jägerstätter simply said: “The Bishop has not experienced the grace that has been granted to me.”
Franz Jägerstätter was born on May 20, 1907 between Salzburg and Braunau am Inn as the illegitimate child of Rosalia Huber, a housemaid, and Franz Bachmeier, a farmer. Jägerstätter was only 15 months younger than German pastor, theologian, and anti-Nazi dissident, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was also murdered by the Nazis for his nonconformity. Franz was first cared for by his paternal grandmother, Elisabeth Huber.
After Franz’s father died in World War I, Rosalia married prosperous farmer Heinrich Jägerstätter in 1917 who adopted the boy. As Franz’s formal education ended when he was just 14 years old, it was out of necessity as much as pleasure that he remained an avid reader. “People who don’t read,” Jägerstätter quipped, “will never be able to stand on their own feet. They will all too easily become a football for the opinions of others.” Many in St. Radegund were impressed by this popular young man who rode a motorbike he bought in the mining town of Erzberg, Austria, with his earnings.
Working as a farmer in Teising, Germany and, in 1927, in the iron ore industry in Eisenerz, Austria, Jägerstätter returned to St. Radegund in 1930 where, in 1933, this “raufer” soon fathered an out-of-wedlock child. There was no question that 26-year-old Jägerstätter would not marry Theresia Auer, a working maid. At first he even disputed his paternity, but then helped care for both the mother and child (named Hildegard) and forged an affectionate lifelong father-daughter bond. This experience started Jägerstätter on a different path in life. His future wife, Franziska Schwaninger (1913–2013) of Hochburg, Austria, was working as a dairy and kitchen maid when in 1934, the 21-year-old Austrian woman met Jägerstätter at a local parish social. One of the first questions Franziska asked “raufer” Franz was whether he attended church. From the start of their relationship, her religiosity influenced him. Franz and Franziska were married on April 9, 1936, during Holy Week. Working as a farmer, in the next four years Jägerstätter and Franziska had three daughters. Franziska included Jägerstätter’s illegimate daughter as part of the family. After 1945, however, Hildegard lost contact with her half sisters. This family riff is attributed to their grandma Rosalia (Jägerstätter’s mother) who never liked Theresia Auer, Hildegard’s mother.
After many delays, Jägerstätter was finally called to active duty a third time on February 23, 1943. It was the day after Hans and Sophie Scholl were executed for high treason. Three weeks earlier, the German public was informed of the official surrender of the German Army at the Battle of Stalingrad. It marked the first time the Nazi government admitted to a failure in the war. Able-bodied Austrian farmer Jägerstätter reported to duty at Enns (Austria) on March 1, 1943 and promptly declared his mulled-over conscientious objection. The Nazis responded by putting him in jail. A priest from home visited him and repeated the advice to do his civic duty and come out of jail. Jägerstätter refused and was sent to Linz prison for the rest of March and April 1943 and then transferred to Tegel prison in the western suburbs of Berlin in May 1943. Incarcerated at Tegel in the same time period was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was there from his arrest on April 5, 1943 until October 1944. Bonhoeffer would be moved to Gestapo headquarters on Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse (today’s Niederkirchnerstrasse) in Berlin where he stayed until February 1945. Until Bonhoeffer’s execution by hanging at Flossenbuerg concentration camp on April 9, 1945, the theologian had been also transferred to Buchenwald concentration camp and to Regensburg. There is no known evidence that Franz Jägerstätter and Dietrich Bonhoeffer met one another at Tegel. Jägerstätter did learn at Tegel that a Catholic priest was executed as a conscientious objector citing reasons very much like his own. This single individual’s martyrdom brought a message of hope to Jägerstätter’s plight. Bonhoeffer wrote some of his best known letters at Tegel and Franz also sent missives. In one letter to his wife Franziska he wrote: “Most beloved wife, today I received with joy your dear letter. Not a God or a church gives a commandment requiring that we must under a burden of sin commit ourselves in an oath to obeying the civil authorities in all matters. I cannot take an oath in favor of a government that is fighting an unjust war. The true Christian is to be recognized more in his deeds than in his speech. Let us love our enemies, bless those who curse us, and pray for those who persecute us. For love will conquer and endure for all eternity.”
About ten minutes by motor car from Tegal prison, in the period between August 1939 and February 7, 1945, the Reichskriegsgericht filed almost 1,200 sentences of capital punishment for various forms of treason, spying, resistance (frauen und männer des widerstand) and conscientious objection (kriegsdienstverweigerer)—and nearly 90% of these death sentences were carried out. Accused by the Third Reich of undermining Wehrkraftzersetzung (or“military morale”) —as had been passive resisters Sophie Scholl (1921 – 22 February 1943) and other members of the White Rose — Franz Jägerstätter was found guilty at military trial at the Reichskriegsgericht, the highest German military court during the period of national socialism, and sentenced to death on July 6, 1943. Standing before the second panel of the national court martial led by Werner Lueven, Jägerstätter was “condemned to death for sedition” and, sentenced to loss of civil rights and of eligibility for military service, punitively cut off from society. The written judgment of the court is a summary of Jägerstätter’s path to conscientious objection. It reads: “In February 1943 the accused was again called up, by written command, for active service with motorized replacement unit 17 in Enns from 25 February 1943. At first he ignored the call-up, because he rejects National Socialism and therefore does not wish to do military service. Under pressure from relatives and the persuasion of his local priest, he finally reported on 1 March 1943 to the permanent company at motorized replacement unit 17 in Enns, but immediately announced that because of his religious views he refused to do armed military service. During questioning by the court officer, despite detailed instruction and advice as to the consequences of his conduct, he maintained his negative attitude. He explained that if he fought for the National Socialist state, he would be acting against his religious conscience. He also assumed this negative attitude during questioning by the court investigating officer of Division No. 487 in Linz, and by the representative of the national court martial. However, he declared himself willing to serve as a medical orderly as an act of Christian charity. At the main trial he repeated his statements and added that it was only during the last year he had reached the conviction that as a believing Catholic he could not perform military service and could not simultaneously be a National Socialist and a Catholic. That it was impossible. If he had obeyed the earlier call-up, he had done so because at that time because he had regarded it as sinful not to obey the commands of the state. Now God had made him think that it was not a sin to reject armed service, There were things over which one should obey God more than man. Because of the command ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’ he could not fight with weapons. He was however prepared to serve as a medical orderly. The accused had already been a soldier for six months (1940-41 call-up), had taken the oath of loyalty to the Führer and Supreme Commander of the Army, and during his period of service was amply informed about the duties of the German soldier. Nevertheless, despite being told about the consequences of his conduct, he stubbornly refuses for personal reasons to fulfill his patriotic duty in Germany’s hard struggle for survival. Accordingly, the death sentence is pronounced.”
Following his July 6, 1943 condemnation by the supreme military tribunal, Jägerstätter was given several weeks at Tegel to ponder his conscience’s perilous consequence. The Third Reich, desperate for manpower in 1943, allowed conscientious objectors to recant their objection unconditionally and be immediately assigned to a military probation unit. The practice of conscientious objection was relatively rare in Western societies prior to World War II. It was only after the military defeat of Hitler that the Catholic Church began to vocalize a mission to be a moral advocate in terms of social justice. Throughout World War II individuals like Jägerstätter but also Bonhoeffer, Hans and Sophie Scholl, Alfred Delp, S.J., Blessed Nikolaus Gross, Max Metzger, Erich Boch, Ernst Volkmann and others stood up for their faith as well as human rights and were executed as enemies of the state. In their lifetimes these martyrs’ actions received little to no sympathy from bishops or ordinary Catholics because social justice— including conscientious objection—was basically absent from standard church teaching. Even with the advent of democracy, there remained the church’s ancient teaching that governments derive their authority from God and citizens should obey them. However, the obvious illegitimacy of the Nazi regime despite legalities helped make religious sense of disobedience, refusal, and conscientious objection by Jägerstätter, Bonhoeffer, the Scholls, etc., who cited Biblical and philosophical truth and justice as greater than state authority—and, oftentimes, church authority. Pope Pius XII (1939-1958) proved sufficiently intrepid to try to get in front of this new spiritual juggernaut of social justice that had martyrs’ blood spilled upon it. On February 18, 1946 he appointed three new German Cardinals who had publicly opposed the Third Reich. Yet for the rest of this Germanophile pope’s time on the seat of Peter, the church’s goals and objectives for social justice remained vague and ambiguous.
In his last letter written from Brandenburg-Görden prison where he was executed on August 9, 1943, Jägerstätter wrote these words: “Now I’ll write down a few words as they come to me from my heart. Although I am writing them with my hands in chains, this is still 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…. People worry about the obligations of conscience as they concern my wife and children. But I cannot believe that, just because one has a wife and children, a man is free to offend God.”
Jägerstätter was then led out to the executioner’s guillotine and beheaded on August 9, 1943. Franziska did not learn of her husband’s death until about a month later. She had sent him a letter in early September 1943 but the response came from the prison chaplains at Tegel and Brandenburg who informed her of his death. Sometime after that, Franziska received the official announcement of the execution of her husband, together with his last letter, from the Nazis.
Thomas Merton was influenced by the life of Franz Jägerstätter. Merton included a chapter on Jägerstätter in his popular 1968 book Faith and Violence (University of Notre Dame Press – available in several reprinted editions).
Gordon Zahn (1918-2007) from Loyola University in Chicago, wrote A Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jägerstätter in 1964. Zahn was a conscientious objector during the World War II who related that one of the great moments of his life was when he heard a student during the Vietnam War say he was burning his draft card “in memory of Franz Jägerstätter.” Zahn was a guiding light in the Catholic peace movement as a co-founder of Pax Christi USA. Today Pax Christi focuses on human rights and security, disarmament and demilitarization, a just world order and religion and peace. Its president Kevin Patrick Dowling, a South African Redemptorist. Its website: http://www.paxchristi.net/about-us/why-pax-christi
The Refusal (Der Fall) is a 94 minute-dramatized film about Franz Jägerstätter. Directed by Alex Corti with a screenplay by Hellmut Kindler, it stars Kurt Weinzierl and Julia Gschnitzer as Franz and Franziska Jägerstätter. It was originally released in (West) Germany in 1971. Villagers are interviewed almost 30 years later.
Come la notte Francesco pregando nella selva incontro il lebbroso —or, in English, “How St. Francis praying one night meets a leper.”
Starting at 38:15, the dramatic five-minute scene in the middle of Roberto Rossellini’s 1950 Italian film Francesco, giullare di Dio (Francis, God’s Jester or The Flowers of St. Francis) shows the medieval St. Francis of Assisi (c. 1181-1226) seeking out and embracing the time-honored social outcast—a leper.
Following their embrace—an encounter Francis up to this point in his life had seriously avoided—the saint falls to the ground and, in tears he cries out: “My God. My Lord and my all! O great God!”
Is the film scene historically accurate?
While the event of the embrace is historically accurate, it is dramatized in Rossellini’s film after Francis’s brotherhood is established. In fact, it occurred at the start of the Italian saint’s conversion. This is an important distinction since the embrace was most significant for St. Francis. It could even be argued that without it, there would be no St. Francis of Assisi at all.
In Francis’s own Testament written in 1225—one year before his death at 44 or 45 years old—the saint stated directly that his embrace of the leper became the cause of his conversion.
For a rich young man such as Francis seeking glory in military arms, he naturally spurned the contagion of leprosy and diligently avoided lepers. As Francis put it, he “exercised mercy” to the leper as Francis bridged his religious doubt with trust by embracing Assisi’s despised.
In that way, the leper— a common sight throughout medieval Europe and one that readily filled the lighthearted Francis with horror—became the astonishing means for the saint’s conversion of faith.
Special order of knights founded by pope cared for lepers in Italy.
In the thirteenth century in Europe, lepers by law had to live apart from the rest of society owing to their contagious infectious disease.
From at least the seventh century in Italy going forward there were special orders of knights who took care of lepers.
In the time period that Rossellini’s poignant film scene is set— it is either 1205 or 1206—there existed in Europe tens of thousands of these church-run leper “hospitals.” One such leper hospital was only a short walk outside Assisi’s town walls. Called San Salvatore delle Pareti, the leper hospital near Assisi that began to intrigue a young Francis is today a farm field.
Before his famous encounter of embracing the leper, Francis —then around 24 years old—had to work up to the crucial moment of embracing a leper gradually.
After Francis gave up his several quests to be a soldier, he returned to Assisi disappointed and disenchanted. Though he found refuge in the embrace of family and childhood friends, the same impulses that led Francis to abandon a military career even before it started, now prompted him to walk beyond the comforts of Assisi’s walls onto the road that led to the leper hospital.
Young Francis visits the leper hospital — and it changes his life.
Near the hospital, Francis interacted very tentatively, first with those caring for lepers —a charitable activity instituted by Pope Gregory the Great (540-604 CE)—and then at times with the lepers themselves.
To start, it was the sickening smell peculiar to the leper hospital wafting into Francis’s nostrils that made him flee.
But as his visits continued Francis—who by now was living as a hermit— journied to the leper hospital to leave them a charitable gift. After leaving it on the roadside, Francis vanished as bell-clanging lepers appeared.
It took Francis many more visits to the leper hospital as well as, in solitude, dwelling on his own thoughts and prayers to finally reach what he believed was God’s answer for him.
As clearly dramatized in Roberto Rossellini’s wonderful film, Francis discovered a deeper courage and confidence in himself—and in the same moment a supernatural faith— when along the road to the leper hospital he stepped up to leave for the leper the charitable embrace of one of the rich sons of Assisi.
Yet, following that encounter, Francis realized that the leper had given him a gift also.
After that Francis was free to profoundly pursue whatever track God called him to run. Francis could now be called to renounce the world’s riches. He married his “Lady Poverty” in their joyous mystical marriage so that even today, in the 21st century, poverty remains a major Franciscan charism. Francis and Lady Poverty have been married for over 800 years.
Following a lifetime spent in heroic Franciscan mendicancy, this world-famous Umbrian saint “Francesco” proclaimed to his Franciscan family and the world that it was at that exact moment when he embraced the leper—and the leper embraced him—that a life in and for God truly started.
St. Francis of Assisi has the indelible mark of the leper. He conquered fear and embraced the other in love no matter how godforsaken. Done in the context of divine trust and love, that faith-filled action set each man free.
SOURCE: St Francis of Assisi: A Biography by Johannes Jørgensen (1912). Translated from the Danish with the author’s sanction by T. O’Conor Sloane, Image books, 1955.
Sassetta (c.1392-c.1451), St. Francis in Ecstasy, back of the Sansepolcro altarpiece, 1437-44, Panel, 80 3/4 x 48 inches. Villa I Tatti, Florence.