Wednesday, November 28, 2007

29 Sunday C #147

Ex 17, 8-13
Ps 121
2 Tm 3, 14- 4, 2
Lk 18, 1-8

Deacon Tom Cornell
Saint Mary’s Church, Marlboro, N.Y.
October 21, 2007

This is one of my favorite Gospel passages, the parable of the persevering widow and the need to pray without ceasing and never lose heart. The judge says, “I must give this widow her just rights or she will persist in coming and worry me to death.” That’s not what the Greek says. Luke actually wrote, “I will judge in her favor or she will give me a black eye.”

Pray without ceasing, and keep from losing heart! How, especially in times like these? We need examples, models to follow, to show the way. There is a spiritual thirst in our world, a sense that things are not going right, that there is something more to life than material comfort and looking out for Number One. It’s not just war in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s not just global warming and the threat to the environment or the instability of the stock market or the falling dollar or the disintegration of families. It’s not just a coarsening of the culture and a general dumbing down. It’s all these and more. There is a thirst, a hunger in every heart that only God can satisfy.

Peter Maurin warned that the greatest possible mistake a society can make is to keep religious belief private and out of public space, to marginalize God and religion. Do that and you create a vacuum. Something else will take their place, fortune-tellers, astrologers on the one hand and fundamentalist fanatics on the other, and the shopping mall becomes the new cathedral.

When I was a boy, growing up in World War II, there was a general sense that we were all praying, all of us, Jews and Christians and everyone, that the terrible evil we faced would be overcome. Even as staunch a pacifist as Dorothy Day said, “Hitler had to be stopped.” And God bless those who stopped him! The men who fought World War II were only ten or twelve years older than I. When they came back home, they changed America, for the better. We prayed, they prayed. We gave thanks to them and to God that the war was over, that the Nazi threat was over. The human heart needs to pray, to give thanks!

Perhaps some of you saw the new Ken Burns film, The War, on TV last week. If you did you might have seen the program that immediately followed it on some channels, The Good War and Those Who Refused to Fight. It’s the story of the conscientious objectors of that time, many of them Quakers and Mennonites, and a few Catholics, a very few. These men made America a better place too. They contributed to medical science by lending their bodies to experimentation. Some were the subjects of a study of starvation; others were injected with hepatitis virus, at great risk, sometimes at the cost of their lives. When they were released, they jump-started the civil rights movement with a Freedom Ride in 1947 and stayed with it all the way through.

One of the Catholics was my good friend, Gordon Zahn, of Milwaukee. Gordon spent the war years in a camp for alternative service. After the war, he taught sociology at Loyola University in Chicago. In 1962 he published a book, German Catholics and Hitler’s Wars, that documented beyond refutation the support and even collaboration the German hierarchy gave the Nazi war machine. The Church in Germany got a black eye! That made some people angry – not at the Church’s failure but at Gordon for admitting it. Gordon lost his job at Loyola and went on to the University of Massachusetts and was finally vindicated; his work would have its effect at the Second Vatican Council.

The story isn’t all bad. There were priests in Germany and Austria who resisted. In some deaneries even a majority of priests were taken into Gestapo custody, at least for a while, and a few were imprisoned, and some were executed. Gordon wanted to tell their story too. In a book about a martyred priest, Gordon came upon a brief reference to a 36 year old Austrian peasant, Franz Jaegerstaetter, the only Catholic layman known to have refused military service in the Nazi army. Gordon thought there might be a story there, so he secured a study grant and traveled to Saint Radegund, the small village of about one hundred families where Jaegerstaetter had lived. He took a room in the local inn, spent most evenings for a week or so in the pub downstairs to pick up the local dialect. He intended to survey the townspeople to determine what was their attitude toward the sole dissenter, the only citizen of the town who had voted against the Anschluss, Austria’s incorporation into Greater Germany after the Nazi invasion of 1938, and the only one to refuse military service, at the cost of his life.

The townspeople remembered Jaegerstaetter fondly as a lusty, a rowdy youth, always ready for a brawl, and a little less fondly as a man who had undergone a conversion from nominal Catholic to committed daily communicant and sexton of the parish church. They attributed his conversion to his wife, a pious and very beautiful woman who bore him three daughters. He still enjoyed a beer or two, but Franz’s visits to the tavern became less frequent after his conversion, largely because they often ended in political arguments about the benefits of the Nazi regime. Jaegerstaetter operated a small farm, but he refused any government subsidy or any cash allotment for his children from the Nazi state, again, the only one in town to do so. And when he was greeted with “Heil Hitler,” he responded with “Pfui Hitler!” That annoyed some of his fellow citizens.

Gordon visited Jaegerstaetter’s widow and their children, a few times. He dropped in on the widow just before his departure back to the States, to say good-bye. He thought his work was over. He had collected all the data he needed for an attitudinal study of a social deviant in Nazi Austria. But just as he was about to take his leave, the widow, Franziska, told Gordon she had been keeping something up attic she had never shown anyone before. She handed Gordon a packet of letters that Franz had written her from prison, and a series of essays he had written on the nature of Nazism and the responsibility of a Christian in the face of it. Here was a peasant, hidden away from the world of ideas, a man of grammar school education, but a man who saw what few others saw: the evil, pagan, idolatrous nature of Nazism. He recalled in one of his essays a dream he had. There was a train, a brightly painted and decorated train winding its way around a mountain. Men and women ran and jumped to board it, and children too. Then a voice was heard over a loudspeaker: “This train is going to Hell!” And yet the people scrambled over each other to get on board. The train, Franz wrote, stood for Hitler and the Nazi program. He would not board that train to Hell! He refused the military oath and was beheaded in Brandenburg on the 9th of August, 1943.

Franz Jaegerstaetter had no reason to think that anyone anywhere outside his small village would ever know of his sacrifice. That is why Gordon Zahn entitled his story In Solitary Witness, published in 1964. That book inspired and encouraged many young men of the Viet Nam war period. But the book also opened old wounds. It exposed, once again, the black eye the Church in Austria and Germany had given itself during the Nazi years. After the war, Jaegerstaetter was proposed for canonization as a saint, a martyr for the faith, but many bishops thought this was an implicit criticism of themselves and their support of Hitler’s wars and took offense. But now, sixty-four years after his death, this coming Friday, October 26, 2007, at the request of the entire body of Catholic bishops of Austria, Pope Benedict has authorized the beatification of Franz Jaegerstaetter, at a ceremony to take place in the Cathedral of Linz, the town where he had been imprisoned. He is to be held up as a model of authentic Christian discipleship for our time, a model for youth to imitate.

It wasn’t politics that motivated Franz Jaegerstaetter. It was the Christian Gospel. It was the love of Christ, his faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Redeemer and in his Church, no matter how compromised it may have been. Franz Jaegerstaetter had found a way of praying without ceasing, of perseverance in the faith. His was the triumph. His widow, now 94 years old, will be there at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Linz next Friday. But Gordon Zahn will not. He will be in his room at an old folks’ home in Milwaukee, deep into his Alzheimer’s disease. Maybe, for a moment, he will be aware of the great things that have come from his work and his faith and his perseverance.

Now it is for others, younger, to take up the task, lest the Church of our time and country suffer a black eye. There’s a train at our station too. It’s bright and shiny, but it is a train to Hell. It’s not Nazism, thank God. It is egoism that denies community and the common good. It is materialism and consumerism. It is an unsustainable life-style that requires pillage and murder and war to feed itself.

When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on this earth?

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