Prison Meditations of Father Alfred Delp Summary

Alfred Delp


(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Alfred Delp was born in Mannheim, Germany. He joined the Jesuits when he was nineteen, after having become a convert to Catholicism. He was editor of Stimmen der Zeit (voices of the time) from 1939 until 1942, when the Nazis suppressed the publication. In 1943, at the height of World War II, he joined in the work of the Kreisau Circle, an anti-Nazi group devoted to planning a new social order built on the principles of Christianity. Delp joined the circle at the invitation of Count Helmuth von Moltke, and with Moltke he stood trial for treason and was sentenced to be executed. The execution took place in Plotzensee prison on February 2, 1945.

The principles of Christian spirituality revealed in The Prison Meditations of Father Alfred Delp are wrapped in the personal experiences of a man sentenced to die by the Nazis. Delp and a group of his friends were arrested by the Gestapo in 1944. He had joined a secret group called the Kreisau Circle who expected German chancellor Adolf Hitler’s defeat and were planning a new social order to be built on Christian lines after World War II. These “rechristianising intentions” were considered heresy. Charges that he was part of a plot to assassinate Hitler were dropped; the trial was plainly a religious one. Delp maintained that he was condemned because he “happened to be, and chose to remain, a Jesuit.” After a mock trial and a perfunctory sentencing he was executed in Plotzensee prison on February 2, 1945.

The insights that he gained during his last months of life have universal validity for contemporary Christian spirituality. They are bare and unsentimental; he had no time for extraneous matters. As he awaited the executioner’s certain but unscheduled arrival, he wrote:On this ultimate peak of existence at which I have arrived many ordinary words seem to have lost the meaning they used to have for me and I have now come to see them in quite a different sense. Some I don’t even care to use at all any more; they belong to the past which already is far away. Here I am, on the edge of my cliff, waiting for the thrust that will send me over. In this solitude time has grown wings—angels’ wings; I can almost sense the soft current as they cleave the air, keeping their distance because of the immense height. And the noises from below are softened and quietened—I hear them rather as the distant murmur of a stream tossing and tumbling in a narrow gorge.

What he could see from the cliff’s edge is recorded for us in excerpts from his diary; meditations on Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany; some short essays; reflections on the Lord’s Prayer and a pentecostal liturgy; and his parting words after the death sentence. These writings, written in the face of Nazi terror, peer deep into the dark heart of modern evil and point unfailingly to the saving reality of faith in God.

Father Delp’s description of his time is disturbingly realistic for our own. From “the very shadow of the scaffold” Father Delp saw that his world had entered a new era that had as its recurring theme a humanity that is profoundly godless, no longer even capable of knowing God. Drowned by the noises of everyday life, forbidden by restrictions, lost in the hurry of “progress,” stifled by authority, misled by fear, the ordinary person’s “spiritual mechanism has rusted and become practically useless.” He portrayed Western humanity as “spiritually homeless, naked...

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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Coady, Mary Frances. “Hitler and the Jesuits.” Commonweal 121, no. 18 (October 22, 2004): 20-21. Coady addresses the anti-Nazi work of the Jesuits during World War II, in particular the priests Lothar König, Augustin Rösch, and Alfred Delp.

Coady, Mary Frances. With Bound Hands: A Jesuit in Nazi Germany—The Life and Selected Prison Letters of Alfred Delp. Chicago: Jesuit Way, 2003. The first full-length English-language biography of Delp.