The Advent of Father Alfred Delp, Slain for Defying the Nazis

Six months would elapse between the time of Father Alfred Delp’s arrest and his execution by the Gestapo. Here, in this period of waiting, was the perfect plan for Advent.

Detail of a 1964 West German postage stamp showing Father Alfred Delp.
Detail of a 1964 West German postage stamp showing Father Alfred Delp. (photo: Zabanski / Shutterstock)

“God enters only his own rooms, where someone is always keeping watch for him …” — Father Alfred Delp

When Gestapo agents arrived on the morning of July 28, 1944, slipping into the back of the quaint little country church outside Munich where its pastor, Father Alfred Delp, was saying Mass, they waited until he’d finished before arresting him on a charge of treason. It hardly mattered that he had committed no treason — they were determined to destroy him anyway. His record of resistance to Nazi tyranny was sufficiently known already among members of the Reich, and the time had now come to silence him for good. So, they hauled him off to prison where he was tortured, tried and sentenced to be hanged, which took place on Feb. 2, 1945, the Feast of the Purification of Mary.

Six long months would elapse between the time of his arrest and his execution, during which the offer of release was dangled cruelly before him by his captors. The price, however, was too high: renunciation of his priesthood, the very taproot of his identity. He refused, of course, and so he languished away, handcuffed and isolated until the scheduled moment when his neck would snap, the certainty of which he had no doubt, only that he could not know exactly when. 

It was the waiting that proved so excruciating. But that too became, over time, a kind of grace, enabling him to see that both the waiting and the anxiety of not knowing when it would all end, was exactly the mission he had been given, the part God had wanted him to play from the start. Knowing this gave him a great sense of peace, an unconquerable serenity of soul, which showed itself at the very end when, taking leave of the prison chaplain who accompanied him to the scaffold, he said jokingly to him, “In a half hour, I will know more than you do.”

“What is God’s purpose in all this?” he had asked himself during the first bitter days of his imprisonment. And when the answer finally came to him, it did so with an adamantine sense, telling him unmistakably that he must surrender, turning everything over to God.

“This is seed time, not harvest. God sows the seed and sometime or another he will do the reaping. The one thing I must do is to make sure the seed falls on fertile ground. I must arm myself against the pain and depression that sometimes almost defeats me. If this is the way God has chosen — and everything indicates that it is — then I must willingly, and without rancor, make it my way.”

Here, you might say, was the perfect plan for Advent, conceived and executed in a state of high expectancy. God having given him a time of waiting — which he could not know for how long, nor how many snares and traps would lie along the way — he would simply submit. He would go along and wait. Knowing, to be sure, that God would be there, both at the beginning and then at the end, supremely present in the moment when “the vigilant heart of man and the heart of God come together,” joined for all eternity amid the joys of Paradise. “This should be,” he announced in one of his prison notes written in those final weeks, “our first Advent light: to understand everything, all that happens to us and all that threatens us, from the perspective of life’s character of waiting.” 

If it be true, as Dr. Johnson reminds us, that nothing so concentrates the mind as the knowledge that one is to be hanged in a fortnight, how much more intensely concentrated the mind becomes when one only knows that it will happen, sooner or later, but never exactly when. Is this not the predicament we all find ourselves in, which is why waiting is so necessary and salutary an action? We are all under sentence of death. Thus we are well advised, as Father Delp writes, to lay hold of the fact that, as always, “the deeper meaning of life is to keep watch,” to remain ever vigilant in the face of an end that, at any moment, may burst through the cloud cover of our lives. Life is but a preparation for death, in other words, which we are to carry before us as the final cancellation of whatever plans we had in mind.

And isn’t this, after all, the very first word Jesus speaks in the Gospel passage that sets in motion this shortest of penitential seasons? “Stay awake! You must be prepared,” he exhorts us. “For you do not know on which day your Lord will come. Be sure of this: if the master of the house had known the hour of night when the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and not let his house be broken into. So too, you must also be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.”

It was not so different for Our Lady, who waited nine months for Jesus to come, rejoicing at last when she saw the child whom she patiently bore in secret — indeed, whom she first conceived long before in her womb as Daughter Zion. So too the time of waiting for Father Delp would not be forever; nor would it be without joy or hope, knowing that with God, “There is no absolute darkness. … Those who really wait on the Lord God will not be disappointed.”