2013/January 2014 - Vol. 71
in the Face of Death
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
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 President
Association and a senior woman 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