Faithful Even Unto Death: The Witness of Alfred Delp, S.J. | Fr. Albert Münch
Editor's Note: 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 February 2, 1945. While in prison, Fr. Delp was able to write a few meditations found in Advent of the Heart: Seasonal Sermons and Prison Writings, 1941-1944, 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. Last year marked the 100th anniversary of Fr. Delp's birth and the 70th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood.
The following article contains some of the thoughts and recollections of Fr. Albert Münch, a close friend of Fr. Delp. It was first published in Reden und Ansprachen zum Gedenken an Pater Alfred Delp, S.J., Hammerich, Lampertheim, 1975, vol. 1, pp. 13-26. Translation from the German by Abtei St. Walburg.
Personal experiences with Alfred Delp
As you know, he was born in the year 1907 in Mannheim and then moved with his family to Lampertheim. The local pastor, Father Unger, helped him to go to high school in order start him on the way to a career that would be "suitable" for him. I met him in Dieburg, at the diocesan seminary for boys, and attended my last two years of high school there with him.
I can tell you a few things about him: Delp was a difficult person; he was always restless, but he fit with his times. If, today, we say that youth are restless and that, in the past, they were different--that is nonsense. In the past, the youth were also restless. And even in the youth movement, in which we were both involved—he with "Neudeutchland", I with "Quickborn"—there was plenty of unrest. However, one thing was certain: We always met one another on a common foundation. We knew where to find our footing. We were people who were believers, for whom the Lord God was in no way a problem, but rather, a part of life. Faith gave us security, and we never tried any kind of hairsplitting, either, over faith, or its deepest meaning, or the Lord God. We tried to envision man and the world in such a way that they fit in with these thoughts of God. That was the most important thing.
Also, there was something else besides this, a second foundation. Back then, the youth movement had a great idea: We wanted to get out into nature, to see in it the will of the Creator, and to live out of His Creation. Our hiking and camping trips came from this idea, and often we would hike from Dieburg to Breuberg, through the forests of the Odenwald. In Breuberg, we met with Dr. Gottron, a dear friend and youth leader, who gave us an introduction into the liturgy, Vespers, and devotions. The singing of the Psalms there remains something unforgettable.
Those were two foundations, and today, when we look back on Father Delp's life, we can say that these were two points he never forgot. He stood by them and, we can say, they were simply the Christian attitude, or simply a matter of course in his life. He never turned aside from them.
He graduated with us in 1926. Let me look back once more to the time before graduation. Alfred Delp could not be still, as I said. His whole personality, his mind and spirit sparkled. Therefore, there were often discussions, even in the school with our teachers. Although we did not want to criticize them at all, they often had their own pace, their own way. They often wanted no change. And it was Alfred, of course, his mind bubbling over with ideas, who would interrupt in a way that was fun. And many times, when he spoke that way, his speech got ahead of him, you might say, and kept on going. He often floundered just because his train of thought was already too far ahead, before the thought was verbalized.
The same thing showed up in his handwriting. I love to recall the moment when our German teacher said: "Delp, buy yourself a typewriter, at long last! I can no longer read anything you write." For when he wrote, his mind went on ahead and entire lines came out almost like a stenograph, which nobody could read except him. Thus, one can say he had a scintillating mind and, even back then, a restless spirit that looked further ahead. However, he was someone who had foundations, who stood for something. For him, the foundation would remain unquestionable throughout all of his struggles and all of the difficulties he would have to experience.
Vocation and ordination
After graduation, he went to Munich to the Jesuits. Another friend went with him, but soon left the Order. One classmate went to Würzburg and studied theology there. Unfortunately, as a pastoral assistant, the friend from Würzburg had a fatal motorcycle accident when a child ran into the street. I went to Mainz. The classmate who withdrew from the Jesuit Order became a physician. Delp studied and worked in Munich. In the Jesuit Order, one had to be thirty years old for ordination, but he was not idle during this waiting period. As early as the year 1935, he wrote a book: Tragic Existence. He wrote it in opposition to the fashionable philosophy of Heidegger. Not only the godlessness, but modern man's "incapability of God", must be seen, for that was the tragedy of the time. Delp saw this and worked it into his writings for Stimmen der Zeit. He wrote articles, books, and tried to navigate his way through.
It was in 1937, on June 24 in Munich, that we saw one another again. He was ordained to the priesthood there by the well-known Cardinal Faulhaber. I think we can say that Delp was pleased to be ordained by such a famous person who stood up and fought in those times.
Here in Saint Andreas Church, we celebrated his first Holy Mass. We were together again, but would very soon go our separate ways. Meanwhile, many things had happened. If I may say a couple of personal things, it will perhaps give a clearer view of those times. Oh, yes, you can hear how people make accusations: "Why didn't the people resist?" Anyone who knows how hard it was to risk saying just one word in the pulpit that was displeasing to those in power also knows that prison was certain to those who took that risk.
Resistance and ministry
Delp came to see me one more time, after the journal, Stimmen der Zeit, was abolished. After they had plundered that whole building and stolen all there was to steal, he showed up. We spoke about the situation. His plans seemed dangerous to me. "Be careful," I warned him. "Maybe you don't know these brothers well enough." At that point, I already had been in prison twice, and had been sentenced to four months in prison, and only got out of that through an amnesty. I had to change my workplace as Pastoral Assistant three times. Therefore I said: "Watch out!"
However, with what you could call boyish cheerfulness, he answered, "No problem. I've got my documents here." At any rate, he believed he would be able to get out of the country. Unfortunately that would no longer be possible. That was our last meeting. It was tragic to hear later what had happened to him.
He came to Bogenhausen in Munich and worked in the parish, as rector of St. Georg. I am sure he did well. We hear how he was a leader, decision-maker, and guide. As I already mentioned, with every word that we spoke from the pulpit, we had to very carefully consider how far we could go. Mostly we had to speak metaphorically and, in this way, we were understood by the faithful. The men of the Gestapo, the secret state police who mostly served as spies, understood us too, but could not touch us. I, myself, was arrested for a third time and then expelled from Germany.
Plans for the future
In 1942, Alfred Delp was faced with what can be called a challenge. Count Moltke asked the Jesuit Provincial, Father Rösch, to give him someone who could say something about the social teachings of the Church. Helmuth von Moltke and his people were not seeking to carry out a violent coup. However, they knew things could not go on that way much longer. Anyone who followed the situation—and I did, from Rome—had to say, "Maybe until 1944 or '45, then the whole thing is going to collapse." And these men made plans for what would become of our poor German people afterwards. First, of course, everything would have to collapse and we would stand on the brink of horrifying ruin—we experienced it in 1945.
Moltke invited Delp to join the group, which met in Kreisau on Moltke's estate, or in Munich, or Berlin, anywhere. It was too dangerous to keep meeting at the same place. They know that the "bloodhounds" were everywhere. I don't know if you know this: ten million Germans were constantly under surveillance by the Gestapo, and two million were in prisons and concentration camps. So you can picture how things were, how it seemed, how careful one had to be, and how dangerous it all was. Nevertheless, Delp worked with Moltke, with Gerstenmaier, with Gross, with Sperr and the others. And all but Gerstenmaier would lose their lives for it. Moltke was arrested in January 1944. He did not want a violent revolution, and had stayed out of the plans of those officers who, with Stauffenberg, were preparing to assassinate Hitler. He did not want that, but wanted to prepare for the day of Germany's defeat.
Arrest and imprisonment
Then they came for Father Delp as well. On 28 July 1944, he fell into the hands of the Gestapo. They arrested him in the morning after the Holy Mass. Two officers had stood in the back of the church and, after the service, they nabbed him and led him away. At first, friends thought he was in a camp, but then they found him in Berlin, at the Lehrter Straβe prison. And then, alongside his martyrdom, the heroism of the laity began. We know that in Berlin and Munich, lay people cared for him and risked their own freedom—maybe even their lives—to save him, to help him. Anyone who has been in prison, who knows what it means to be stuck there with no connection to the outside, also knows what a comfort it is to find a piece of bread or a little message in a packet of laundry that someone was able to bring. That was a sign that there were people who were thinking of him and who sympathized.
When you read his letters and notes, written on small slips of paper that were smuggled out of the prison, you have to ask, astonished, where in the world did he get the strength? I return to what I said at the beginning, and answer, "From his faith in God, from that foundation from which he lived. From the joy that he had filled his soul with, not only through his studies and theological knowledge, but through the strength that he stored up in his soul when he was outside in nature, climbing mountains. That gave him a foothold to get through difficulties and tough times.
It was on 8 December 1944 that Alfred finally arrived at what he had long desired. He wanted to give himself completely and totally to his Lord God. It had already been planned that he make his final profession of vows on 15 August, but, because of his arrest, the date had to be postponed. On December 8, his confrere, Father Tattenbach came with full authorization to Berlin, to receive his final vows. It must have been an interesting scene, the two of them sitting at a table with a prison guard keeping watch. And Father Delp made his vows in the presence of his confrere.
Faithful unto death
Then came the day in January 1945, the horrible day of that stupid, idiotic, terrible show trial before the People's Court. Perhaps you have heard the name of Roland Freisler. In Berlin, they spoke of "Raging Roland" in his red robes, who held forth, foaming at the mouth, and shouted down, screamed down, and bellowed down everything, without rhyme or reason. It must have been a gruesome spectacle.
Moltke, Delp and the others stood before this man. It is astonishing how Father Delp, who otherwise let the sparks fly, stood quietly and matter-of-factly before the judge. The words of the Holy Scripture are true: When you stand before your enemies, do not ask what you should say, for the Spirit of God will tell you what you should say. And when Delp, in peace and certainty before the judge, point for point refuted the charges against him, especially those related to 20 July, then one can only marvel and say that it was not the man speaking here, but God.
Nevertheless, he was condemned to death with Moltke. Let's keep it brief. On 2 February 1945, he was strangled. None of us was there. No one knows the details...let's not speak of it—it is horrible. To think of these men who were intellectually outstanding, men who had ideals, men who wanted to survive and to give their best for their people—to think that these men had to depart from this life because of such a satanic system!
Valediction to Father Delp: A man who consistently went the way that he had recognized as the right way. Completely human, creature of God, completely Christian, faithful to his Master even unto death.
Grateful acknowledgement is due to Father Hammerich of St. Andreas Church, Lampertheim, for permission to publish text and photo. First published in Reden und Ansprachen zum Gedenken an Pater Alfred Delp, S.J., Hammerich, Lampertheim, 1975, vol. 1, pp. 13-26. Translation from the German by Abtei St. Walburg. Photo: Procession to the church for Father Delp's first Mass on 4 July 1937. Father Albert Münch (far left), Father Alfred Delp, S.J. (center).
Related Articles, Interviews, and Links:
The Mystery Made Present To Us | Fr. Alfred Delp, S.J.
Remembering Father Alfred Delp, S.J., Priest and Martyr | A Conversation with Father Karl Adolf Kreuser, S.J.
Remembering a Priest and Martyr: On the Ordination Anniversary of Alfred Delp, S.J. | Abtei St. Walburg
Celebrating the 100th Birthday of a hero who saved Jews during WWII | The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation
Father Albert Münch (1905-1980), was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Mainz in 1932 and immediately became well-known as an outspoken and active opponent of Nazism. For example, in 1933, after Hitler came to power, Father Münch organized a youth March for Peace from Mainz to Paris. His parish work and preaching brought him into constant conflict with the Nazis. After repeated arrests and incarceration, he was forced to flee Germany for Rome in 1940. There he devoted himself to relieving the suffering of the poor, and providing Jews with hiding places and food. In 1951 he returned to Germany and worked as a pastor in the Mainz diocese.
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