04 December 2007

Father Franz Stock: German Apostle of Charity

During the German occupation, the residents of Rue Lhomnond in Paris' 5th arrondissement noticed a black silhouette that, several times a week from 1941-1944, would glide on his bicycle through the deserted streets of the capital, a saddlebag full to bursting firmly fixed to the carrier. After riding fifteen kilometers, the cyclist would arrive at Fresnes Prison, the largest in the Paris region, its 1,500 cells crowded with 5,000 prisoners taken by the Germans. Each time, he had to cross the gaurdroom, often enduring the jeers of the S.S., always careful to avoid drawing attention to the famous saddlebag, filled with an eclectic assortment of objects: books, clothing, bread, chocolate, toothbrushes, paper, pens, and many other things. This cyclist in a cassock was Father Franz Stock, a German chaplain assigned to visit prisons. He was the guardian angel for about 11,000 French prisoners.

Franz Stock was born on September 21, 1904, in Neheim, Westphalia (west-central Germany), the eldest of nine children.... The tragedy of the First World War and the influence of the Catholic association, "Quickborn," that Franz belonged to, produced in him a great love of peace. It was in this spirit that he studied the encyclical by Pope Benedict XV, Ön the Peace of God" (1920). He dreamed of a reconciliation between France and Germany based on their common Christian heritage.
In 1928, after two years as a seminarian in Paderborn, Franze received permission to pursue his theological studies at the Catholic Institute of Paris. He was enthusiastic about the quality of instruction he received there, and was delighted to stay at the Carmelite seminary, sanctified by the martyrdom of so many priests in September 1792.... On March 12, 1932, he was ordained a priest in Paderborn and made vicar of Dortmund-Eving, in the Ruhr. After Hitler came to power, Father Stock gladly accepted the offer made to him by Cardinal Verdier, archbishop of Paris and his former superior at the Carmelite seminar, to become the pastor of the German Catholic parish in Paris. On arrival, in September 1934, he wrote to his family: "This will not be very easy, but we will begin by placing our trust in God. Thus we will reach our goal." The building he moved into, on 21-23 Lhomond, in the Latin Quarter, contained a chapel that Franz, a very good painter, decorated himself with frescoes.

However, Fr. Stock's situation in Paris quickly became uncomfortable. The German authorities reproached him for his lack of enthusiasm for the Nazi regime; at the same time, a French daily published a calumnious article insinuating that he was working for the Gestapo by informing against émigrés. The truth was entirely different: Franz was financially supporting German fugitives, including some Jews. Rowing against the current, he organized a Franco-German High Mass for peace, celebrated in March 1937 by Cardinal Verdier, in the presence of the Catholic ambassador von Welczek. A worker for peace, Fr. Stock was nevertheless not a "citizen of the world," indifferent to his homeland. He encouraged, among the souls in his care, love for their German homeland and it sculture and the use of their mother tongue, while at the same time having them know and love France.

On August 26, 1939, the outbreak of the war forced Franz to leave France suddently. But in autumn 1940, equipped with a canonical mission from the Archbishop of Cologne, he moved back to occupied Paris as the Rector for the German Mission. Before the apparent victory of the Third Reich, he remained clear-sighted and confided to those close to him that, in his opinion, "the swastika flags flying from the Arc de Triomphe will one day be taken down." As for him, all he wanted was to be a priest and maintain respect and esteem for the humiliated French.

In November 1940, Fr. Stock accepted the position of chaplain for Fresnes Prison. From April 1941 on, he also visited the two other prisons requisitioned by the Germans in Paris: Cherche-Midi and La Santé. This ministry would soon become most of his life.
As a German, Fr. Stock was often initially poorly received by prisoners. They saw him as an agent of the enemy, and even wondered if he were a false priest sent by the Gestap to extract confessions. Some treated him as a puppet of the Nazis. This impression was quickly erased in most cases, thanks to his exquisite charity. Moreover, the favors he did for the prisoners proved that Franz was not playing a double game. At the risk of his life, he continually broke the rule of the "triple punishment" that hung over many of the prisoners: no contact with families, no mail or reading materials, no packages.
Fr. Stock had picked out the jailers who were Catholic, or simply of good will, and got their help: for example, to organize a party. One of them, Sergeant Ghiel, devoted body and soul to the chaplain, would be betrayed and eventually killed by the Gestapo. Many prisoners were sent to concentration camps after their trials. But many left the prison only for their executions. For these, Fr. Stock fulfilled the most sacred of duties--helping them die a Christian death. The first prisoner he prepared for death was Jacques Bonsergent, an engineer shot "as an example" in December 1940, because he had covered up an insignificant act of resistance. The chaplain stayed with him until the end and returned shattered. He never got used to these grim ceremonies, which nevertheless were repeated several times a week for three and a half years.

A ship captain and father of five children, Honoré d'Estienne d'Orves was secretly an officer of the Resistance. Betrayed by his radio officer, he was arrested in January 1941. In prison he thought about God and eternity. Each week Fr. Stock took him Communion and had him read the Story of a Soul by St. Therese of Lisieux. In May 1941, Estienne d'Orves was sentenced to death. Fr. Stock witnessed his spiritual assent. He told him on August 28th that he would be shot the next day with two others. Estienne d'Orves thanks him in an affectionate letter, in which he related his last wishes: "I ask the Good Lord to give France and Germany a just peace, in keeping with the greatness of my country; and also that our governments might give God the place that rightly belongs to Him." The three condemned men fervently attended one last Mass and forgave their executioners. The chaplain took care that the prisoners receive the Sacraments with pure hearts, from which all hatred of their persecutors had been banished. On August 8, 1943, he assisted Eric, an eighteen-year-old youth. In a note to his mother, the prisoner wrote, "I just saw the priest. See him after my death. He will tell you about me and my last moments ... God is waiting for me with outstretched arms. I am entering eternal Life and the infinite Love of God. Forgive with all your heart all those who are responsible for my death. God will be the judge... I have just received Communion. Goodbye."
Roger L., 28 years old, was baptized the day of his execution. The journal mentions, "He had lost all courage. With my help, he regained confidence... He made his first Communion with a moving gravity... His last words at the moment of his death were 'Lord, have mercy on me.'" Most of the executions took place at Mont-Valérien, a former fortress west of Paris. Sometimes, Fr. Stock spent the last night with the condemned. At this ultimate moment, the priest was the only friendly, brotherly, Christian presence. Franz promised those who were to be shot that he would pray for them at their final moment, but he also asked them to pray for him, and for all, when they were "on the other side." In October 1945, he wrote, "I have been faithful, I believe, to those whose chaplain I was for four years... If I want a special grace, a spiritual illumination, I ask those who knew how to die, who went straight to God after so many sufferings and a beautiful interior preparation, and whome I was able to accompany on their final path. I am convinced that their prayer will be heard... the departed to not forget us.
Fr. Stock's journal registers 863 executions from January 28, 1942 on, of which he attended 701. In all, he aided 1,300 to 1,500 people in their final moments. In Dec. 1941, he wrote, "This week alone, I prepared seventy-two men for death, assisted them at the final moment and buried them." In 1943, a priest friend heard him murmur, "I wonder sometimes if I will be able to continue... If only I could sleep..." An examination of his heart revealed an alarming weakness. The poet Reinhold Schneider wrote, after meeting Fr. Stock in 1943: "He was presented with a suffering that he could only endure strengthened by the Blessed Sacrament."

In his Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum caritatis, Pope Benedict XVI says to priests: "Priestly spirituality is intrinsically Eucharistic. ... In order to give an ever greater Eucharistic form to his existence, the priest...should make his spiritual life his highest priority.... An intense spiritual life will enable him to enter more deeply into communion with the Lord and to let himself be possessed by God's love, bearing witness to that love at all times, even the darkest and most difficult" (Feb. 22, 2007).

(Issued by the Abbaye St. Joseph de Clairval. You can subscribe to the Abbey's free newsletter here)

After the Allies freed Paris, Fr. Stock was taken prisoner by the Americans and moved to Normandy. Along with other priests, Fr. Stock offered Mass and heard confession and ministered to the captives. Later, he willingly agreed to work in French prison camps to help German seminarians continue their studies, creating what would be known as the "Barbed Wire Seminary," visited three times by Bishop Angelo Roncalli (later Pope John XXIII).

In 1948, Fr. Stock suffered an attack of suffocation brought about by pulmonary edema. He who had assisted so many at their hour of death died alone at age 43. Bishop Roncalli presided at his funeral, which was attended by a handful of others. Several groups today promote his beatification.

SEIGNEUR ! Nous te rendons grâces
pour ton serviteur l’abbé Franz STOCK
que tu as envoyé pour rapprocher
deux peuples déchirés par la guerre.
Apôtre de ta Charité et Messager de ta Paix
Il a été porteur du réconfort et du pardon
dans les ténèbres de la violence et de la haine.
Par son ministère d’évangélique espérance,
par ses témoignages de compassion humaine,
il a été un infatigable artisan
de la Réconciliation franco-allemande.
Pour que son exemple demeure à jamais
présent et agissant dans nos deux Peuples,
et qu’il rayonne à travers l’Europe et le Monde,
nous demandons avec ferveur à ton Eglise
que l’Abbé Franz STOCK soit reconnu
“Apôtre de ta Charité et Messager de ta Paix”