During World War II some Germans opposed the evil actions of the Nazi government, and ended up paying for their defense of freedom and truth with their freedom or their lives. The Nazis did many wicked things, including the murder of six million Jews; most German citizens supported Hitler, at least while Germany was winning the war, and later claimed not to know of the terrible things he was doing—but there were some Germans who realized the truth and who fought against evil. A leader in the German Catholic Church, the aristocrat Cardinal Clemens von Galen, gave powerful sermons denouncing the Nazis; because of his prestige and popularity, the Nazis didn’t dare arrest him—but they did arrest and send to concentration camps people who copied and distributed his sermons, including a number of priests. A professor at the University of Munich also printed the Cardinal’s sermons and secretly mailed them to names chosen at random from the phone book—and one of these letters went to the Scholl family.
The Scholls were devout Christians who were philosophically opposed to the Nazis—and when they read how their leaders were murdering handicapped persons, the retarded, and Jews, they knew they had to do something. Their son Hans, aged 24, helped form a secret group called the White Rose movement, which printed thousands of leaflets telling the truth about the war and the crimes of Germany’s leaders, while urging people to engage in passive, non-violent resistance. These leaflets were clandestinely left in public places or mailed at random, and were circulated so widely in Germany that the Nazis were seriously worried. Later Hans’ younger sister, Sophie—aged 22—became involved in the movement. On a Friday in February, 1943 Hans and Sophie once again secretly distributed hundreds of leaflets outside the classrooms of the university, which they both attended as students; this time, however, they were spotted by a janitor, who immediately summoned the secret police. The brother and sister were arrested, interrogated by the police, and put on trial the following Monday morning, along with one of the other members of their group.
The trial was a farce; the three young people were shouted down by the Nazi judge, quickly declared guilty, and sentenced to death by beheading that very afternoon. They were separately taken back to prison, and the prison’s chaplain came to Sophie’s cell. He prayed with her, and then spoke the very words Jesus said in the Gospel of John: “No one has greater love than this, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Sophie was allowed three minutes to see her parents one last time; she thanked them for the moral guidance and upbringing they had given her and said she didn’t regret anything she had done. Her father stated they were very proud of her and her brother, and her mother urged her, “Remember, Sophie, look to Jesus!” Sophie was then taken to the death chamber and executed, followed by her brother and their friend; though still very young, they died bravely as martyrs in defense of freedom and truth—and surely received a hero’s welcome in heaven. Jesus calls us His friends, and—as the Scholl family knew— this means living according to His teachings, regardless of the cost. Christ died for us out of love, and our lives will truly be successful only if we live in this same spirit.
The readings for the Sixth Sunday of Easter assure us that only love can give life true meaning—and it has to be a self-giving, sacrificial love, for that’s the type of love God has shown for us. As St. John says, “God sent His only Son into the world so that we might have life through Him.” The Lord places no limits on this amazing and life-giving love; as St. Peter came to realize, “Whoever fears Him and acts uprightly is acceptable to Him.” Obeying the commandments—especially the commandment to love God and neighbor—is the key; Jesus promises that in this way we will remain in His love, we will bear much fruit, and our joy will be complete.
This type of love requires a certain amount of courage on our part; if we’re truly committed to following Jesus, we have to give His will a higher priority in our lives than anything else—even if it means being unpopular, misunderstood, or rejected, and even if it means disobeying unjust human laws in order to obey God’s law. After all, this is what friends of Jesus do. Henry Ford once asked someone, “Who is your best friend?,” and when the man started naming several people, Ford interrupted him and said, “No, your best friend is the one who brings out the best within you” (Nelson’s Complete Book of Stories, Illustrations, & Quotes, p. 327). On that basis, it’s very clear that Jesus was the Best Friend of the apostles, of all the saints down through the ages, and of heroic young people like Hans and Sophie Scholl—and He wants to be our Best Friend, too.
What does this mean in practical terms? Simply that we do for Jesus what we would want one of our friends to do for us. As Henry Ford pointed out, our friends should help us become better people, and so our relationship with Jesus is supposed to help us grow in holiness; our love for Him is meant to inspire us to treat others with love and respect and to do what’s morally correct. In other words, we’re supposed to pay Jesus the compliment of imitating Him and trying to be like Him. Secondly, true friends have shared values and a similar outlook on life. This means emphasizing and living by the things that are important to Jesus: love, mercy, truth, integrity, and self-giving. Thirdly, friends make time for one another; we do this for and with Jesus by attending Mass, by praying every day, and by frequently sharing our thoughts and feelings with Him, while trying to be aware of and responsive to His presence. Fourthly, friends are willing to make sacrifices for each other, taking a personal interest in each other’s needs and problems. Jesus, of course, doesn’t actually need anything from us—but He has stated that we can serve Him by serving the least of His brothers and sisters. Lastly, true friends are willing to be identified with each other. By our language, our attitudes, and our behavior, the world should be able to see that we’re not ashamed of Jesus, but proud to follow Him and have Him as our dearest Friend. This probably won’t require risking our lives, as did some brave young people in Nazi Germany, but it will require living our lives by a set of values quite different from those of this world. Jesus asks us to keep His commandments and to love one another in His Name. This is how we grow in His grace, how we live in His love, and how we prove we are His friends.