The first known act of the young German Franz Stock in favor of peace was his participation in 1926 in the meeting of Bierville, south of Paris, where ten thousand young people from all over Europe came together for peace. At Easter 1928, as a young seminarian, he moved to Paris to continue his studies. As his friend Joseph Folliet later wrote, “To welcome a German student at the theological faculty of Paris was something inconceivable for the mentality of 1928.” Ordained in 1932, he was appointed in France, two years later, to be in charge of the German Catholic parish in Paris. Though his joy was great to be able to help bring together the two countries he loved, the difficulties he would face would be considerable. As he wrote to his family in his first letter: “It will not be easy, but we will start by putting our trust in God.”
In the course of these years, it was rather hatred that grew. In August 1939, the declaration of war put an end to his efforts: in the middle of the night, the young priest and the people of his center in Paris had to leave everything behind. “We suddenly felt we did not require much to live and we could rapidly be separated from all that we had loved and set up in the enthusiasm of youth.”
He soon volunteered to return to France and to help with the support of prisoners of war. This became possible in October 1940. From Berlin, his friend Reinhold Schneider wrote to him: “I cannot yet abandon the hope of seeing the true Europe be restored.... It is a consolation to know that you are sticking to your beautiful work of reconciliation.” And again: “We must focus with all our strength on what unites us.”
Beginning in 1941, Franz Stock began tirelessly to visit Parisian prison inmates, many of whom were imprisoned for acts of resistance. For them to see a German chaplain enter their cell was, at first glance, disappointing news. Yet, as a French priest would say, “when we French could not enter the prison, Father Stock was a kind of messenger for us and for the families. From the beginning, he accomplished this task with an extraordinary awareness and delicacy.”
In going to meet the prisoners, he was convinced he was visiting Christ himself: “I was in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25). And he brought news of the prisoners to their families, who came to see him at the chaplaincy in the evening, when he returned from his visits. One of these prisoners, Edmond Michelet, wrote in his memoirs that the young priest had accomplished his ministry “with the discretion that gave so much importance to the countless services that did for us, risking his life to help us often to save ours.”
On Christmas Eve 1940, he prepared a young prisoner for his execution. This was the first of hundreds that Father Stock would accompany to the end. In his last letter to his children, another of those prisoners sentenced to death wrote: “When you grow up, do not hold a grudge against anyone.” That was the mission to which Franz Stock dedicated himself: to do everything possible so that those men would die in peace. He constantly visited, consoled, and assisted—and did this unceasingly, during the long years of war.
At the Liberation, the chaplain Stock was imprisoned in his turn. As soon as possible, however, he decided not to return to his homeland but to focus on the “new poor,” the German prisoners of war in France. With the support of some French bishops, in Chartres and Orleans he began a “barbed-wire seminary” for all German seminarians held captive in France. On several occasions, the papal nuncio Roncalli, later Pope John XXIII, visited him and encouraged him in his work.
In 1947, the closing of the seminary drew near. In a farewell speech, Father Franz Stock made an initial assessment. “Those years were hard but full of life and courage, long but fruitful, rewarding and full of promise. [...] When that community behind barbed wire will be dissolved externally, may the spirit of true brotherhood reunite us in prayer for one another.” In fact, if those seeds scattered to the four winds would bear much fruit in the years following the war, for Franz Stock already the passing to eternal life was being prepared—he died in 1948, at the age of 43, after a life given for reconciliation.