17 December 2011

An Advent Voice of Hope from Nazi Germany: Fr Alfred Delp SJ

Stamp issued in West Germany 1964

I used to own a copy of The Prison Meditations of Alfred Delp SJ but lost it somewhere along the way while being transferred from one place to another. Jenny Howell, of the Center for Christian Ethics, Baylor University, Waco, Texas, writes her reflections on these writings here. She uses the title under which Father Delp's writings have been more recently published by Ignatius Press, Advent of the Heart: Seasonal Sermons and Prison Writings.

I was born in Ireland on Hitler's birthday in 1943, just two years before World War II ended. Though independent Ireland wasn't involved directly in that conflict I have often wondered how the profoundly anti-Christian and anti-human Nazism took hold in a country that produced so many great saints and creators of beauty such as Beethoven, led by a man from the country that gave birth to Haydn and Mozart. (I once met a man in rural Kentucky who grew up in a community where Catholics were still perceived by some as having horns and cloven hooves and where classical music was hardly ever heard and who became a Catholic through the beauty of the music of those two composers when he discovered they were Catholics.)

This morning I received this article by email from a Columban colleague. I think it makes good Advent reading.

Father Alfred Delp, S.J.

Advent — A Season to Find Hope Amid Despair In The World

By Joseph F. Pisani [Editor, The Advocate and Greenwich Time]

On Christmas Eve 1944, shortly before the Allies began their final assault on Nazi Germany, a young Jesuit sat in solitary confinement in a Berlin prison, preparing a sermon he would never deliver.

Father Alfred Delp, 37, was an outspoken critic of the Nazis, who had been arrested five months before for treason and complicity in the July 20 plot to assassinate Hitler by exploding a bomb in his meeting room. For nine weeks, the priest endured interrogation and torture at the hands of the Gestapo, torture which he said left him little more than a "bleeding whimper."

Despite this degradation, he had perennial hope — a hope even the Nazis could not destroy — which he expressed in sermons that his friends smuggled out of prison.

Many of these essays were composed during his four months of solitary confinement in a small cubicle, where the guards constantly kept the lights on to compound his torment. But the priest didn't seem to care; strangely, adversity only made him stronger, and his example inspired other prisoners.

Delp, who was the rector of Saint George Church in Munich, had been a leader in the resistance movement, and worked as a link in an underground system that helped Jews flee the country. He was arrested following the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler, even though he wasn't part of the plot.

Despite his circumstances, he looked forward to celebrating Christmas Mass in his cell, and saw Advent as a reason to be hopeful in a terrorized world. To him, the season had special meaning, and he wrote, "Our hearts must be keenly alert for opportunities in our own little corners of daily life. May we stand in this world, not as people in hiding but as those who help prepare the way for the Son of God."

He often reflected on the need for courage in a world that had forgotten the meaning of Christmas. Isn't the same true today? Almost 65 years later, atrocities are still being committed, and hearts grow cold in the relentless pursuit of power, profit and possessions. We live in an age characterized by greed and gross insensitivity to suffering.

Delp was one of those principled men and women who appear in every generation and confront the insanity of a world dark with despair, illuminating the way for the rest of us. His example ignited the ideals of his fellow prisoners, who, by any reckoning, had no reason to be hopeful. The source of his strength was a realization that the child in the manger was greater than all the tyrants and totalitarian regimes in history.

In his last meditation, composed on Christmas Eve, a month before he would be hanged for treason, Delp wrote, "How many types of people today could honestly appear at the manger? Most of them have absolutely no desire to do so. The small, scanty door does not let anyone riding a high horse get through. ... How much of what we are living through today cannot stand in the presence of the Child!"

Even though the Nazis pressured him to leave the Jesuits, he resisted, and professed his final vows shortly before his execution on February 2, 1945. Facing death, he was in good spirits and joked with his confessor that, "In half an hour, I'll know more than you do."

During his last days, Delp wrote: "Whoever is true to life, however hard and barren it may be, will discover in himself fountains of very real refreshment. The world will give him more than he ever imagined possible. ... his burdens will turn to blessings because he recognizes them as coming from God and welcomes them as such. Let us trust in life because we do not have to live through it alone. God is with us."


Jenny Howell quotes Father Delp's initial reaction to his death sentence: “To be quite honest I don’t want to die, particularly now that I feel I could do more important work and deliver a new message about values that I have only just discovered and understood. But it has turned out otherwise.” Jenny Howell further quotes the priest, who made his final vows as a Jesuit in his prison cell (the Nazis offered him a reprieve if he left the Jesuits): “This is seed-time, not harvest. God sows the seed and some time or other he will do the reaping. The only thing I must do is to make sure the seed falls on fertile ground.May others at some future time find it possible to have a better and happier life because we died in this hour of trial.”
I recall from memory that Father Delp, who was ordained priest in 1937, wrote in his final letter, to his parents, I think, 'I die because I am a Jesuit'. As a priest I have always been inspired by those words.
Like another great martyr, St Thomas More, he was able to joke as he was about to be executed, saying to the prison chaplain, 'In half an hour, I'll know more than you do!'

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