On the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, Pope Francis said that the Church exists to announce Christ even to the point of martyrdom, following the pattern of John the Baptist. The Pope indicated on June 24 that the John the Baptist “could have made himself important, he could have said something about himself,” but instead “he felt himself to be the voice, not the Word. This is John’s secret. He would not be an ideologue.” Francis held that the Baptist is a model for Christians “because he never, never took a truth as his own…(he) negated himself so that the Word could come to the fore.”
The Pope also reflected that in prison John experienced doubts and anguish. The life of the one who was the voice of the Word is “one of pain and darkness”. John “was not even spared this”, said the Pope, who mentioned: “the figure of John makes me think so much about the Church.”
Perhaps, Alfred Delp turned to the figure of John the Baptist for the same reason 69 years earlier. For Delp, John the Baptist serves as a pattern of his own vocation in the dark wilderness of his time. He became the voice of the Logos in a ideologically flush but morally gutted society. Like John, he was imprisoned and executed, because he proclaimed the Logos that countered the ideological inclination of the human logos and makes a demand on it. And if the Pope is correct in his take on the imprisonment of John the Baptist, then both the Baptist and Delp did not die the enthusiastic, spirited death of the early Christians and the Christians in sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Rather they suffered in anguish and weakness.
Such a type of martyr is conceivably “one of pain and darkness.” He is wracked with anxiety and doubts; he is convinced that he is not worthy to be a martyr; he does not feel that he has the strength to carry the yoke that is placed before him. Yet as the Pope suggests, such a person is the point where the objective and subjective holiness of the Church meet.
Both the Baptist and Delp are witnesses to a truth that transcend them. Yet they remain witnesses to that truth, and as such subjects of their acts. The final act of the martyr is kin to its predecessors like the last stanza of a poem, which concludes and gives form to what has gone before.
Berlin; Tegel Prison; 1944
The voice crying out in the wilderness
We live in an age that has every right to consider itself no wilderness. But woe to any age in which the voice crying out in the wilderness can no longer be heard because the noises of everyday life drown it—or restrictions forbid it—or it is lost in the hurry and turmoil of progress—or simply stifled by authority, misled by fear and cowardice. Then the destructive weeds will spread so suddenly and rapidly that word “wilderness” will recur to men’s minds willy-nilly. I believe we are no strangers to this discovery.
Yet for all this, where are the voices that should ring out in protest and accusation? There should never be any lack of prophets like John the Baptist in the kaleidoscope of life at any period; brave men inspired by the dynamic compulsion of the mission to which they are dedicated, true witnesses following the lead of their hearts that is why their vision is so keen and their judgment. They do not call for the sake of calling or to hear their own voices… They have the great consolation that one can know only after having stepped beyond the deepest and most extreme limits of existence. Such men proclaim healing and salvation. They call man to face his last chance, because they already feel the ground heaving beneath their feet; feel the beams cracking; the great mountains shuddering inwardly; and the stars dangling insecurely. They cry out to man to the potential of averting the spreading wilderness, which is about fall upon him and crush him, by means of a change of heart.
Oh God, modern man knows what it means to clear away bomb dust and rubble of destruction, making the rough places smooth again… May the arresting voices of the wilderness ring out warning that ruin and devastation actually spread from within. May the Advent figure of John the Baptist, the inexorable messenger and prophet in God’s name not be a stranger to our wilderness of ruins. Much in our lives is dependent upon these figures. For how shall we hear of there are none whose voice can rise above the tumult of violence and destruction, the false clamor that deafens us to reality?
[excerpts from The Prison Memoirs of Father Delp]