Remembering Father Alfred Delp, S.J., Priest and Martyr: A Conversation with Father Karl Adolf Kreuser, S.J. | IgnatiusInsight.com
The Ignatius Press publication of Father Alfred Delp's collected Advent writings, Advent of the Heart, happens to coincide with the centennial year of the author's birth. On September 15, 2006, the German Jesuits began a jubilee year of remembrance to mark the upcoming one-hundredth birthday of the Jesuit martyr, Alfred Delp (September 15, 1907-February 2, 1945). Special commemorative events are scheduled throughout the coming year in Mannheim, where he was born and baptized; in Lampertheim, where he grew up; and at St. Georg and Heilig Blut (Precious Blood) Churches, in the Bogenhausen district of Munich, where he last worked.
Father Karl Adolf Kreuser, S.J., who contributed a Foreword to Advent of the Heart, grew up in Heilig Blut Parish and knew Father Delp personally. Born in 1927, Father Kreuser's memories of his home parish include the original parish church of St. Georg, the construction of the new Heilig Blut Church in 1934, its destruction by Allied bombs in 1943, as well as its postwar rebuilding. Moreover, he remembers the four martyrs who belonged to the parish and who continue to be honored by plaques on the west wall of St. Georg Church. Heilig Blut is the same parish where, in 1951, the young, newly-ordained Joseph Ratzinger served his first assignment, under the same pastor that Father Delp also served under, Father Max Blumschein (1898-1965).
Father Delp became good friends with the Kreuser family, so Father Kreuser remembers him not only as an inspiring preacher and youth group leader, but also as a "fatherly friend". As an "eyewitness" to the Nazi era, Father Kreuser has shared his memories with countless individuals, groups, and classes of schoolchildren, inspiring old and young alike with what we can learn from the heroes and prophets of those challenging times. As the translation of Father Delp's Advent writings was in preparation, Father Kreuser answered the following questions to provide valuable background information. He has kindly given permission to publish this conversation.
When did you first meet Father Delp?
Father Kreuser: It was early in 1941, when I was fourteen years old. The Jesuits in Munich had been tipped off that the government was planning to seize the building that housed the Jesuit magazine, Stimmen der Zeit. That was where Father Delp and the other staff members also were living. Therefore, arrangements for both housing and work were planned for all of those priests, in preparation for possible loss of the property. The plan was for Father Delp to move into the old rectory beside St. Georg Church. And my father sent me to move Delp's books from the Stimmen der Zeit building on Veterinaerstraße. Of course, this had to be done very secretly, because no one was supposed to know anything about the possible seizure. I was young enough that no one paid any attention to me as I walked with a wagon back and forth between the Veterinaerstraße and Bogenhausen. I would pull my wagon through the English Garden (a park in Munich), load it up with Father Delp's books, and haul it back through the park to St. Georg's rectory. This kind of advance preparation meant that when the Gestapo came to seize the buildings on April 18, 1941, everyone had already moved out the most important things.
After that, Father Delp was assigned as Rector of St. Georg Church and also worked at your family's parish, Heilig Blut (Precious Blood)?
Father Kreuser: Well, it is actually all one parish. St. Georg is a very small, baroque church surrounded by a cemetery. As the surrounding area became more populated, it was too small, so a new parish church was built. In 1934, the new, larger Heilig Blut Church was completed and became the parish church. Father Max Blumschein was the pastor of the parish from 1925-1956, and, from 1942-1944, his assistant was Father Hermann Joseph Wehrle. Father Delp preached, gave religious instruction, and worked with the youth of the parish. Under the Nazis, there were increasing restrictions on public religious instruction, so he organized groups that met in family homes. He not only taught us about faith and morals, he taught us to really examine what was going on politically at the time.
Right after he came to Bogenhausen, he helped with the first "resistance" action of the parish youth. During the summer vacation of 1941, all crucifixes had been removed from the classrooms of Munich schools. Some mothers from the parish bought crucifixes to replace them. The mothers hung them in the elementary school, while a group of youth did the same at the high school. Beforehand, Father Delp had blessed the crucifixes, and on the morning of "Operation Crucifix", he dropped a postcard to my mother into our mailbox. On one side was a picture of David with his slingshot, and on the back he had written the message: "Pelt them good!"
After we replaced all the crucifixes, it wasn't long before the authorities responded. There was great outrage, the crucifixes were removed again, and the "guilty parties" were suspended from school for a couple of weeks. My father then arranged for Delp to tutor me in Latin and Greek, to keep me from falling too far behind while "on furlough". I got to know another side of him then. As a teacher, Father Delp was very strict. He didn't have a lot of patience, and would give me a rap on the head with his knuckles when frustrated by my lack of understanding. So he was human, with failings like everyone has.
That brings up a related question. Although, obviously, Father Delp had faults and failings, there is a rather troubling unidentified quote floating around the internet. It says of Father Delp, "He lived as a sinner and died as a martyr." Do you know who might have said that? It seems rather outrageous.
Father Kreuser: You're right, indeed it is incongruous, if not, as you say, outrageous. As expressed in German, I do not recognize it, and I know far too little English to really understand the quote.
Well, after all, we are all probably more or less great sinners and must mature into saints. If one could understand it in this way:
"Born a poor, sinful human being; in and with the grace of God, matured into a holy martyr!"
then it would come very close to the words of Father Delp: "Only together with God is man human!"
What was the friendship between Father Delp and your family like?
Father Kreuser: My father had met Delp a few years before he moved to Bogenhausen, when he was looking for help for a man who had been released from a concentration camp. After Delp moved to St. Georg, he would visit our house often. In our family, we always prayed together in the evenings, and often Father Delp or some other priest was present when it was time to pray. Then my father would always, in closing, ask the priest to bless us. So there were many times that Father Delp gave us this evening blessing.
He also came over to our house regularly to listen to the news. Because he was under surveillance, it would have been far too dangerous to keep in the rectory a radio capable of picking up foreign frequencies. One memory that stands out is how he and my father would let me listen with them to the "enemy broadcasting" (radio news from outside Germany). I knew it was something forbidden, but only later did I realize how dangerous that really was. I am still amazed at the extent of their trust, that they included me in that.
When did the bombings begin to affect you and your parish?
Father Kreuser: That would have been September of 1942. And Father Delp was always ready to help afterwards. He would ride through the whole parish on his bicycle, checking to be sure people were all right and helping where he could. It was the next year, October 1943, that Heilig Blut Church got hit and burned to the ground. Our house got hit then too, and Father Delp came to help. After that the family felt even closer to him.
What was it like to hear Father Delp preach?
Father Kreuser: It was thrilling. The church would be full. And after the loss of the larger church building, the little church of St. Georg was even more crowded than before; not everyone could get in. He really had something to say to the people living in that difficult time. And his words are prophetic. Looking through his writings, you find many statements that apply just as much to our lives today as they did when he first preached them over sixty years ago. He was prophetic, and we should pay more attention to what he said.
It's interesting, by the way, to look at the length of some of his sermons. I took a look at his sermon for the sacrament of Baptism, for instance. You'll see that it is seventeen pages long. Nobody would endure a sermon that long nowadays. But back then, we were so happy to hear such a sermon that we came back again and again, because his sermons gave us a solid foundation for our faith. We would go home with a great sense of hope. And we would even come back in the evening to hear him speak again.
What did he speak about when he preached in the evenings?
Father Kreuser: There were talks for the seasons of Advent and Lent. Or he would do a series on a particular theme. I can still remember his series on the Seven Sacraments very well. I especially liked his sermon on the Sacrament of Matrimony. I still use an excerpt from it at every wedding I assist at. It is a wonderful text that radiates Father Delp's optimism. Father Delp was not just a prophet, he was also a shepherd, who took us by the hand and led us to the Lord God.
In his Advent sermons, there are certain words and phrases that seem characteristic of him. For example, the need to wake up, the experience of being deeply shaken, so that "man will wake up to himself". Do you remember that?
Father Kreuser: Oh, yes, that was something he mentioned often. A shaking that goes to the heart, right down to the bones. A sudden awakening. Something that would force people to wake up and come to their senses. "Come on! Let's go! Wake up!"
What would you say is the most important theme or topic in Father Delp's writings?
Father Kreuser: Man himself: "der Mench". That is absolutely the great theme throughout all of his writings. If you look through any of his books, you will find it on almost every page. That was his great concern. That man is only truly human when he lives in relationship with God. And that message is just as valid for our times as when he first preached it. His words were prophetic.
What was it like for you and your family when Father Delp was arrested?
Father Kreuser: At the time of his arrest, I had already been drafted into military service at the age of sixteen as an anti-aircraft auxiliary, so I heard about it from a distance. I was stationed together with other youth from our parish because assignments were according to the high school one went to. We were all furious to hear that he had been arrested and was in prison.
After Father Delp's arrest, my parents took his mother into our home. It was a hard time for her, and they didn't want her to go through it alone. At that time his two brothers were missing in action. Also, his father was in the hospital--because of injuries from World War I, his father had been a semi-invalid for a long time. So he was in the hospital. What's more, the family's home in Lampertheim had been bombed, so she couldn't live there anymore. So Mother Delp came to us and became very close to our family. When Father Tattenbach visited Delp in Berlin, he would come to our house afterwards and tell her about the visit. The secret messages Delp sent from prison often came first to us, and were sorted, and then secretly passed on to the various people they were addressed to. I tell you, we would read his messages to us over and over. It was something that really impressed us, that he--as a prisoner, with his hands in handcuffs--would write personal greetings to his friends, that he was remembering us in prayer and sending his blessing.
It was in our home that Mother Delp learned the terrible news of her son's execution. Father Blumschein came and broke the news to her. Remember, it was not an easy time for him, either. As a pastor, he lost two priests, both martyred: Father Wehrle on September 14, 1944, and Father Delp on February 2, 1945.
And, like Father Delp, Father Wehrle also stood trial before the same Judge Freisler and was also executed in Berlin...
Father Kreuser: That's right. They were very different types, Delp and Wehrle, and of course the two cases were very different. But both of them became martyrs. Delp had always been cautious around Wehrle, saying one could not say anything political around him, because he was too fearful. Nevertheless, when he was on trial, Wehrle had the courage to stand up to Judge Freisler and say that Hitler was a tyrant. There is actual film of the trial that shows Wehrle standing before the judge, as Freisler asks, "Are you saying that the Fuehrer is a tyrant?"
And Wehrle says, "Yes, he is a tyrant."
He knew it would mean the death sentence for him, but he spoke out. As it says in the Scriptures, do not worry about what you will say, the Holy Spirit will give you the words. That is absolutely how it was then.
And now, on the west side of St. Georg Church, you can see there are four memorial plaques, honoring the four martyrs of the parish: two priests and two laymen.
In early 1990, Heilig Blut Parish submitted a petition and documents for the beatification of both Father Delp and Father Wehrle to the Archbishop of Munich, who forwarded the material to Berlin, as the diocese where they were martyred. Do you have any current information about the status of the beatification process for Father Delp?
Father Kreuser: No, I don't. However, in the early Church, the declaration of sainthood was made by the community of believers, rather than the process we have today. In that sense, I like to recall that, in our large family, after February 2, 1945, the family evening prayers were concluded with the petition: "Dear Father Alfred and Father Wehrle, pray for us!"
How did you and the other young people to react to the news of Father Delp's death?
Father Kreuser: It was very hard. Not just sadness, but also great anger. And we said, "He is a martyr." His courage throughout his imprisonment, each step of the way saying yes to God, even when it led him to the gallows, his sacrifice gave his words the character of testimony, the witness of a martyr.
What was Father Delp's greatest influence on your life?
Father Kreuser: I would say, above all, that I owe my vocation to the Society of Jesus to him. And when I left home to enter the Order, his mother gave me his rosary. It is the rosary he received when he entered the Order, the one he had with him when he was in prison. After the execution, a fellow prisoner went into his cell at Ploetzensee Prison and found three things on the table: the book, Imitation of Christ, his glasses, and his rosary. When the war was over, that former prisoner brought these items to Delp's mother. And she gave me the rosary. I still have it.
Interview and translation from the German by Abtei St. Walburg.
Alfred Delp: Priest and Martyr | Advent of the Heart
Seasonal Sermons and Prison Writings, 1941-1944
Fr. Alfred Delp was a German Jesuit priest who was imprisoned in Berlin. At the time of his arrest, he was the Rector of St. Georg Church in Munich, and had a reputation for being a gripping, dynamic preacher, and one who was an outspoken critic of the Nazi regime. He was an important figure in the Resistance movement against Nazism.
Accused of conspiring against the Nazi government, he was arrested in 1944, tortured, imprisoned, and executed on Feb 2, 1945. While in prison, Fr. Delp was able to write a few meditations found in this book, which also includes his powerful reflections from prison during the Advent season about the profound spiritual meaning and lessons of Advent, as well as his sermons he gave on the season of Advent at his parish in Munich. These meditations were smuggled out of Berlin and read by friends and parishioners of St. Georg in Munich.
His approach to Advent, the season that prepares us for Christmas, is what Fr. Delp called an "Advent of the heart." More than just preparing us for Christmas, it is a spiritual program, a way of life. He proclaimed that our personal, social and historical circumstances, even suffering, offer us entry into the true Advent, our personal journey toward a meeting and dialogue with God. Indeed, his own life, and great sufferings, illustrated the true Advent he preached and wrote about.
From his very prison cell he presented a timeless spiritual message, and in an extreme situation, his deep faith gave him the courage to draw closer to God, and to witness to the truth even at the cost of his own life. These meditations will challenge and inspire all Christians to embark upon that same spiritual journey toward union with God, a journey that will transform our lives.
"As one of the last witnesses who knew Fr. Alfred Delp personally, I am very pleased this book will make him better known in America. The more one reads his writings, the more one clearly recognizes the prophetic message for our times! Like his contemporary, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Delp ranks among the great prophets who endured the horror of Nazism and handed down a powerful message for our times." -- Karl Kreuser, S.J., from the Foreword
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