In April 1534, the former Lord Chancellor Thomas More and the Bishop of Rochester John Fisher refused to sign the "Act of Supremacy" passed by the English Parliament, which made King Henry VIII the head of the English Church. More and Fisher were executed for this refusal. John Paul II named Thomas More patron saint of rulers and politicians on October 31, 2000: "From the life and martyrdom of St. Thomas More flows a message that down the centuries speaks to men and women of all times of the inalienable dignity of conscience," said the Motu Proprio for his proclamation.
There have been martyrs of conscience "through the centuries", also in the National Socialist regime. They followed the dictates of their conscience, for example the students of the White Rose as well as other people who refused to obey the anti-Christian and inhuman Nazi system and who paid for their resistance with their lives.
Martyr of conscience
A special form of refusal consisted in the refusal to swear an oath of allegiance to Hitler. After the death of Reich President Paul von Hindenburg on 2 August 1934, the oath formula was changed. Instead of serving "always faithfully and fully my people and my Fatherland", the conscripts were to swear "that I will render unconditional obedience to the Reich and German People's Führer, Adolf Hitler".
Of the 18 million soldiers in the WehrmachtOnly a few refused to take the oath, in contrast to the estimated 30,000 deserters. For desertion there may be different reasons; the oath, on the other hand, was refused for reasons of conscience. Apart from the Jehovah's Witnesses or "Bible Students" - who did not specifically reject Hitler's oath, but military service in general - according to the latest studies about 20 Catholics and nine Protestants took this momentous step.
Along with Franz Jägerstätter and Josef Mayr-Nusser, beatified in 2007 and 2017, respectively, the best known of them is Franz Reinisch, whose beatification process has already passed the diocesan phase. A Pallottine priest from Schönstatt, he was sentenced to death for "undermining the defense force" (Wehrkraftzersetzung) in July 1942 and executed on August 21 of the same year, 80 years ago.
As early as 1939 and in the retreat house in Schönstatt, Reinisch had already said: "One cannot take the oath, the oath to the National Socialist flag, to the Führer. That is a sin, for it would be like swearing an oath to a criminal... Our conscience forbids us to follow an authority that only brings to the world crimes and murders for the sake of conquest. To that criminal we cannot take an oath! He maintained his conviction to the end.
Franz Reinisch was born on February 1, 1903 in Feldkirch-Levis (Vorarlberg). His father was a lawyer, so he too began studying law at the University of Innsbruck. After a 30-day retreat in Wyhlen, near Basel, and in view of the moral misery he encountered while studying legal medicine in Kiel in 1923, the desire to "win souls for Christ" was awakened in him. He decided to become a priest. After three years at the seminary in Brixen, Reinisch was ordained a priest on June 29, 1928.
He soon came into contact with the Pallottine Fathers in Salzburg. In November he entered the Pallottine novitiate in Untermerzbach, near Bamberg. Through the Pallottines, Franz Reinisch came to know Schoenstatt in August 1934 (until 1964 the Schoenstatt Movement remained closely linked organizationally to the Pallottines). He had finally found his vocation.
It was precisely at this time that he began his confrontation with National Socialism. He was outraged that, in connection with the so-called "Röhm-Putsch" ("Night of the Long Knives") at the end of June 1934, the regime had people murdered without a court sentence, but also that Hitler had incorporated Austria into the German Reich in violation of international law. Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Reinisch recognizes the alternative: "Either Nazi or Christian", it is not possible to be both.
Road to martyrdom
With the outbreak of the war, the persecution of the Church. Franz Reinisch was forbidden to preach in September 1940, which sealed his fate: since he could not occupy a parish post, he could be drafted. On March 1, 1941, Fr. Reinisch received the order to prepare for conscription; the actual draft order was sent to him on Easter Tuesday 1942.
Franz Reinisch arrives at the Bad Kissingen barracks on April 15, 1942, deliberately one day later than ordered. He immediately declares his refusal to take the oath of allegiance to Hitler, whereupon he is taken to Berlin-Tegel Prison. The trial before the Reich Military Tribunal took place on July 7; but the death sentence had already been passed earlier. He was transferred to Brandenburg-Görden prison for execution.
In his closing argument at the trial, he declared: "The condemned man is not a revolutionary, an enemy of the State and of the people, who fights with violence; he is a Catholic priest who uses the weapons of the spirit and of faith. And he knows what he is fighting for. Franz Reinisch understands his death as a sign of atonement. His earthly life ends on Friday, August 21, 1942, at 5.03 a.m.
Franz Reinisch is the only Catholic priest who refused to take the oath to Hitler, of which he was aware: "I know that many priests think differently than I do; but no matter how much I examine my conscience, I cannot come to any other conclusion. And against my conscience - with God's grace - I cannot and will not act." His parents reaffirmed his decision; in a letter his father told him: "Suffering is brief and soon passes. At the end of the suffering imposed is eternal joy. Finis tuus gloriosus erit! The end of suffering and the beginning of eternity will be magnificent". And his mother: "I have nothing to add but to say that I will pray and sacrifice even more; be strong, Franzl; heaven is our reward."
The process of beatification of Franz Reinisch was closed, in the diocesan phase, in June 2019. The files and documents were forwarded to Rome, to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. As a martyr (of conscience), no miracle is necessary for beatification. This is alluded to by Manfred Scheuer, bishop of Linz and vice president of the Austrian Bishops' Conference, in the one-hour documentary "Pater Franz Reinisch - Der Film" (Angela Marlier, 2016): the martyrdom of Franz Reinisch is "in the line of the martyrs of the early Church who said no to the emperor" and who spelled out the creed saying, "I renounce evil."