Servant of God Walter Ciszek, S. J. (1904-1984) was born to a large Polish Catholic family in the mining town of Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. As a youth he headed up a street gang and proved so incorrigible that his father once went to the police and asked them to put him in reform school.
Instead, young Ciszek developed a private, secret desire to be a Jesuit priest. Mulishly stubborn, he was accepted into seminary, studied in Rome, and was ordained a priest in 1937. He felt a passionate call to go to Russia, but was instead assigned to Albertin in eastern Poland. When the Russians invaded and closed the Jesuit mission down, Fr. Ciszek, with permission from his order, snuck across the Russian border. There, he worked in a lumber camp for a year: learning the language, quietly performing baptisms, absolutions, and anointings, and—some of the happiest moments of his life, he would later recall—celebrating clandestine Masses in the woods with a priest friend.
Arrested one night, he was convicted on trumped-up charges of being a Vatican spy and sent to the notorious Lubianka Prison. Much of his five years there was spent in solitary confinement. In He Leadeth Me, a spiritual classic, he tells of praying that the Holy Spirit would provide a clever retort to put his interrogators smartly in their place. Instead, in one particularly grueling session, he finally broke and numbly signed page after page of trumped-up charges.
Back in his cell, he was devastated. He, who had prided himself on his strength, had been broken. It struck with the force of revelation: for all his prayer and self-discipline, he had still been relying largely on himself. The episode was a “purgatory” that “left me cleansed to the bone” and marked a turning point after which he abandoned himself completely to God’s will.
He was sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor at a Siberian work camp. Often in the sub-arctic cold during lunch break, he and his fellow believers secretly celebrated daily Mass: “[T]hese men would actually fast all day long and do exhausting physical labor without a bite to eat since dinner the evening before, just to be able to receive the Holy Eucharist—that was how much the Sacrament meant to them in this otherwise God-forsaken place.’
Released from Siberia in 1955, he worked as an auto mechanic and served as village priest. In 1963 he was exchanged for two Soviet spies and, after twenty-three years, Fr. Ciszek came home. The sparkle in his blue eyes was intact, yet “in many ways, I am almost a stranger.”
In today’s Magnificat reflection, he writes: “What was I, in comparison to the millions of atheistis in the Soviet Union? What was I, in comparison to the might and power of the Soviet government? What were any of us, really, in the face of the system around us, with all its organs of propaganda and powers of persecution? Yes…this was the place [God] had chosen for us, the situation and circumstances in which had had placed us. One thing we could do and do daily: we could seek first the Kingdom of God and his justice—First of all in our own lives, and then in the lives of those around us. From the time of the Apostles—twelve simple men, alone and afraid, who had received the commission to go forth into the whole world to preach the good news of the Kingdom—there has been no other way for the spreading of the Kingdom than by the acts and the lives of individual Christians striving each day to fulfill the will of God.”
That is true of all people of good will striving to make the world a better place. Which I sincerely believe is all of us.
Today is the 24th anniversary of my confirmation and First Communion (Church of the Blessed Sacrament, Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood, CA!) Thank you for counting me worthy to stand under the same roof with Fr. Ciszek, who is one of my heroes.
And apologies if you’ve already seen a shortened version of this post on FB or IG: to my mind, we could hardly have enough of Walter Ciszek.
Fyi, you can find this and many other such stories in FOOLS FOR CHRIST: Fifty Divine Eccentric Artists, Martyrs, Stigmatists, and Saints.