Prof. Dr. Rüdiger Althaus, Photo: Erzbistum PaderbornLibori July 25, 2014

Abbé Franz Stock: a precursor to reconciliation

The Prophet Isaiah speaks about peace at the end of the days, about the Messianic Kingdom. But the kingdom of God has already begun with the arrival of the Messiah. And it is the task of those ones who profess Jesus Christ to enable people to grasp the divine peace right now.

Here at this place in our Cathedral, a man was ordained priest on 12 March 1932, a man who is considered as one precursor to the reconciliation between Germany and France, a man who contributed to the transformation of the long-lasting traditional enmity to a profound friendship: Franz Stock.

His achievements mainly coincide with World War II and the first years after. Since 1944, his task was – apart from being Rector of the German Catholic Community at Paris that was occupied by the Germans at that time – the spiritual support of those French who were intended to be imprisoned or even sentenced to death by firing by the Germans. From 1945 to 1947 - first at Orleans, then at Chartres – he was Regent of the seminary for priests that the French had set up behind barbed wire to enable the German students of theology to continue their way to priesthood during their war captivity.

Born at Neheim in the Sauerland region in 1904, Franz Stock had a childhood and youth that are both marked by the experiences of World War I and the following years.

1. Influential motives in childhood and youth

Let us first remember these motives for a better understanding of his character and his work. Franz grew up in a home where the Catholic faith was quite natural and consequently practiced by the family. That means that they lived in a vital relation to God as well as in a deep faith in Him; they anchored in Him through the daily personal prayer, they experienced Him as a secure point in their lives.

At that time the Catholic youth associations were of great importance. Franz Stock was a member of the so-called "Quickborn". This movement realized several impulses. First, there was the conscious and active participation in liturgy: they translated its texts in popular language to live spiritually from this plentitude of ideas. Moreover, the Catholic peace movement played a decisive role. This one had been given important impulses by the encyclical of Pope Benedict XV from Pentecost 1920 that is entitled Pacem, Dei munus pulcherrimum (peace, the most predominant order given by God). It is only about one year after World War I that the Pope urged the people not to suppress the opponents but to reconcile with their enemies. According to him, any person – without exception – is a beloved creature of God; therefore, they are all brothers and sisters, they are one family. His statements show the way to real peace and deep reconciliation, which are both more than a mere non-aggression pact, more than a ceasefire. One copy of the encyclical being worked through by Stock is still accessible. It shows his profound involvement with this topic. International Catholic youth encounters also result from this very impulse.

In August 1926, Stock joined one of them being entitled "Peace through Youth" that took place near Paris. It is the first time that Stock came to France where – as he had been warned – no German could be sure of his life as any longer.

At that time, the relation between Germans and French was characterized by diffuse fear, often even by hatred. Presumably, Stock had already been confronted with this fact as a teenager: Let us think of Napoleon – and also of his campaign across Westphalia to Russia. It was only 100 years prior to Stock's youth. Stock's father had been a soldier in World War I for four years; they possibly talked about the barbaric fights with France at the western front gain and again. But lets us also think of the occupation of the Ruhr region - less than 50 kilometers away from Neheim - by the Belgian and the French troops from 1923 to 1925. When the French nation directly asked for the German reparations payments Stock was 20 years old. In France, the situation was not different: In the War of 1870/71 or World War I the eastern neighbouring state had presented itself as an aggressor making a war of conquest. That is the reason why during his studies at Paris in 1927/28 Stock experienced a deep mistrust of the Germans even in the seminary, too. – Nevertheless: Stock should have experienced especially here at Paderborn that this was not necessary. It is possible to have a good relation even with the French instead: The "Convenant of Everlasting Fraternity", a fraternization in prayer that was made with Le Mans in 836 during the transfer of the relics of Saint Liborius, proved its effectiveness in spite of the growing National Socialism over the centuries: One assisted each other in times of need; and in 1897 the Paderborn cathedral chapter wanted to invite the cathedral chapter of Le Mans on the occasion of the 1600th anniversary of death of the Holy Bishop – which failed because of governmental objections.

2. Charity as preparation of an international understanding

If you look at the Franz Stock's life, his unconditional and unlimited openness towards all the people who are entrusted to him gets obvious. This attitude runs through his whole priestly life: So I remember Dortmund, where he had his first job as a priest; I remember Polish workers, who worked there in mines and steelworks, but barely spoke German. In 1934, when he came to Paris as the Rector of the German Community, he quickly established a hostel for German au-pair girls. Especially from 1938 on, he looked after people who had to leave Germany for political reasons. During the war he cared about thousands of imprisoned French and about 2000 people waiting for their execution. German soldiers of all grades met at his rectory for religious and gregarious encounters. And later, he entirely devoted himself for his seminarians. – Whoever they might be: he did not ask about their nationality, about their success or the crimes they eventually had committed in prisons; he did not ask whether they belonged to the resistance movement, which could even get dangerous for the Germans; he did not ask whether they were hostages. He did not let himself be influenced by the fact that the prisoners belonged to the "archenemy" because of their nationality or because they even were "of minor value" – as the Nazi ideology and terminology attributes it to Jews and communists. It is more: The human being is valuable and counts for him – each single person without exception, without reservations – whatever his nationality, his religion or his ideology might be. Every single person is a creature and an image of God whose dignity is not to be given up! Stock always wanted to be there for him as a priest, or at least as a person, as companion and as a helper with this terrible fear.

So he carried messages and exchanges greetings between the prisoners and their family members. He organized small everyday necessities: generally only minor services – but enormously valuable under these conditions. The big pockets that had additionally been sown in his soutane stand for his big heart. Once he chose for his first mass the motto: "Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart." (1 Petr 1,22). He lived according this motto - not only with respect to practicing Catholics. He prayed psalms with Jews on their way to their execution. He gave every single person the liberty to decide for God. He also respected the person that refused him as a priest though it certainly must have hurt him: It is not because he as a person is rejected; but it is because of the rejection of the heavenly Father longing for hugging a person in existential need. But there was no reason for Stock not to help - even without being accepted as a priest. He also saw his mission in simply assisting people – be friend or foe – in earthy things. He practiced an active charity: humanity in the hell of imprisonment.

Simon of Cyrene with Franz Stock's facial features
In the parish church "Holy Ghost" at Bielefeld one station of the stations of the cross, created by the Dusseldorf artist Gerresheim, shows Simon of Cyrene with Franz Stock's facial features.

Stock acted out his vocation as priest, his vocation as Christian, when he recognized Jesus Christ in the distressed person who fell next at his feet; and he helped him to bear his cross: the origin was of no importance to him. He did not preach that the French should love their enemies – the Germans. He simply set an example in the way he loved his enemies – the French. So the French experienced: not every German was a Nazi who was inimical to them; practical charity, even love of enemies, overcame nationalist thinking instead. "Amor vincit omnia" (Love conquers all.) – is later to be found at Stock's memorial picture.

So Franz Stock succeeded in gaining the deep respect of many French, and he even gained their confidence. They could directly experience through him that reconciliation across borders was neither theory nor even utopia, but it might have been lived reality instead and lead to mutual appreciation. It is still before the invasion of the Allies in August 1944 that a German army doctor of a military hospital at Paris, where soldiers who were not fit for transport were treated, wrote a letter about his actions to Stock's family at Neheim. He wrote that their relative "looked after the severely injured comrades with infinite love" and expressed moreover in an intricate way that "he also enjoyed a sincere appreciation of the French terrorists (i.e. the resistance movement) and the other French staff". The concrete occasion was that a group of the resistance movement wanted to take revenge on German soldiers by shooting them. But it was because of Stock's intervention that the military hospital was put under special protection. And when they had to decide about the directorship of a seminary behind barbed wire all political groups agreed with Stock as its Regent because they knew him. Leading French had been in German prisons and Stock had cared for them.

If you had asked Stock whether he was French of German he would have made no secret of his origin. He remained deeply rooted in his Westphalian home that he loved as long as he lived. Nevertheless, it was near and dear to him to make the Germans familiar with France, to make them share his love to France, the abundance of this country and its people. That means that he was a German who did not isolate himself but who wanted to equip both the nations with knowledge about one another for a better mutual understanding. Perhaps it is a first step towards a cultural transfer.

So it only seems unimportant at first glance that - on Sunday afternoons in wartime - Stock went on excursions to the periphery of Paris with German soldiers: he wanted to present them France as a country of an extraordinary culture, something the German ideology ignored. It is probably due to this intention that in 1943 he published his book about Brittany - anything but an aesthetic guidebook! The message behind it is: respect the country and its people; they have the same Christian roots like us!

Stock also conveyed the idea of the beauty of France to his seminarians at Chartres. Additionally, he ordered them to be grateful for the time in which they were able to follow their vocation again. And when they finally would be home again, they would have to report about it!

The seminarians recognized to what extent confidence between the French and a German, their Regent, was possible: they recognized it by their treatment at Chartres: though being prisoner of war they were allowed to go to town and visit the world-famous cathedral – only by giving their honor.

3. A life in the alignment of God

This extraordinary life, this service to the community, or even to the enemies, raises the question: from which spiritual sources did Franz Stock live? His life is profoundly shaped by the good news of the gospel. This means: He is convinced of the idea that God ultimately has worked out a much bigger and better plan for mankind and for any single person. It is much bigger than anything else one has to face in the misery that is caused by mankind itself. It is only due to this fact that he was able stand the fear and misery in the Parisian prisons and initially led the helpless people there to God or helped them to get closer to Him again.

He made the great treasure of liturgy accessible to his seminarians to make them rediscover their religious faith. Stock conveyed to all the people being committed to him: the Christian faith basically roots in the fact that the goodness and humanitarianism of God have become concrete reality through Jesus Christ. As his beloved creature every single person is dear to Him; nothing can separate him from His infinite love – not even imprisonment and death.

Moreover: If each person is an image of God, such the way I am, I can only face any other person as my brother or sister; and I do it on the same level - that means with appreciation and respect. Every human marginalization and distinction between friend and foe contrasts sharply with it.

It is characteristic that Franz Stock particularly worshiped Saint Michael the Archangel, the conqueror of the evil. In the chapel of the seminary at Chartres, there is an altarpiece painted by himself on which this archangel stands next to the central crucifixion group. Stock did not see him as the patron saint of Germany against the archenemy France. But he knew of his significance in the history of this country, too.

Let us remember Mount Saint Michael or the biography of Joan of Arch. Stock already saw the common cultural and Christian root that both the nations of Germany and France share as the uniting link. Saint Michael Archangel is supposed to avert any national egotism that ever claims to be like God, any egotism that evokes enmity and wars between the nations. The shared look at the one God and Lord of all the people of all nations opens a dimension that qualifies all borders and fosses, and even exceeds and eliminates them. But people worry about their own existence because of their egotism and consider it as necessary to protect and to isolate themselves. Therefore the divine assistance to the coexistence and consolidation of both nations is required.

In general it is testified that through Franz Stock's unpretentious work – either as the French abbé (Father) or the Westphalian pastor (shepherd) - people got to know the goodness and humanitarianism of God that overcome all human aberrations and enmities. Therefore he has also contributed to the creation of trust between the French and the German as a base for their later reconciliation. It is an important testimony of a life of faith! But every baptized person is told to esteem completely and utterly any other person as an image of God and to do exclusively and only things that answer one purpose: peace....for peace is a precious gift of God that has to be protected from human vanity and narrowness until the end of the days.