Have you ever had the experience of discovering someone who then repeatedly reappears in the most unexpected places? For me, the German Jesuit Alfred Delp is like that. If you don’t recognise his name, don’t worry: I had never heard of him before I accidentally discovered his extraordinary photograph some eight years ago. A similar thing has happened several times since, including yesterday, when, in actual fact, I was searching for information on the Philippine volcano,
No. As far as I know, there is no association whatsoever apart from the fact
that Delp and Pinatubo occupied time and space on Planet Earth… and there is
that photograph again!
Let me explain. The photograph shows a courtroom in
in January 1945. The room is filled with military, all in Prussian uniform.
Several men in collars and ties are seated amongst the soldiers – except for
one. He stands erect, smartly dressed in a suit and tie and, to all intents and
purposes, looking as though he is addressing an academic meeting. There is a
paper on the desk in front of him, a pen in his jacket pocket and he holds his
hands as though about to make some salient point, or to remove his glasses. It
is hard to believe that this dark photograph shows a priest on trial for his
life after six months of imprisonment, solitary confinement and repeated
beatings during his prolonged interrogation.
Initially accused of knowing of the von Stauffenberg plot to overthrow Hitler, Delp was eventually found guilty of meeting people who talked of a Hitler-free
Germany. The Kreisau Circle, of which he was a member,
was an anti-Nazi group which laid plans for a new social order built on
Christian principles. Delp was arrested in Munich
on 28 July 1944 (eight days after von Stauffenberg's attempt on Hitler's life),
and transferred to Tegel Prison in Berlin.
On 16 December 1944, Delp wrote of his imprisonment:
How am I doing? There's not much to say... What used to be called elegance and self-confidence has all been completely and utterly crushed. Painfully. Don't worry - I'm going to try hard not to break down, even if I have to go to the gallows. I know that God's strength is with me the whole way. But it's sometimes really quite tough.... God has now put me in a place where I can't get out... So here I've been put now, handcuffed and locked in a narrow cell. There are only two ways out: one is through the gallows into the light of God, and the other, through a miracle, into a new mission… We're taken outside for an hour and in a bull-headed manner are led around in a circle, closely watched, with guns, etc… So then we walk around in the circle, handcuffed, counts and civil servants, officers and labourers, diplomats and economists. At some corners you can speak toward the wall and the person behind hears you. That's how conversations take place..."
Whilst in prison, the Gestapo offered Delp freedom if he would leave the Jesuits. His response? On 8 December 1944, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, he made his Final Profession as a Jesuit, repeating his vows to Fr Franz von Tattenbach SJ. This was supposedly forbidden and probably endangered von Tattenbach just as much as Delp himself, but the guards did not understand what was happening. No doubt the two priests did not enlighten them! That same day, he wrote, “It was too much. What a fulfilment! I prayed for it so much: I gave my life away. My chains are now without any meaning, because God found me worthy of the ‘Vincula amoris’ (chains of love).
In January 1945, Delp made his appearance in court before a judge who was a Nazi ‘who hated Christianity, hated the Catholic Church and hated Jesuits above all’. The verdict was a foregone conclusion, as was the sentence imposed.
The condemned man wrote to his fellow Jesuits on 11 January 1945:
The actual reason for my condemnation was that I happened to be, and chose to remain, a Jesuit. There was nothing to show that I had any connection with the attempt on Hitler's life, so I was acquitted on that count ... The rest of the accusations were far less serious and more factual. There was one underlying theme - a Jesuit is a priori an enemy and betrayer of the Reich... So the whole proceedings turned into a sort of comedy developing a theme. It was not justice - it was simply the carrying out of the determination to destroy.
Three weeks later, on the feast celebrating the Presentation of the Infant Jesus in the Temple, Alfred Delp presented himself before his executioners and then before the Lord for whom he had lived and died. Sixty-three days after his death, on 8 May 1945, the Germans surrendered unconditionally to Allied forces.
‘On 2 February, aged 37, he was taken to the Plötzensee Prison and that afternoon, in a room that is now a shrine, he was hanged from a meat hook in the ceiling. He was then cremated and his ashes were scattered over human sewage, as was required for traitors. His few possessions were collected together and presented to his mother who kept them under her bed in a suitcase until she died in 1967.’
Those few words of Fr Michael Holman SJ, Provincial of the
are an amazingly brief summary of what many believe was martyrdom. In fact,
Delp wrote in one of his final letters, "Don't let my mother tell 'pious
legends' about me; I was a brat." Was he? A ‘brat’ does not normally die
as a martyr. There was obviously considerably more to Delp than the naughty
Delp died because he was a Jesuit and refused to renounce his Companionship to a crucified Lord. During the time of his imprisonment, he managed to offer Mass, using bread and wine that friends smuggled into his cell, hidden in clean laundry. He was a priest and remained so until the end. His last words were a quiet joke to the prison chaplain, Fr Peter Buchholz, who escorted him to his execution: “In half an hour, I'll know more than you do.”
Why are martyrs so important to our lives of faith? Is it easier to ‘go out in a blaze of glory’ or to face the daily and less spectacular martyrdom of daily life? Some people experience suffer so much in the course of life that they can, literally, be described as undergoing a slow martyrdom. Yet martyrdom is never an easy option. Neither is it necessarily over and done with in an instant. Torture tests the strongest physical and spiritual reserves.
A different type of courage is required for martyrdom. Perhaps that is why, during his trial, Fr Alfred Delp SJ stood, head held high, prepared to accompany Jesus to the Cross. Without the Cross, there could be no Resurrection. A priest to the end, he offered himself in sacrifice and was also suspended between heaven and earth. In his own words, Delp’s death was “the time of sowing, not of harvesting. God is sowing; one day He will harvest again. I will try to do one thing. I will try to at least be a healthy and fruitful seed, falling into the soil. And into the Lord God's hand."