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Catholic Culture News

The Magisterium of the Martyrs

By Fr. Jerry Pokorsky ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 13, 2021

We all have personal comfort zones. Priests generally live in a comfort-zone bubble, surrounded by friendly parishioners. Most parishioners, in contrast, enter daily into the lion’s den of a hostile secular workplace. So the very least a priest can do is support the faithful with orthodox teachings. Yet many priests and bishops hunger for cultural acceptance and allow politically-correct fashions to frame and influence their ministry.

The scandal (more or less) of clerical comfort is hardly new. Pious words disembodied from our Christian actions are common enough throughout history. Responding to the call of Jesus requires a willingness to violate our comfort zones and accentuates the significance of Christian martyrdom. The sufferings of martyrs have magisterial authority because the witness highlights and ratifies the essentials of Church teaching.

When Henry VIII claimed that he was the head of the Catholic Church in England, most people took a comfortably low profile. Except for Thomas More and John Fisher, prominent Catholics used their religion as pious window-dressing, refusing to risk much to defend it. Thomas More and John Fisher witness to the indissolubility of marriage and the legitimate authority of the Church. It is a paradox of history that a barren culture with a shallow Catholic faith prepares the way for the glorious witness of martyrs. The pattern re-emerges over the centuries.

Franz Jägerstätter was an Austrian conscientious objector during World War II. The Germans sentenced him to death for his refusal to fight for Nazi Germany. In his youth, Franz had an unruly reputation. He was the first in his village to own a motorcycle and reportedly fathered a child out of wedlock. In 1936, he married a deeply religious woman and honeymooned in Rome, where they received a blessing from Pope Pius XI. Franz began to study the Bible and attend daily Mass. When German troops moved into Austria in 1938, he was dismayed to see many Catholics in his village supporting the Nazis. He wrote: “I believe there could scarcely be a sadder hour for the true Christian faith in our country.” He refused to take the Hitler oath and returned home in 1941 under an exemption as a farmer. Pondering his experiences in military service, the suppression of the church (churches were forced to fly the swastika flag), and reports on the Nazi “euthanasia” program, he began to question the morality of the war. He consulted his bishop but departed from the meeting, discouraged by the reluctance to confront the Nazi ideology.

Called up again for military duty, Jägerstätter declared his conscientious objection. “…that, due to his religious views, he refused to perform military service with a weapon, that he would be acting against his religious conscience were he to fight for the Nazi State…that he could not be both a Nazi and a Catholic… that there were some things in which one must obey God more than men; due to the commandment ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself’… However, he was willing to serve as a military paramedic.” (Excerpt from the reason given for the judgment text of the Reich Court-Martial, dated 6th July 1943.)

Although a visiting priest failed to persuade him to serve in the military by appealing to his patriotism, he consoled him by this report: One year before, the Austrian Pallottine priest Father Franz Reinisch had refused to perform military service for the same reasons and had died for his convictions. In 1943 the Nazis sentenced Franz to death for sedition and executed the devoted husband and father by guillotine. His last recorded words were, “I am completely bound in inner union with the Lord.” He was 36.

In June 2007, Pope Benedict XVI—who, as a young man in the war, reluctantly served on an anti-aircraft unit outside of Munich—declared Franz Jägerstätter a martyr. In October 2007, he was beatified. His martyrdom elevated the magisterial value of his witness: “…neither prison, nor chains, nor sentence of death, can rob a man of the Faith and his free will.”

In November of this year, Mexican authorities convicted two Mexican cardinals, a bishop, and three priests of violating the Mexican constitution. The primary target, Cardinal Juan Sandoval Íñiguez warned before the elections: “If those who are in power win, a dictatorship will come…liberty will be lost, because we’re talking about a system that is communist, socialist, that enslaves.” The economy of Mexico would become poor and enslaved “like Venezuela, like Cuba.”

Cardinal Sandoval also warned “the good of the family and of [human] life are at stake because this government has adopted gender ideology, which brings with it all of the unnatural barbarities that they can unleash, which can impede and destroy the family,” and bring about “abortion, express divorce, homosexuality, and homosexual marriage.” The cardinal concluded that “the communist-Marxist system” threatens religious liberty.

Sandoval encouraged the “majority in Mexico that believes in God and in his providence, to pray much for Him to enlighten and help us,” to “ask Our Lady of Guadalupe for her aid, and to pray in front of the Blessed Sacrament.” He encouraged Mexicans to “do their civic duty” and vote, and not “leave the field free to evildoers.”

Cardinal Sandoval’s words are not disembodied platitudes. In Mexico—as in the minds of many Americans—the separation of church and state is absolute. During the court proceedings, one of the judges denounced the clerics : “Votes aren’t celestial or spiritual things… Celestial inspiration is not going to cause the best people to be in popularly elected positions.” The persecution of Mexican clergy courageously witnessing the dignity of marriage and family is martyrdom in process.

Christian martyrs risk and surrender their lives in Jesus for the firm certainties of faith promising salvation. None of them died for the ambiguous teachings of comfortable Catholics seeking cultural approval. When we think of the Church’s Magisterium, we must also keep in mind the Magisterium of the Martyrs.

Fr. Jerry Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington who has also served as a financial administrator in the Diocese of Lincoln. Trained in business and accounting, he also holds a Master of Divinity and a Master’s in moral theology. Father Pokorsky co-founded both CREDO and Adoremus, two organizations deeply engaged in authentic liturgical renewal. He writes regularly for a number of Catholic websites and magazines. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: miketimmer499385 - Dec. 15, 2021 11:18 AM ET USA

    Since the offering of the Mass has returned, I have yet to hear any priest of three parishes that I can readily attend incorporate a Catholic defense against either the continued support of abortion of Catholic politicians (and we a rife with them in Minnesota) or the tyrannical use of state force in the service of a vaccine which has highly questionable value in the generalized population and comes with many documented dangers (see Phil Lawler). Once again, only few heads stand tall.

  • Posted by: cummingspm6120 - Dec. 15, 2021 9:17 AM ET USA

    I think you started off your article with a somewhat incorrect assumption: "Priests generally live in a comfort-zone bubble, surrounded by friendly parishioners". The parish priests that I know & have volunteered under face a different reality. Most of the time when the phone rings it's not people who are happy with & appreciative of their efforts. Something in the homily rubbed them the wrong way. The Mass went too long. Priests can also be undermined by their staff/influential parishoners

  • Posted by: ewaughok - Dec. 14, 2021 9:48 PM ET USA

    Well said. But I’m sure Franz Jägerstätter‘s bishop continued to sleep well at night, even after the execution … and has Pope Francis spoken out in defense of the Mexican clergy, denouncing the socialist government? Hello? Anyone?