FEATURE image: 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.
FEATURE image: Detail of Franz Jägerstätter on a motorbike in St. Radegund, Austria, in 1940.
By John P. Walsh
October 26, 2017/updated July 15, 2021.
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 make 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 gathers 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’s message of hope by way of a single individual—and he encourages his TED auditors to be that individual— does not usually come without a price. What Mother Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997) said on love the pope adapted to his or any message of hope: it cannot be done “unless it comes at your own expense.”
The power of the individual to be a cause of hope with potential to revolutionize even the nation is what Richard Attenborough (1923-2014) dramatizes from history in his 1983 Academy-Award-winning three-hour bio-pic film, Gandhi. In the setting of a segregated South Africa, young Indian lawyer Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948) played by Ben Kingsley is visited at his ashram by a 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 the individual conscience and the social morality which is directed to the attainment and conservation of the values represented by the state and nation is part of that which the young American journalist, dramatized 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 values and things is bound to be— at least philosophically and even theologically— complex and indefinite. Arguments and subtleties about these topics become rife when the circumstances call for it. 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.”
Franz Jägerstätter (May 20, 1907-executed, August 9, 1943).
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 (1965)—he was anti-Nazi and refused to fight in their armed forces.
Blessed Franz Jägerstätter’s widow, Franziska (1914-2013), who was 94 years old in 2007, and his four daughters, Maria, Aloisia and Rosalia, and, from a previous relationship, Hildegard, 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. Despite suggestions for compliance and delay, Jägerstätter was called up a third and final time in March 1943 where he made clear to the Nazis his conscientious objection which led to his imprisonment, court martial trial, and execution in August 1943.
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 … “
Bishop Johannes Maria Gföllner (1867-1941), center, at a celebration in 1935.
What was seen to be his civic duty and the only action he could conceivably 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 avoid. 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 on April 10, 1938 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 that day and was the only one of St. Radegund’s 500 or so citizens to do so. It was also the last time that Franziska pressured Franz on a matter of his conscience by telling him to not skip the vote as he intended to do. It soon became clear that Franz’s anti-Nazi stance could cost him his life. Already people from every village were being taken off to concentration camps for the slightest infractions from absolute Nazi rule.
Mesmerized by the Nazi propaganda machine, Austrians knelt when Hitler entered Vienna, and Catholic churches were just more buildings mandated to fly the swastika flag, among other abusive measures and laws. When other Austrians would say, ‘Heil, Hitler,’ Franz would say, ‘Gröss-Gott!’ (“Praise God!”). Though never part of an organized resistance, Franz Jägerstätter was one of a handful of local denizens 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. One result of the denunciation was that the Gestapo began to monitor the accused’s phone calls, letters, and other communications.
When Jägerstätter witnessed immediate persecution of priests who spoke up against the Nazis (many were arrested and sometimes murdered) as well as learning the fate of euthanasia of the mentally ill, Jägerstätter quickly reasoned whether he should help that sort of regime to conquer the world. This outlook appeared to be shared by Pope Pius XII when, in a meeting with the German Foreign Minister in March 1940, he complained in writing about the persecution of the Church in Germany and Austria.
As 1941 turned into 1942 and then 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.” 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 on love, “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. Many of the individuals who, similar to Jägerstätter, acted on what they recognized as a Biblical call to social justice laid in obscure, premature graves because they, too, had been condemned to death as enemies of the state.
EXCERPTS FROM FRANZ JÄGERSTÄTTER’S WRITINGS IN 1940:
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. Jägerstätter said: “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 was accompanied to Linz by Franziska and brought eleven difficult questions to ask the bishop. “What Catholic,” Jägerstätter asked, “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?” With the Anschluss now three years in place, Jägerstätter met a new and more taciturn bishop. Jägerstätter asked: “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? 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.”
Bishop Fliesser did not resolve Jägerstätter’s questions but sought to remind him of his family responsibility. Jägerstätter bristled at the bishop’s advice on several issues including 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 try to see the bishop more fairly, some have claimed his cautious response was that he feared Jägerstätter could be a Nazi spy. Others claimed that such a pall of collective social dread had settled over the populace that the bishop could not understand or accept how one individual farmer could be so truly courageous. Jägerstätter appreciated the perilous situation that priests and bishops faced if they went against the Third Reich. As a Catholic, Jägerstätter was called to step into the breach so that “the Church would not stay silent in the face of what was happening…(for then) what difference would it make if no church were ever opened again?” Ultimately, at Jägerstätter’s Nazi trial in July 1943 that condemned him, Jägerstätter 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 Franz Bachmeier, a farmer’s son, and Rosalia Huber, a housemaid. Jägerstätter was 15 months younger than Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the famous German pastor, theologian, and anti-Nazi dissident, who was imprisoned and murdered by the Nazis for his nonconformity to the dictates of their politics. Little Franz was first cared for by his widowed grandmother, Elisabeth Huber, and attended a crowded one-room school in St. Radegund where, during World War I, there were episodes of widespread hunger and other disadvantages.
After Franz’s father was killed in World War I, Rosalia married prosperous farmer Heinrich Jägerstätter in 1917 who adopted the boy. After Franz’s formal education ended when he was 14 years old, he remained an avid lifelong 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 work earnings.
Franziska Schwaninger. From the village of Hochburg, Austria, about 8 miles from St. Radegund, she was from a religious family and considered becoming a nun in Ranshofen teaching kindergarten. Told by the nuns to come back in six months, Franziska met Franz Jägerstätter at a turning point in his life. The two light-hearted young people — “We were very jolly and laughed a lot,” she said — had a short engagement before they were married.
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” (brawler) 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 the “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. Supported by his wife’s deep faith, Franz, in addition to his farm work, became the sexton in the local church and started going to mass daily where he received communion. 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 grandmother Rosalia (Jägerstätter’s mother) who never liked Theresia Auer, Hildegard’s mother.
After their wedding Franz and Franziska set out to Rome, Italy, and received Pius XI’s papal blessing. Within the year Pius XI published and had proclaimed from Catholic pulpits in Germany his encyclical Mit brennender Sorge (“With Burning Concern”) which condemned leading aspects of the Third Reich. Bishop Gföllner of Linz ordered that the papal encyclical be read from the pulpit of every parish in pre-Anschluss Austria. The contents of the encyclical worked to add to newlywed Jägerstätter’s mistrust of the Nazi regime. It was around this time that Jägerstätter reported having a dream. In it a fine-looking train was traveling through the mountains and adults and children flocked to it with a majority of adults boarding it. Then, in the dream, someone took Jägerstätter’s hand and told him: “This train is going to hell.” As during the Fatima apparition on July 13, 1917, Jägerstätter had a vision of hell but also purgatory. Jägerstätter reported that “the suffering in purgatory (was) so great.” For Jägerstätter the dream image of the fine-looking moving train was Nazism.
Franziska Schwaninger (1913–2013) of Hochburg, Austria, married Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter on April 9, 1936, during Holy Week. After their wedding they set out to Rome, Italy, for their honeymoon and received Pius XI’s papal blessing.
The young Austrian farmer and husband was well aware of what he termed the constant “creeping up” of Nazism and it led him to make an extensive examination of their outlook and track record. Jägerstätter asked: “Is membership in the Nazi movement…a help or hindrance for us Catholics in achieving blessedness?” While Jägerstätter notes that money is flowing into Christian associations in Germany at a record pace, the simple farmer observes that in several instances it is of “no value” to the state which is reliant on its propaganda and military and police power. “So the Führer wants to constantly test his people to see who’s for or against him. In Germany, before Hitler took over, they used to say that Nazis were not allowed to take Communion. And how do things look now in this great German Reich? Some people go, so it seems, quite placidly up to the altar rail, even though they’re members of the Nazi Party, and have let their children join the Party, or are even training to become Nazi educators themselves. Has the Nazi Party, which has been murdering people in the most atrocious way for more than two years now, really changed its program, making it permissible or a matter of indifference for its members to take Communion? Or have the church leaders already given their decision or approval, so that it’s now allowed for Catholics to join a party which is hostile to the Church? Yes, sometimes it makes you want to just shout out. If you think it over a little, could it come as a surprise if even the most fair-minded were to go crazy in such a country? The way things look, we’re not going to see any bloody persecution of Christians here after all, as the Church now does almost everything the Nazi Party wants or orders.”
Though Jägerstätter accepted the prospect for himself of persecution and suffering for standing up to a murderous Nazi state, he sought to not “throw stones” at the church hierarchy since “after all, they are human.”
After many delays, Jägerstätter was finally called to active duty a third time on February 23, 1943. It was the day after the first leaders of the Munich-based White Rose Nazi resistance student movement Hans Scholl (1918-1943) and Sophie Scholl (1921-1943), who were brother and sister, 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 well-worn 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 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 when Bonhoeffer was moved to Gestapo headquarters in Berlin on Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse (today’s Niederkirchnerstrasse) where he stayed until February 1945. With Bonhoeffer’s execution by hanging at Flossenbürg 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 an Austrian Catholic priest (Franz Reinisch) had been executed as a conscientious objector citing reasons very much like Jägerstätter’s own. That single individual’s martyrdom, echoing Pope Francis’s TED talk, brought a message of hope to Jägerstätter’s plight. Jägerstätter was now clear that he could “change nothing in world affairs (but) at least be a sign that not everyone let themselves be carried away with the tide.”
Bonhoeffer wrote some of his best-known letters at Tegel and Franz also sent missives. In one letter to his wife Franziska, Jägerstätter 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.”
Franziska’s letters to Franz were equally a source of encouragement and reassurance for husband and wife. In a letter dated February 20, 1941, Franziska wrote to Franz: “It is a great comfort to me that you love praying so much, and so can maybe manage to bear everything patiently during this difficult time. From your letters I gather that, despite everything, you aren’t unhappy and often find time to go to church to find consolation and courage there.”
The sign Jägerstätter’s daughters hold reads: Lieber Vater komm bald! (Dear Father come [home] soon!). This photograph was sent to their father in Tegel prison and brought the 36-year-old husband and father to tears of joy.
About ten minutes by motor car from Tegal prison, the Reichskriegsgericht (“Reich Court-Martial”) filed almost 1,200 sentences of capital punishment for various forms of treason, spying, resistance (frauen und männer des widerstand) and conscientious objection (kriegsdienstverweigerer). In the period between August 1939 and February 7, 1945, nearly 90% of these death sentences were carried out. In the same building dealing with charges of treason were also proceedings associated with Hitler’s “Night and Fog” decree. That order of December 7, 1941 directed that any persons captured in occupied territories who acted to undermine German troops were to be taken “by night and fog” to Germany to face trial in special courts that could ignore normal conventions and procedures for the prisoner’s humane treatment.
Accused by the Third Reich of undermining Wehrkraftzersetzung (“military morale”) —as had been passive resisters Hans and Sophie Scholl 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- an official judgment that punitively cut the person 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, that 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.
Though fourth century BCE Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato, and later, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621) argued for state authority, they also warned of its risks and potential abuses so that, for Aquinas in his Summa Theologica there was the right to resist tyranny and, for Bellarmine, there was no intrinsic divine right of kings. However, the practice of conscientious objection was relatively rare in Western societies prior to World War II. Following the military defeat of Hitler the Catholic Church moved to vocalize a mission to be a moral advocate in terms of social justice. Throughout World War II individuals like Franz Jägerstätter but also Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Hans and Sophie Scholl, Alfred Delp, S.J. (1907-1945), Blessed Nikolaus Gross (1898-1945), Max Metzger (1887-1944), Eugen Bolz (1881-1945), Ernst Volkmann (1902-1941) 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. Despite this theology and the law, the obvious illegitimacy of the Nazi regime that led to the disobedience, refusal, and conscientious objection of individuals such as Jägerstätter, Bonhoeffer, the Scholls, etc., and who cited Biblical and philosophical truth and justice as greater than state authority and, often, the authority of politically-drenched church hierarchs – helped begin the formation of a greater religious sense for the situational dynamics of the individual’s conscience within the state. Pope Pius XII (1939-1958) proved sufficiently intrepid to try to get in front of this new spiritual juggernaut of social justice that had, even with church-state concordats in place, many martyrs’ spilled blood upon it in World War II. On February 18, 1946, the 69-year-old Pius XII appointed as new Cardinals three German bishops who had publicly opposed the Third Reich. Yet for the remainder of this pope’s time on the seat of Peter, the church’s goals and objectives for social justice remained mostly vague and ambiguous.
LEADING RESISTORS TO HITLER’S NAZI REGIME WHO WERE EXECUTED BY THE STATE PRIOR TO AND DURING WORLD WAR II.
HELMUTH JAMES GRAF VON MOLTKE (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/
For Jägerstätter, in regard to Hitler’s demand of virtually religious avowal to the Nazi state— including serving in or supporting Germany’s military expeditions based on their war ideology—these political pressures had reached the limits of the individual’s duty to obey even when faced with the demureness of a social majority or institutions: “Yet Christ also demands that we should make a public avowal of our faith, just as the Führer Adolf Hitler demands a public avowal from his fellow countrymen. God’s Commandments do indeed teach us that we should obey the secular authorities, even if they aren’t Christian, but only as long as they don’t order us to do anything wrong. For we must obey God even more than men.”
On August 9, 1943, Franz Jägerstätter was taken from Tegel to Brandenburg-Görden (or Brandenburg/Havel) prison in the Görden quarter of Brandenburg an der Havel less than 60 miles west of Berlin. Built with a capacity of 1,800, it sometimes held over 4,000 during Nazi rule.
In Franz Jägerstätter’s last letter written from Brandenburg-Görden prison where he was executed on August 9, 1943, the 36-year-old Austrian farmer, husband and father, conscientious objector, and soon martyr 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.”
Offered a New Testament by the prison chaplain, Jägerstätter, lifetime avid reader, sexton, secular Franciscan, and thoughtful and articulate conscientious objector whose biblical passages he had drunk deeply in the pursuit of his solitary self-sacrificial path, particularly in light of his sacramental marriage to Franzika in 1936, calmly refused. Jägerstätter told Fr. Albert Jochmann from Brandenberg: “I am completely bound now in inner union with the Lord, and any reading would only interrupt my communication with God.” The prisoner was then led out to the executioner’s guillotine and, along with 16 other prisoners with the same fate that day, beheaded. Under the Nazis. there were 1,800 people executed in Brandenburg, its murderous operation well-known by the townspeople.
That same evening, only hours after the scheduled 4 p.m. execution, Fr. Jochmann told a group of Austrian nuns that Franz Jägerstätter was the first and only saint he ever met. Jägerstätter’s remains, like the other victims of Nazi executions at Brandenburg, was cremated at the municipal crematorium. Placed in separate urns, the ashes were to be buried anonymously. But Fr. Jochmann and other priests asked cemetery staff to disclose specifically marked burial places that then allowed the nuns at the hospital to plant flowers that marked the graves. The nuns who brought back Franz Jägerstätter’s ashes to be buried in St. Radegund in 1946 were the same order of nuns which Franziska Jägerstätter had looked into joining at Ranshof as a single woman before she met her husband.
Franz Jägerstätter was martyred on the same day as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross or St. Edith Stein (1891-1943) who died in Auschwitz. 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 from the Nazis the official announcement of the execution of her husband, Franz Jägerstätter, together with his last letter.
Before receiving the official announcement and last letter, Franziska wrote back to the prison chaplains (Fathers Jochmann and Heinrich Kreutzberg) revealing some of her loving relationship with her now-late husband: “Have received your kind letter with the words of comfort, many thanks. I particularly thank you from the bottom of my heart for visiting my dear husband so often in prison. It must have made him very happy, to receive words of comfort from representatives of Christ even in his cell, and to even be able to receive the dear Lord Jesus in the Holy Communion, as he always did his best to follow the Commandments. So it will not have been too great a sin that he did not obey the state, and I hope that, with God’s help, he will surely have safely reached his eternal goal after all. I feel very sorry he’s gone, because I’ve lost a dear husband and a good father to my children, and I can also assure you that our marriage was one of the happiest in our parish – many people envied us. But the good Lord intended otherwise, and has loosed that loving bond. I already look forward to meeting again in Heaven, where no war can ever divide us again. I want to say again, with all my heart: may God reward you for all the good you have done my dear husband. With deepest respect and gratitude, Franziska Jägerstätter.”
FRANZ JÄGERSTÄTTER’S LEGACY TODAY.
In terms of Franz Jägerstätter ‘s legacy, a few cursory observations.
Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton (1915-1968) 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).
Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was influenced by the life of Franz Jägerstätter. Merton included a chapter on Jägerstätter in his popular 1968 book Faith and Violence.
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 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.” Jägerstätter who was a conscientious objector to the Nazi war effort, was not necessarily an absolute pacifist regarding just war. Gordon Zahn was a guiding light in the Catholic peace movement as a co-founder of Pax Christi USA. Pax Christi focuses on human rights and security, disarmament and demilitarization, a just world order and religion and peace. Its president Kevin Patrick Dowling, is a South African Redemptorist. See – http://www.paxchristi.net/about-us/why-pax-christi – retrieved July 7, 2021.
Gordon Zahn wrote A Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jägerstätter in 1964. Zahn was a conscientious objector during World War II and a co-founder of Pax Christi, the Catholic Peace and Human Rights movement.
The Refusal (Der Fall) is a 94 minute-dramatized film about Franz Jägerstätter orginally released in West Germany in 1971.
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. The sympathetic portrayal of the conscientious objector was originally released in (West) Germany in 1971. Nearly 30 years after Jägerstätter’s execution, actual villagers who knew the film’s protagonist were interviewed.
One of the most recent projects on the life and legacy of Franz Jägerstätter is Terrence Malick’s 2019 biopic film A Hidden Life. The award-winning film stars August Diel and Valerie Pachner as Franz and Franziska Jägerstätter and this film’s evocative narrative makes it clear how the married couple journeyed together through the entirety of Franz’s conscientious objector resistance to Hitler and the Nazi war effort in imprisonment, ostracization by society, and death. The title—A Hidden Life —derives from the early 1870’s novel Middlemarch by George Eliot which, in turn, derives from Paul’s Letter to the Colossians (chapter 3; verse 3).
Jägerstätter’s individual witness helps give loving form and meaning to the whole of Creation itself —God’s creation —and unto God Himself who is often impugned by human beings for having abandoned humanity to evil and hopeless guilt. An early Nazi interrogator questions Jägerstätter’s specific circumstantial decision to resist injustice with a possible challenge by way of a larger context so for him to ponder his stubborn individual refusal to fight for the state authority, in this case, Hitler: “Are you alone wise? How do you know what is good or bad? You know better than I? Did heaven tell you this? Heard a voice? There’s a difference between the kind of suffering we can’t avoid and a suffering we choose. You’ve forgotten what the world looks like. The light. The sky. I didn’t make this world the way it is. And neither did you. We all have blood on our hands. No one is innocent. Crying, bloodshed, everywhere. He who created this world. He created evil. Conscience makes cowards of us all. Take care, my friend. The Antichrist is clever. He uses a man’s virtues to mislead him.”
A standard practice for Nazi operators of the camps, for instance, was to make sure that all its staff were certain to “have blood on our hands.”
While the Nazis emphasized the isolation and control of imprisonment they had over Jägerstätter —and one can view Jägerstätter with pity for this —the film makes increasingly clear as its narrative develops that the conscientious objector to an unjust project stands for himself and all others who, by one or another reason or cause, are not privileged to speak for themselves fully by standing up for what is right. When the prisoner’s defense attorney presents terms to go free that includes an oath of loyalty to Hitler, he tells Jägerstätter, “See here, I’m going to leave this paper with you. Keep it with you. Sign, and you’ll go free.” Jägerstätter, in the Nazi state’s shackles, replies, “But I am free.”
Jägerstätter expresses God’s creation as loving and meaningful despite the nay-sayers by freely accepting the required suffering and self-sacrifice based on his faith in the example and person of Jesus Christ to do it. From Tegel prison Jägerstätter writes, “I’ll write a few words, just as they come from my heart. Even though I’m writing them with bound hands, that’s still better than if my will were bound. These men have no friends. No loving hand to hold theirs. What are you here for? Treason. They’ve seen sorrow. Shame. Destruction. What strong hearts! When you give up the idea of surviving at any price, a new light floods in. Once, you were in a rush, always short of time. Now you have all you need. Once, you never forgave anyone. Judged people without mercy. Now you see your own weakness, so you can understand the weakness of others.”
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.