The life and witness of Alfred Delp are less familiar among First Things readers than I had thought. Several wrote to say they had not heard of him at all. Others asked why he should have been executed for refusing to resign from the Jesuits. Father Delp’s own letter, written from his cell to fellow Jesuits after sentence had been passed, answers that question. The letter contains the marrow of the man, the grandeur of his steadfastness and greatness of heart. The words themselves are grace-bestowing:
Here I am at the parting of the ways and I must take the other road after all. The sentence has been passed and the atmosphere is so charged with enmity and hatred that no appeal has any hope of succeeding.
I thank the Order and my brethren for all their goodness and loyalty and help, especially during these last weeks. I ask pardon for much that was untrue and unjust; and I beg that a little help and care may be given to my aged, sick parents.
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.
May God shield you all. I ask for your prayers. And I will do my best to catch up, on the other side, with all that I have left undone here on earth.
Towards noon I will celebrate Mass once more and then in God’s name take the road under his providence and guidance.
In God’s blessing and protection,
Alfred Delp, S.J.
It is left unspecified what Delp meant by his reference to “much that was untrue and unjust.” But the comment is of a piece with earlier, generalized confessions of unworthiness for his own lapses. Humility sharpens toward the end. And the harrowing end in which he found himself —to which he surrendered himself—left no room for pietistic evasion:
The devil. Yes there is not only evil in this world, there is also the evil one; not only a principle of negation but also a tough and formidable anti-Christ. Man must give thought to the fact that he must distinguish between the spirits. And to the fact that wherever self is stressed—as in strength that glories in its own might, power that idolizes itself, life that aims at “fulfilling itself—in its own way and by its own resources, in all these, not the truth, but the negation of truth may be suspected.
And there is only one thing a man can really do about it—fall down on his knees and pray. Only after ten long years—ten years too late—do I fully realize this.
You and I are awash these days in devotional writing. Mass market piety drips like sugared water down the page. The pamphlet press smiles and strokes. But Delp’s writing is of another order entirely. His words were formed at the edge of the precipice, death grinning in his face. There is a fragrance to these prison meditations. The odor of his own dying was in his nostrils as he wrote. Yet he did so with a sublime conviction—“Trust life. . . . God lives it with us.”—for which I have no gloss. I can only genuflect.