A few months ago, I went to see a movie. “A Hidden Life” paints the story of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer in the midst of the rapidly changing atmosphere of Nazi-era occupation in Europe. Franz chose to carefully evaluate these advances and realized the barbarity of the Nazi regime. When his village voted on whether or not to support the already present German forces, he offered the sole dissent.
When the Nazis later attempted to force him into military service and swearing loyalty to Hitler, he refused. After a significant time in prison, he was beheaded, leaving his wife, Franziska, and three little daughters behind.. Franz was beatified as a martyr by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007 and is awaiting full canonization.
“A Hidden Life” is masterfully produced by academy-award winning director Terrence Mallick, with the backdrop of the awe-inspiring Alps and a musical score that alone bespeaks the mystical nature of Franz’s story. The production poignantly reveals the deep devotion of the Jägerstätters and the beauty of redemptive suffering in marriage.
The film affected me immensely. I studied exclusively to the music of the soundtrack, contemplated the Jägerstätter’s testament to their vocation and even considered how much I appreciated the way in which they decorated their home.
When I heard that one of my friends was planning a trip to Franz’s home in Sankt Radegund, Austria for our Rome semester’s first long weekend, I instantly knew God was calling me there. Providentially, I had already bought a ticket to Vienna for that weekend but loosely knew that I wanted to go in the direction of the mountains instead.
Maria, the second daughter of Franz and Franziska, offered to pick us up at the train station, six American kids who loved the movie but couldn’t say much more than “gutentag.” Maria welcomed us right as we stepped off the train.
Elisabeth, Maria’s friend from two hours away who spoke English, made the trip just for us. “You must be hungry, let’s get some lunch,” was their first objective. After stuffing us with farm-fresh duck and dumplings, they drove us to many of the key places from Franz and Franziska’s life and prayed with us at the parish where once Franz was sacristan, but now serves as his burial place and shrine. Up the hill in their village, we parked at Franz and Franziska’s farmhouse, now converted into a museum.
Elisabeth explained that they typically do not let visitors go in every room, the bedroom in particular. But, Maria wants you all to come in, she added quickly. Stepping in, one distinctly felt the presence of sacred space. If the pinnacle of marriage is its consummation, the bedroom of a saintly couple was indeed this home’s holy of holies.
After touring their home, Maria invited us to her own home for coffee. We sat with the two women for hours, asking questions about their family and Franz’s legacy. Elisabeth reflected on the times she had sat at the same table with Franziska. “We like to joke around that Franziska was the real saint here,” she told us. Jokes aside, Maria truly hopes to see her parents canonized together.
After Franz’s death, their family was ostracized for their moral convictions and his life was regarded as a waste by their community. However, Elisabeth attested, Franziska was never bitter. She was always joyful, even in the midst of her crippling loss, and extended this joy to those who hated her. Franziska’s love for Franz was the culmination of the vocation of marriage—getting your spouse to heaven. In Maria’s dining room was a picture of Franziska’s radiant face at her husband’s beatification, an image that will stick with me for years.
The warmth of the Jägerstätter’s joy and generosity was palpable during our visit. Maria made four rounds with different Austrian pastries, always insisting that we eat more. They gave us each an English copy of Franz’s biography and drove us back to the train station after dark. When we said goodbye, they stressed how much they enjoyed hosting us and seeing young people engaged in their faith. As our train rolled away, they waved goodbye until we disappeared.
Their hospitality surprised us, we were just a bunch of strangers from America. But for Elisabeth and Maria, it was entirely natural. Their spirit of authentic charity was simply the spirit of the Jägerstätters.
Their country and community tried to suppress this spirit in the 1940s, but it only blossomed.
God blessed the Jagerstatters; they flourish in Sankt Radegund still today. Franz’s testimony to the truth has spread worldwide.
The title of the film comes from a quote by George Eliot, “For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
The Jägerstätters were a simple family, but from their simplicity and perseverance came tremendous fruit. The genuine love and spirit of the Jägerstätters left all of us moved. We kept exclaiming how much we wish to emulate not only Franz and Franziska, but also Maria and Elisabeth in their heart for hospitality.
The weekend was a beautiful reminder to us that sanctity comes from the small, and the hidden acts of life are what most truly matter.