“It is difficult to sum up the year now ending in a few words. So much has happened during this year and yet I cannot see what its real message is for me, or its real achievement….Hardship and hunger and violence have intensified and are now more shattering than anyone could have imagined.”
With left hand chained (his guard allowed the right hand enough slack that he could slip his writing hand free), Alfred Delp, S.J. recorded these words from Berlin’s Tegel Prison on December 31, 1944. Delp’s prison meditations, written the winter before his execution on February 2, 1945, can effectively lead us into a New Year’s examination of conscience in light of 2020’s passing, with its pandemic and political woes not yet ended.
Alfred Delp was born in 1907 in Mannheim, Germany. He was raised by a Lutheran father and a Catholic mother. Educated in Protestant schools as a boy, he was confirmed a Lutheran but after a conflict with the priest, sought reception into the Catholic Church.
A bright and athletic student, he became a Jesuit in 1926 and was ordained a priest in 1937.
The Third Reich killed at least 152 Jesuits for their opposition to Adolph Hitler’s hateful regime. Alfred Delp was one of them.
Delp was an intellectual. Studying theology in the Netherlands when the Nazis rose to power, he (along with his professor Hugo Rahner and fellow students and future heavyweight theologians Hans Urs von Balthasar and Karl Rahner) envisioned a publication, The Rebuilding, that would line out an alternative way of being to the German people, one rooted in a Christian humanism that could oppose racism and address the varying needs of individuals, communities and families in a political society.
The focus of his life was always to live and articulate a faith lived for Jesus Christ in communion with his Church, yet his dual background made Delp an advocate for a robust ecumenism with fellow Christians of varying theological roots.
His life shows, at many turns, both the joy and the cost of making Christ the center of one’s life.
Returning to Germany, Delp wrote for and edited the Jesuit journal Stimmen der Zeit (“Voices of the Times”) until the Nazis shut it down. He secretly helped Jews escape the country.
Around 1941 Delp made a decision that ultimately cost him his life. He joined the clandestine Kreisau Circle, a resistance salon that united Protestant and Catholics as well as socialists and conservatives in common cause: a “democratic, anti-racist and internationalist” opposition to the Nazis.
Founded by the Protestant jurist Helmuth von Moltke, the group’s aim was in line with The Rebuilding’s vision: creating a just German reorganization after the war.
Father Delp’s role was to connect Catholic leaders open to the cause. He also contributed to the group’s understanding of Catholic social teaching, the doctrines and papal teaching applying Christian principles to social questions regarding human rights and dignity.
For the Nazis, however, the very assumption that the Reich could be defeated was treasonous.
Alfred Delp was not involved in Operation Valkyrie, a 1944 plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler, but in the aftermath of associated arrests, he was taken and transferred to Berlin’s Tegel Prison (where the great Lutheran pastor and activist Dietrich Bonhoeffer had also been held).
Delp would write his final Advent meditations as well as diary entries and letters in one of Tegel’s narrow cells.
Delp’s life story is heartbreakingly rich with great souls.
At his January trial, Delp was aquitted of participation in the assassination plot, but the Reich’s animosity against Jesuit activism would be aimed directly at him. He would comment that his crime amounted to being a Jesuit, because the Nazis offered him freedom if he would renounce his order. He refused.
The Nazis hung him on February 2, 1945. They scattered his ashes over a manure field.
Delp’s intense fidelity to Christ tells me I have far to go in living an authentic Christian life, but it spurs me to consider what needs to change to make Christ my absolute center as he did.
Father Delp’s prison meditations, in the edition with an introduction by Thomas Merton, begin with his thoughts at the end of a year that wasn’t just difficult, but one of absolute terror. He writes as a pastor and spiritual guide.
He writes to “you, whoever you are.”
“Human beings must approach the God-made-man with reverence and adoration – disenthralling themselves in order to find themselves. It is the only way.”
Disenthralling self in order to find our true selves. It is not hard to understand why Merton, the great writer on the true and false self, found Father Delp’s writing so important. Published in 1963, Merton’s introduction to The Prison Meditations of Father Delp calls his own generation to account for self-centered apathy:
No longer alive with passionate convictions, but centered on his own empty and alienated self, man becomes destructive, negative, violent.
“The Church’s mission in the world today,” Merton asserts, “is a desperate one of helping create conditions in which man can return to himself, recover something of his lost humanity, as a necessary preparation for his ultimate return to God.”
Delp’s meditations sparkle with serious hope. “The first thing a man must do if he wants to raise himself out of this sterile life,” the man in shackles tells us, “is to open his heart to the golden seed which God’s angels are waiting to sow in it:
…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 ourselves encountered him.
“Sentenced to death, awaiting execution, Fr. Delp didn’t waste his time hating,” writes Heather King.
“He hoped, he wrestled with his conscience, he asked forgiveness, he apologized to all those to whom he had been unkind, unfair, and prideful.”
“I will honestly and patiently await God’s will. I will trust him till they come to fetch me,” he wrote. “I will do my best to ensure that this blessing, too, shall not find me broken and in despair.”
In light of Delp’s prison writings, the end of 2020 and the dawn of 2021 leave me painfully aware of my addiction to comfort, my many compromises with the truth of Christ, and most of all my inability to love my neighbor as myself.
They move me to work toward a more consistent application of the gospel in my life, to discard the insane partisan bickering and emotional grandstanding that have replaced serious reflection in our culture. To seek, whether a given cause seems to be favored by the left or the right, a consistent ethic rooted in an unwavering defense of the human person.
They inspire me to pray for the grace to walk in the self-emptying love that drove Alfred Delp, SJ to put his life on the line for God and for the humanity that he loved with his very life.
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Related post: Flight From Norway: Fascinating Facts about Sigrid Undset Part 2, about how Undset, author of the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy for which she won a Nobel Prize, opposed Hitler with her pen and was forced to leave her homeland until the war was over.
This post is a rich gathering of photos and quotes for anyone wishing to learn more about Father Delp.
Looking for a soundtrack to inspire your quest for integrity in the new year? You might start with Kevin Heider’s new EP, Make an Honest Stand (released last October). The title track, “Think about Somebody Else” has been my theme song all winter, but every song on the EP contains words to live by. If you’re not following Heider’s work (including his Song & Story podcast, now is the perfect time.