Remembering a Priest and Martyr: On the Ordination Anniversary of Alfred Delp, S.J. | Abtei St. Walburg | IgnatiusInsight.comRemembering a Priest and Martyr: On the Ordination Anniversary of Alfred Delp, S.J. | Abtei St. Walburg

Alfred Delp was born in Mannheim, Germany, on September 15, 1907, and was raised in the nearby town of Lampertheim. He entered the Society of Jesus on April 22, 1926. Following his ordination in 1937, he lived and worked in Munich, where he became well known for his preaching and writing. Because of his opposition to Hitler's government, he was arrested on July 28, 1944. He suffered torture and solitary confinement without betraying any useful information to his interrogators. His trial in January 1945 focused on the irreconcilability of Christianity and Nazism.

After his conviction, he wrote that his life had been given a theme "worth living for, and worth dying for." He was executed by hanging on February 2, 1945, in Berlin. In Lampertheim, a memorial chapel was built beside his parish church, and consecrated on the twentieth anniversary of his martyrdom. Special commemorative events are scheduled throughout 2007 in Lampertheim, Mannheim, and Munich to honor Father Delp during this centennial year of his birth.

Seventy years ago, in the church of St. Michael in Munich, the German Jesuits marked the 400th ordination anniversary of their founder, St. Ignatius, in a very special way. On that festive anniversary, June 24, 1937, Cardinal Michael Faulhaber ordained a group of young Jesuits to the priesthood. Among them was Alfred Delp. It was the Feast of St. John the Baptist, that prophet who would become a central figure in Father Delp's preaching. [1] Indeed, Father Delp himself would become a "voice calling in the wilderness" of his own turbulent times. In a 1984 radio interview, a friend and parishioner remembered the impact of Delp's preaching:

"Of the many Delp sermons I was able to hear, to me the most moving were those about the prophets. For in these, without his listeners--or even, probably, himself--being able to guess it, he was anticipating his own destiny of martyrdom for the faith." [2]

Alfred Delp had entered the Jesuits in 1926. Even during his philosophical and theological studies, he was known for his interest in current political and social issues. In the years after Hitler came to power in 1933, Delp gradually began to recognize the dangers of the path that lay ahead of him. On March 4, 1936, he confided in a letter to his mother a presentiment that it even might lead to martyrdom:

We [Jesuits] are gradually becoming pretty much fair game. Over the past few weeks, the first of us were arrested. The season of the Passion is coming for us; time to go with the Savior to the cross. We are called to this. We just have to pray, work, do we what can, and ask for the grace that we may be ready to die. [3]

Nevertheless, his vocation was unshaken. In a letter to a friend, written March 3, 1937, three days before his ordination to the deaconate:

Finally at the gates of the final things that I seek in this world. Everything else that has value for me is on the Other Side. And when I really have this one thing, then let come what may. [4]

That his journey to ordination was marked by joy and gratitude is clear in this April 1937 letter to his superior, Provincial Augustin Ršsch, S.J.:

For a long time I have wanted to send you a few grateful words of greeting, in these happy days between the ordinations. It is really a nice time. I have only had such refreshing and joyful days back when I became a Catholic, and when I entered the Society of Jesus eleven years ago. For ordination, someone sent me a card with the text: 'your youth will be renewed...' [Ps 103:5] It is really true... [5]

Seventy years after the event, with our knowledge that his priestly ministry was brutally cut short after less than eight years, it is moving to read and reflect upon Father Delp's own experience of the sacrament. In 1941 he preached a series of seven sermons on the sacraments. The conclusion of the sermon "Holy Orders" from this series presents a very personal expression of Father Delp's insights and ideals.

Holy Orders | by Fr. Alfred Delp, S.J. | Preached in Munich, Autumn 1941

"Let the grace that is in you through the laying on of hands be rekindled." (2 Timothy 1:8)

...First: In that great moment of our life when we go to be ordained, we kneel before the bishop and he silently lays his hands upon us. He is silent. You feel the blessed and creative burden of this hand through your entire being. And the congregation is silent. And this silence will surround the priest. This keeping silent, the still hands of the silent bishop, calls forth the priest from his former homeland. It calls him forth from his previous refuges, and sequesters him and encompasses him with this silence, this stillness in which he will be consecrated, so that it will accompany him all his life. This silence must surround us. We guard people's secrets in silence. We call our heart to be silent, so that it does not love where it should not love. Our will for power must be silent, because we are sent forth to be the hands of the Lord in blessing. Silent, too, must be our will for all the other things that, otherwise, could shelter and anchor and secure a life in this world. The silence accompanies us, because it is always the sign that the Lord God has come especially near.

Second: The second symbolic action tells us the meaning of this mission. This happens when our hands are anointed with the sign of the cross. Anointing is a sign of mission and authority, of stability and power. But our anointing is the anointing with a cross. It is, first of all, like that of the body of the Lord, an anointing to "passio", to the deepest participation in His vocation as Redeemer. Therefore, we are held and we are bound to give all we have, really to wear ourselves out, to give ourselves away completely. Being silent must also be a silence before oneself and one's own will to live; an entering into the service, into the worship, and into the sacrifice.

Third: And then we receive the chalice and the paten. With the chalice and the paten, we are commissioned to be guardians of the very holiest that mankind possesses, the body of the Lord and the holy chalice of His present sacrifice. With the chalice and the paten, we are commissioned and sent--not to keep for ourselves the filled chalice--but to bear it onward, to share it, to give it away. With the chalice and the paten, we are commissioned and sent forth to gather together into this chalice the world's sorrow, sacrifices, and distress, and simultaneously to remove them--as much as that is possible to us--and to consecrate them in this sacrificial chalice of the Lord.

Fourth: Then there is another laying on of hands and we are told that we are to go forth and take away sin, that we are sent into this final dialogue, into the final duel with the demonical. With the guilty, the weak, and the sick, we must have an endless mercy. There, where help is needed, it is really true [as Schiller wrote]: "Your duty and your vows are your rampart. And nothing more remains to you." We must actually roam the outermost trenches, where it is imperative to take a stand against the demonical.

Fifth: And once again we turn to the consecrating bishop and extend our hands, and he takes our hands in his and asks us: "Do you promise?"

We answered: "Promitto" (I promise). That was the final commitment, that--with our very existence, our own salvation, and our eternal destiny--we bound ourselves to the fulfillment of this life. From this moment of consecration on, we must be under way, as long as our feet will still carry us, in order to bless and to help and to consecrate; to share the chalice of the Lord, and to bring light, and to ban the night and the darkness. That is the image, and the outline, and the duty, which we carried forward from our ordination day.

...Seen from the perspective of what we priests should be and could be, we are an answer: the priest is a redemption and is a fulfillment. And look where you will, wherever people follow a man and follow him completely, finally and ultimately they expect him to be precisely what the priest should be and must be for them, if he does not want to betray his office and his consecration: One who is stable, completely helpful, really in possession of the ultimate in being; and also able to give, to communicate the great blessings, the great consecrations, the great graces. Therefore, the consciousness of the fact that in our community there are men who are ordained, who are blessed, should help you to stand with certainty, upright and unashamed in this life, whatever the effort, come what may. There are men placed in your midst whose only meaning and right to exist is that they be available, and give what they have--and more than they themselves have to give--the Lord God's entire abundance, which is entrusted to them. In the consciousness that such is among you, you can grow and be secure.

However, you must always have the sense, as well, that you are helping us, so that the fire, which is in us through the laying on of hands and the consecration and anointing, does not does not go out. Rather, it should glow and blaze and burn, so that the seekers know where homeland is; and the erring know where counsel is; and the helpless know where blessing is; and those who have strayed know where the gates are for the return, which is awaiting them with the joy of the Lord.


[1] See Advent of the Heart, Ignatius Press, 2006.

[2] Bayerischen Rundfunk: Interview with Dr. Ernst Kessler, June 17, 1984, as cited in R. Bleistein, Alfred Delp, Geschichte eines Zeugen, © Verlag Josef Knecht, Frankfurt am Main, 1989, p. 205.

[3] Alfred Delp: Gesammelte Schriften, Band V, Briefe, Texte, Rezensionen. Hg. Von Roman Bleistein, ©Verlag Josef Knecht. Frankfurt am Main. 1988, p. 70.

[4] ibid., p. 86.

[5] ibid., p. 86f.

[Source: Alfred Delp: Gesammelte Schriften, Band III, Predigten und Ansprachen. Hg. Von Roman Bleistein © Verlag Josef Knecht. Frankfurt am Main. 2. Auflage 1985. pp. 353-355 and 359-360. Used with permission. Article and translation from the German by Abtei St. Walburg.]

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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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