December 2009 - Vol. 35
Joy in the Face of Death

Alfred Delp, S.J.

by Jeanne Kun 

Don't be sad," Father Alfred Delp wrote to a friend from a Nazi prison as he waited for his death sentence to be carried out. "God has helped me so wondrously and so perceptibly up to now. I still am not at all frightened. That is probably yet to come. Perhaps God has willed this waiting state as the extreme test of my reliance. I assent. I shall endeavor to fall into the furrow as fruitful seed for all of you and for this land and nation that I wanted to serve and help." 

Alfred Delp was born on September 15, 1907, in Mannheim, Germany, the son of a Lutheran businessman, Friedrich Delp, and his Catholic wife, Maria. He was baptized in the Lutheran Church at the wish of his father, and converted to Catholicism when he was seventeen. Two years later, in 1926, Alfred entered the Society of  Jesus. He studied theology in Holland and, from 1931 to 1934, taught at a Jesuit school in Feldkirch, Germany. 

As Alfred matured, he was concerned with what he came to understand as modem man's estrangement from God. This concern, apparent in his theological writings and meditations, opened his eyes to the political depravity of National Socialist (Nazi) Germany. Later he was to write of this estrangement and moral sickness; "Our lives today have become godless to the point of complete vacuity." The solution, he knew, was for man to find his fulfillment and happiness in God, not in himself. 

Delp was ordained in 1937, and around this time he also began writing for a Jesuit magazine, Stimmen der Zeit (The Voice of the Time), in Munich. In 1939, he became the magazine's editor and openly wrote of his views on the evils of Nazism. After the publication was banned and the editorial buildings taken over by the Nazis in 1941, Delp became pastor of a parish in Munich-Bogenhausen. Because he continued to voice his dissenting views, the Gestapo kept him under surveillance. At the same time, he began to assist Jews fleeing from Germany. 

In 1943, at the request of Count Helmuth von Moltke and with the permission of his religious superiors, Delp joined the Kreisau Circle. The "circle" was an anti-Nazi group of Germans of all denominations that had formed around the country. Foreseeing the demise of the Nazi government, the group secretly began to draw up plans for a new social order to be built along Christian lines after the war. Delp was actively involved in developing the basis of Catholic social teaching for the new order. Even to discuss the postwar period, however, was considered an act of treason by the Nazi government. 

On July 20, 1944, an assassination attempt against Hitler failed. Shortly afterwards, on July 28, Delp was arrested, although neither he nor Moltke, unlike some members of the Kreisau Circle, had been involved in the plan. He was repeatedly beaten and interrogated by the Nazi secret police. During seven months in solitary confinement, he wrote letters to friends, composed a series of meditations, and kept a diary. 

Delp's trial was handled with ruthless expertise and arrogance, with no serious defense allowed for the prisoner. It was held in front of Gestapo agents and an obedient jury. They could not incriminate Delp as a conspirator in the assassination plot, so they dropped those charges. Nonetheless, on January 11,1945, Father Delp was sentenced to death for high treason because of his repudiation of Nazism and his hopes of building a new Germany on Christian principles. On February 2, 1945, he died by hanging at the Plotzensee prison in Berlin. 

"The words of one who has been obedient unto death cannot be dismissed or gainsaid," wrote the Trappist monk Thomas Merton in the introduction to Alfred Delp's prison writings, which were published in English translation in 1963. "These meditations 'in the face of death' have a sustained, formidable seriousness unequalled in any spiritual book of our time. This imposes on us the duty to listen to what he has said with something of the same seriousness, the same humility, and the same courage."

Jeanne Kun is a noted author and a senior womens' leader in the Word of Life Community, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. 

This article is excerpted from the book, Even Unto Death: Wisdom from Modern Martyrs, edited by Jeanne Kun, The Word Among Us Press, © 2002. All rights reserved. Used with permission. The book can be ordered from WAU Press.

Fr. Alfred Delp before his imprisonment by the Nazis

The People of Advent 
meditation by Delp while in prison 

The herald angel
Never have I entered on Advent so vitally and intensely alert as I am now. W'hen I pace my cell, up and down, three paces one way and three the other, my hands manacled, an unknown fate in front of me, then the tidings of our Lord's coming to redeem the world and deliver it have a different and much more vivid meaning. 

And my mind keeps going back to the angel someone gave me as a present during Advent two or three years ago. It bore the inscription: "Be of good cheer. The Lord is near." A bomb destroyed it. The same bomb killed the donor and I often have the feeling that he is rendering me some heavenly aid.

Promises given and fulfilled
It would be impossible to endure the horror of these times - like the horror of life itself, could we only see it clearly enough - if there were not this other knowledge which constantly buoys us up and gives us strength: the knowledge of the promises that have been given and fulfilled. And the awareness of the angels of good tidings, uttering their blessed messages in the midst of all this trouble and sowing seed of blessing where it will sprout in the middle of the night. 

Then angels of Advent are not the bright jubilant beings who trumpet the tidings of fulfillment to a waiting world. Quiet and unseen they enter our shabby rooms and our hearts as they did of old. In the silence of the night they pose God's questions and proclaim the wonders of him with whom all things are possible. 

Footsteps of the herald angel 
Advent, even when things are going wrong, is a period from which a message can be drawn. May the time never come when men forget about the good tidings and promises, when, so immured within the four walls of their prison that their very eyes are dimmed, they see nothing but grey days through barred windows placed too high to see out of. 

May the time never come when mankind no longer hears the soft footsteps of the herald angel, or his cheering words that penetrate the soul. Should such a time come all will be lost. Then indeed we shall be living in bankruptcy and hope will die in our hearts.

Golden seeds waiting to be sowed 
For the first thing man must do if he wants to raise himself out of this sterile life is to open his heart to the golden seed which God's angels are waiting to sow in it. 

And one other thing; he must himself throughout these grey days go forth as a bringer of good tidings. There is so much despair that cries out for comfort; there is so much faint courage that needs to be reinforced; there is so much perplexity that yearns for reasons and meanings. 

Reaping the fruits of divine seeds 
God's messengers, who have themselves reaped the fruits of divine seeds sown even in the darkest hours, know how to wait for the fullness of harvest. Patience and faith are needed, not because we believe in the earth, or in our stars, or our temperament or our good disposition, but because we have received the message of God's herald angel and have our selves encountered him.

Go to next meditation > True Happiness

> The People of Advent
> True Happiness
> God Alone Suffices
> The name Jesus
> No Death Can Kill Us
> Aim at Heaven with All your Strength
> I Must Take the Other Road

[Selection from The Prison Meditations of Father Alfred Delp, with an Introduction by Thomas Merton (New York: Herder and Herder, 1963)]


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