by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
Last week, I introduced you to Father Alfred Delp, the German Jesuit priest who was imprisoned in the summer of 1944 and executed in early February of 1945 for his opposition to Hitler and Nazism. In the dreary and depressing circumstances of Nazi Germany, Father Delp found comfort, consolation and meaning in the liturgical themes of Advent.
Last week, I shared his understanding of Advent as a time of “shaking” — a time when we are shaken from our false hopes and complacency to face honestly the brokenness of our world and the devastation created by our sin. The purpose of this “shaking” is to open our hearts to be able to hear God’s invitation to conversion.
An Advent figure that fascinated Father Delp was the Archangel Gabriel — the angel of the Annunciation. He wrote these words in his prison cell in December 1944:
“I see this year’s Advent with an intensity and presentiment like never before. When I pace back and forth in my cell, three steps forward and three steps back, hands in iron, ahead of me an unknown destiny, I understand very differently than before those ancient promises of the coming Lord who will redeem us and set us free. And, along with these thoughts, comes the memory of the angel that a good person gave me for Advent two years ago. It held a banner ‛Rejoice, for the Lord is near.’ A bomb destroyed the angel. A bomb killed the good person… The terror of this time would not be bearable — any more than the terror brought on by our world situation, if we comprehend it — except for this other knowledge that continually encourages us and sets us straight. It is the knowledge of the promises that are being spoken right in the middle of the terror and that are valid.
“And it is also the knowledge of the quiet angels of annunciation, who speak their message of blessing into the distress and scatter their seeds of blessing that will begin to grow in the middle of the night. These are not yet the loud angels of public jubilation and fulfillment, these angels of Advent. Silently and unnoticed, they come into private rooms and appear before our hearts as they did long ago. Silently they bring the questions of God and proclaim to us the miracles of God, with whom nothing is impossible.
“Advent, despite all earnestness, is a time of refuge because it has received a message. Oh, if people know nothing about the message and the promises anymore, if they only experience the four walls and the prison windows of their gray days, and no longer perceive the quiet footsteps of the announcing angels, if the angels’ murmured word does not simultaneously shake us to the depths and lift up our souls — then it is over for us. Then we are living wasted time, and we are dead, long before they do anything to us.
“To believe in the golden seeds of God that the angels have scattered and continue to offer an open heart are the first things we must do with our lives. And the next is to go through these gray days as announcing messengers ourselves. So much courage needs strengthening; so much despair needs comforting; so much hardship needs a gentle hand and an illuminating interpretation; so much loneliness cries out for a liberating word; so much loss and pain seek a spiritual meaning.”
Whatever problems any of us might be experiencing this Advent they cannot compare with the severity of the circumstances confronting Father Delp in December of 1944. He had witnessed the soul of his nation perverted by an incredibly evil ideology. With Germany on the verge of defeat, his country was literally in shambles. In a prison cell awaiting his execution, Father Delp writes about God’s announcing angels and the consolations the Lord provided for him in the midst of his adversity.
His imprisonment had prevented Father Delp from making his final profession of vows as a Jesuit that had been scheduled for the Feast of the Assumption, Aug. 15, 1944. Instead, on Aug. 14 -15, Father Delp underwent intense interrogation and torture. The Gestapo promised him freedom if he would renounce the Jesuits. While resolutely not succumbing to the pressure of the Nazis, Father Delp suffered from thoughts that God perhaps had not found him worthy to make his final vows.
In preparation for Advent, Father Delp had prayed a novena with his fellow prisoners asking some small sign of God’s grace on the feast of the Immaculate Conception. You can imagine his joy when Father Franz von Tattenbach was permitted to visit Father Delp on December 8, bringing the official permission and necessary documents allowing Father Delp to make his final vows in his prison cell.
I pray for every member of the Archdiocese this Advent that, in the unique circumstances of our lives, we will be able to recognize God’s “announcing angels” as they present themselves to us in a variety of disguises. Hopefully, we will not allow ourselves to become so overburdened by observing many of the cultural customs of Christmas, which have nothing to do with its true meaning, that we fail to recognize the angels the Lord is sending to us to renew his promises in our hearts.
Father Delp wrote his prison reflections not certain that they would be read by anyone and risking the prospect of additional torture if they were discovered being smuggled from the prison. These meditations brought comfort, hope and courage to many at the time of their writing and to thousands more who have read them in the six succeeding decades. Father Delp found a way, even in prison, to be used by God, to be one of his“announcing angels.”
I trust, with alert hearts, each of us will recognize ample opportunities during this season to bring hope, encouragement, comfort, enlightenment and love to others. Let us not squander the chances to be one of the Lord’s “announcing angels.”