24 YEARS A CATHOLIC

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.

13 Replies to “24 YEARS A CATHOLIC”

  1. Congratulations! Hope you have a wonderful day.I loved this story. Keep up the good work.

    1. Thank you, Lillian! It’s turning out to be an extra-lovely day, starting with Mass this morning…I feel sure Fr. Ciszek is with us.

  2. Happy Happy Day, Heather as you enter your twenty fifth year of seeking and stretching towards That Love!

    1. God willing, Meg, another year of stretching! Thanks so much–wonderful to have shared and been able to celebrate the day a bit with you all.

  3. Lawrence McDonald says: Reply

    Due to Fools for Christ, I greeted Fr Ciszek as an old friend this morning. You’re right, Heather, his
    and so many stories of little known heroes of the church bear both repetition and contemplation. The photo is wonderful, stunning really. Thank you !!

    1. Thanks, Lawrence–I agree, Fr. Ciszek looks gently lit from within–that flame, after all he suffered! When he returned to the States, he must have felt apart from in a whole new way, but apparently happily, graciously counseled and served…Just found this on wiki: “Ciszek Hall at Fordham University in New York City is named after Fr. Ciszek. It currently houses Jesuit scholastics in the first stage of formal study for the priesthood. Additionally, a small room has been set aside in honor of Fr. Ciszek. It contains the (Latin) altar, sacred vessels, candle sticks, and crucifix Fr. Ciszek used, as well as a copy (in his own hand) of his final vows and a photocopy of a letter to a friend containing spiritual advice.” Something for us all to do next time we’re in NY! Bless you!!

  4. Mary McCaskill says: Reply

    The fact that you know and celebrate your Confirmation and Holy Communion illustrates how much your faith means to you. You are an excellent example to all of us, but particularly cradle Catholics. Thank you.

    1. Ha the Church was basically the only place that would have me, Mary! So I’m forever grateful to her…so many of the 20th century martyrs died or were tortured and killed for their faith…so they’re a great example to us. Thank you so much for your kind words.

  5. I just read the section of your book “Ravished” where you “ceded the sidewalk” to a ten year old boy on a skateboard. The love and solidarity you experienced on that occasion reminds me of Fr. Ciszek and his way of staying in the moment. “The wonder of humility is that it teaches us that we are nothing: that we have nothing of ourselves to give to others; that no matter how brilliant or holy we are, all this is from God.” ― Walter J. Ciszek, With God in America: The Spiritual Legacy of an Unlikely Jesuit

    1. Oh thank you so much for getting the beauty of that moment on the sidewalk with the young skater!–of course it had everything to do with the fact that I’d just come from Confession and Mass…the closer I’m in touch with my profound poverty of spirit, as you say, really the richer I am…

  6. I enjoyed this story about Fr. Walter Cizsek, partly because he is an American and I love all stories about American Catholics. My favorite part was when Walter realized he was relying on himself more than God. I feel like I am in the same boat as Walter, relying on myself. COVID-19 has made me trust God because everything I lean on has fallen. I realize more than ever my human frailty and God’s omnipotence. I still need God’s grace to help me rely more on him because I feel fear and worry. Yet, I understand that worry is a common human experience and cannot be completely avoided. My job, though, is to try to combat fear with faith, worry with hope each day. Trying to “trust in the Lord with all your heart, on your own intelligence do not rely.” (Proverbs 3:5)

  7. It’s always nice to see that Fr. Ciszek hasn’t been forgotten. He was truly the only person I’ve ever met that that radiated totally pure light and goodness and I am so privileged to have known him.

    I spent my first birthday in 1968 sitting on Fr. Ciszek’s lap :). He was a close friend and spiritual advisor of my mother’s while I was growing up in Pennsylvania. He stayed with us many times at our house and we visited him many times at his little apartment at the John XXlll center at Fordham University in New York. My mother, who is 85 now, just shared a memory of sitting on the edge of his bed at his studio apartment while he was writing He Leadeth Me and his apologizing to her if the bed was hard and uncomfortable. He slept with a board under his mattress because, after so many years of sleeping on hard prison floors in the USSR, he couldn’t sleep on a regular mattress. It was so characteristic of him to always be concerned with others – in both large things and small. He was unfailingly kind, and even as a child I knew there was something different and special about him. Thanks so for your kind remembrance of a truly beautiful soul!

    1. Oh Tavia, amazing memories and stories. That he slept on a hard bed, after all that time in prison and the camps…his unfailing kindness, and your sense even back then that he was different somehow. He really had to have been, to survive what he did without a trace of bitterness, and his spirit not just intact but enlarged…I’m haunted by how after all he endured, he came home and felt himself somewhat a stranger–as of course he would, and perhaps would have no matter what…one of the hazards of holiness…thank you so much for sharing this with us.

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