“I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection.”
~ Sigmund Freud
Martyrdom is inimical to human fatherhood – or, at least, it seriously goes against the grain. When men of character sign up for marriage and children, they know they’re committing themselves to provide and protect, and to be there for the long haul. “Fatherhood is giving life to others,” Pope Francis teaches us, and a true father “knows what it means to protect his children.” Getting killed just doesn’t square with those commitments.
But fathers do get martyred – like St. Thomas More, the famed chancellor of England who lost his head after refusing to recognize the king as the head of the Church.
You might already be familiar with More’s final moments – that he went blithely to his death, jesting with the executioner – but reject any notion that More was OK with his fate. Unlike some martyrs’ accounts we read, the saintly lawyer and politician clearly eschewed martyrdom, and understandably so. More loved life; he had a gusto for feasting and fun; he enjoyed his work, his writing, his leisure pursuits. Most of all, however, St. Thomas was the consummate family man – and loath to leave his wife and children bereft.
So why did he do it?
Why, indeed. All those around him – bishops and nobility, court officials and commoners, and all his friends – were caving to King Henry and his defiance of the Pope. And More’s wife and children? Even they were clamoring for him to give in – to find a compromise in order to preserve his life.
It’s not as if he didn’t try, for the legal-minded More exploited every loophole in his favor in order to save his neck, but to no avail. His steadfast refusal to collapse his conscience cost him dearly in the end. And the “why” of it he made plain in his last words: “I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first.”
He could’ve just as easily have prefaced that last statement, “I die a committed husband and father,” because the point is the same: Fealty to God takes precedence over every other relationship, even a father’s to his children. “He who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me,” is the way the Lord put it, and then this coup de grâce: “He who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10.37-38).
Jesus’ words and Thomas More’s story come to mind today because it’s the memorial of Bl. Franz Jägerstätter, the Austrian peasant who conscientiously refused to serve in Hitler’s immoral war machine and suffered accordingly. Like St. Thomas, Franz was a devoted husband and a doting father of three young girls, and he was ripped to pieces on account of his arrest and confinement. Jägerstätter’s letters home indicate that his fatherly identity and responsibilities were in the forefront of his thoughts – especially as it became evident that his life would be forfeit unless he changed his mind.
But how could he change his mind? He’d considered the options, sought reliable counsel, prayed deeply, and weighed the cost. “Everyone tells me, of course, that I should not do what I am doing because of the danger of death,” Bl. Franz explained. “I believe it is better to sacrifice one’s life right away than to place oneself in the grave danger of committing sin and then dying.”
And what of his fatherly duties? Far from abandoning them, Jägerstätter saw himself fulfilling his paternal responsibilities by modeling for his children what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the “cost of discipleship.” Here’s how Bl. Franz expressed it:
I have faith that God will still give me a sign if some other course would be better…. Christ, too, prayed on the Mount of Olives that the Heavenly Father might permit the chalice of sorrow to pass from His lips – but we must never forget this part of his prayer: ‘Lord, not my will be done but rather Thine.’
To change his mind just because he was going to be executed would’ve been an object lesson in extreme cowardice and faithlessness that Jägerstätter was unwilling to display to his children.
Yet, Franz had no illusions regarding the ultimate cost to his three young daughters: They would be deprived of the security and safety his fatherly presence represented. Even so, the conscientious Jägerstätter thought ahead. “I greet you, my dear little girls,” he wrote. “May the child Jesus and the dear Mother of Heaven protect you until we see one another again.” His solicitude for his family even extended beyond their temporal needs, writing from prison that “I will surely beg the dear God, if I am permitted to enter heaven soon, that he may also set aside a little place in heaven for all of you.”
So…how likely is it that dads like you and I will face that kind of ultimate challenge? Not very, but don’t think we’re off the martyrdom hook. To illustrate what I mean, consider one more martyr-dad role model: Robert Scholl, a contemporary of Bl. Franz, and father of underground Nazi resisters Sophie and Hans Scholl. The Scholl children were integral members of the German White Rose movement that publicized Hitler’s atrocities during World War II. They fomented dissent and advocated resistance, and, when caught, there was little doubt they’d be put to death.
But Sophie and Hans had kept their clandestine activities secret, so their parents were completely unaware of what Sophie and Hans were up to. Evidently, that ignorance was credible, for Mr. and Mrs. Scholl were spared execution themselves. If so, then how can I call Robert Scholl another martyr-dad?
It’s this: Mr. Scholl raised his children in such a way that they themselves did not shy away from martyrdom. Here’s what he used to tell them: “What I want for you is to live in uprightness and freedom of spirit, no matter how difficult that proves to be.” Moreover, Robert followed up his words with action, and he served time in prison for his criticism of Hitler’s regime. The day Robert’s son and daughter were beheaded by the German authorities must’ve been a martyrdom for him as well, especially since his paternal influence undoubtedly contributed to their conscientious sacrifice. Yet would he have done anything differently? Not a chance.
Sanctity, for most fathers, isn’t nearly so dramatic, at least not here in the U.S.Instead, it involves the humdrum duties of keeping a roof over heads and food on the table. Nothing flashy – no dragons to slay or Huns to keep at the gates. The Colosseum of our martyrdom is the kitchen table, the commute, and the checkbook. No ravenous lions or gladiators; just showing up for work, paying bills, getting the oil changed on the van, taking out the trash.
In other words, it’s not a red martyrdom (blood), or even a white martyrdom (heroic virtue), but usually a transparent martyrdom. It’s like dad becomes invisible, like St. Joseph, yet that is precisely his opportunity to be a knight errant and a hero – through his quiet influence and example, or, in the words of St. John Paul II,
by means of the witness he gives of an adult Christian life which effectively introduces the children into the living experience of Christ and the Church.
And if we do it well, our children will be inspired to become saints – and even martyrs – themselves. Easier said than done. Let’s pray for each other.
image: “Holy New Martyr Franz Jägerstätter” © William H. McNichols www.fatherbill.org