Advent With Alfred Delp

Before bishops take possession of their dioceses they are to take an oath of fealty either to the Reich Representative of the State concerned, or to the President of the Reich, according to the following formula: “Before God and on the Holy Gospels I swear and promise as becomes a bishop, loyalty to the German Reich . . . . In the performance of my spiritual office and in my solicitude for the welfare and the interests of the German Reich, I will endeavor to avoid all detrimental acts which might endanger it.”
 Article 16, Reich Concordat, 1933

Two books hold pride of place on my shelves. They stand next to each other, never separated in my possession or my thoughts. One is Gordon Zahn’s In Solitary Witness: the Life and Death of Franz Jäggersttäter. Its twin is The Prison Meditations of Father Delp, with an introduction by Thomas Merton.

Fr. Delp, on trial at Gestapo headquarters.
Fr. Delp, on trial at Gestapo headquarters.

Jägerstätter, a farmer and married father of four, resisted the advice of his own bishop in defying the Third Reich. Delp, a Jesuit and editor of Stimmen der Zeit, was associated with the Kreisau Circle dedicated to re-Christianizing society upon the collapse of Hitler’s regime. For challenging the collective delusion of their era, Jägerstätter was beheaded in Brandenburg prison in 1943; Delp was hanged two years later at Plötzensee.

Both were cremated by official order, their ashes broadcast on the wind. The Reich took care to leave no martyr’s relic to venerate, no burial place to mark. Jägerstätter was beatified in Linz in 2007; Delp, not so. (John Paul II passed over him for the more prominent Rupert Mayer, S.J., when he beatified Edith Stein in 1997.)

Franz Jägerstäter
Franz Jägerstäter

For the moment, stay with Fr. Delp. We are in Advent now. And no one has written about the liturgical season as powerfully as he, a man who came to see life itself as a continuous Advent. Manacled in his cell, he could write only when his fetters were secretly unlocked or loosely fastened. Awaiting death, he had time only for the essentials: the question of man and the renunciations that awaken him to his true purpose. In God alone does man become fully man and find his End:

Advent is the time for rousing. Man is shaken to the very depths, so that he may wake to the truth of himself. . . . The kind of awakening that literally shocks man’s whole being is part and parcel of the Advent idea. . . . Life only begins when the whole framework is shaken.

The gallows at Plötzensee. Photographed in 2011, this is where Fr. Delp was hanged.
The gallows at Plötzensee. Photographed in 2011, this is where Fr. Delp was hanged.

Delp reflects on three symbols bearing the Advent message: the voice crying in the wilderness, the herald angel, and Mary. Here, the herald angel:

Never have I entered on Advent so vitally and intensely alert as I am now. When I pace my cell, up an 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 quite a different and much more vivid meaning. And my mind keeps going back to the angel someone gave me 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 . . . 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. . . .

The 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.

In the mounting loneliness of his cell, Delp addresses himself to you and me (“if ever these pages find you”):

Let us kneel and pray for clear vision, that we may recognize God’s messenger when he comes, and willing hearts to understand the words of warning. The world is greater than the burden it bears, and life is more than the sum-total of its grey days. . . . We must be our own comforters. The man who promises hope is himself a man of promise, of whom much may be expected.

Offered a reprieve if he resigned from the Jesuits, Delp refused. Instead, he held hope—even into his last hours—than the Russians would advance on Berlin in time to release him. “Can’t history come a little faster?” he asked the prison chaplain. On his way to the scaffold, Delp told him: “In half an hour, I’ll know more than you.”

In the shadow of execution, Delp kept a steady eye on the way spiritual questions masquerade as cultural or political ones. And he spoke down the decades to what lies concealed in our own Advent, caught in history’s labyrinth of cause and effect:

Among all the protagonists in the tragic drama of the modern world there is not one who fundamentally cares in the least what the Church says or does. We over-rated the Church’s political machine and let it run on long after its essential driving power had ceased to function. It makes absolutely no difference, so far the beneficial influence of the Church is concerned, whether a state maintains diplomatic relation with the Vatican or not. The only thing that really matters is the inherent power of the Church as a religious force in the countries concerned.

The guillotine was a fixture in Reich prisons. This, in Plötzensee, was identical to Brandenburg’s.
The guillotine was a fixture in Reich prisons. This, in Plötzensee, was identical to Brandenburg’s.

As Merton reminded, Delp died for his Church, obedient unto death. For that reason, we approach his words with heightened attention and deep respect. And the words are sober, unsentimental. These are among the hardest:

A Church that makes demands in the name of a peremptory God no longer carries weight in a world of changing values. The new generation is separated from the clear conclusions of traditional theology by a great mountain of boredom and disillusion thrown up by past experience. We have destroyed man’s confidence in us by the way we live. We cannot expect two thousand years of history to be an unmixed blessing and recommendation. History can be a handicap too.  .  .  . At some future date the honest historian will have some bitter things to say about the contribution of the Churches to the creation of the mass mind, of collectivism, dictatorships and so on.

Six months of beatings, hunger, and solitary confinement stripped him of patience with facile pieties and the shelter of easy gestures. He read a little Eckhart every day, advancing alone into what Johannes Metz termed a mysticism of open eyes.

Seven decades separate Delp’s Advent from ours. His era is over. Yet its desolations, presumptions, and perils survive in other guises. His legacy is a living thing that cries to be heeded. On Christmas Eve, 1944, he scratched into the wall with shackled hands: Trust life. We do not live it alone. God lives it with us.