Great Jesuits 4: With God in Russia

Fr_ Walter J_ Ciszek, S_J_

Part 4 of my series on great Jesuits in American history

Perhaps there are braver men than Walter Ciszek, but they don’t come readily to mind.  Hard enough to be brave for a short period when the adrenaline is flowing.  Ciszek was brave under often horrendous circumstances for almost a quarter of a century.

Born in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania on November 4, 1904, the son of Polish immigrants, he grew to be  a wild, tough kid, a bully and gang member.   He therefore floored his parents when he told them he wanted to be a priest.  Entering a minor seminary he remained tough as he related:

“And I had to be tough. I’d get up at four-thirty in the morning to run five miles around the lake on the seminary grounds, or go swimming in November when the lake was little better than frozen. I still couldn’t stand to think that anyone could do something I couldn’t do, so one year during Lent I ate nothing but bread and water for the forty days –another year I ate no meat at all for the whole year –just to see if I could do it. “

Always looking for a challenge, Ciszek simply presented himself to the Jesuit provincial in the Bronx in 1928 and announced, “I’m going to be a Jesuit!” 

In 1929 an announcement was made by Pius XI that he was looking for clandestine missionaries to the Soviet Union.  Ciszek promptly volunteered.  He was sent to the Russian Center, Russicum, in Rome in 1934 to study the Russian language, history and liturgy.  On June 24, 1937 he was ordained.

Assigned to the Albertyn Jesuit mission in Poland, Father Ciszek was present when the Soviet Union invaded eastern Poland in 1939.  Taking advantage of this calamity he decided to slip into the Soviet Union.  Obtaining the permission of Metropolitan Andrei Shetytsky, he entered the Soviet Union, along with two Jesuit friends, under the assumed name of Wladymyr Lypynski.  Traveling 1500 miles by rail,  he became a logger in the logging town of Chusov in the Urals, while carrying on his undercover missionary activities. 

After a year he was arrested in 1941 by the NKVD, the brutal internal secret police of the Soviet Union, and taken to Lubyanka Prison in Moscow, a place where tens of thousands met their ends during these years.  After six months of interrogation and brutal torture which failed to break Father Ciszek, the NKVD drugged him and, under the influence of the drugs, he signed a false confession.  He was bitterly ashamed of this and vowed to always do the will of God for the remainder of his life.  On July 26, 1942 he was sentenced to 15 years hard labor in Siberia.  Surprisingly, Father Ciszek was kept at the Lubyanka for another four years.  I suspect that the NKVD may have feared the influence he might have on other prisoners, and this might explain why he was not immediately sent to Siberia.  To keep from going crazy, Father Ciszek performed exercises each day in his cell, polished the floor of his cell each day, and read everything he could get his hands on.  Of course there was prayer, lots of prayer.   There were more interrogations, but in time Father Ciszek got used to them and eventually looked upon them as mere irritations. 

In 1946 he was sent to Norilsk, the northern most city in Siberia, to shovel coal as a slave laborer for 12 hours each day.  Here he met another priest and was finally able to say Mass again.  Polish prisoners made wine from raisins.  His chalice was a shot glass, and his paten was a cover from a gold watch.    Father Ciszek was overjoyed:  “But my joy at being able to celebrate Mass again cannot be described. . . . I heard confessions regularly and from time to time was even able to distribute Communion secretly after I’d said Mass. The experience gave me new strength. I could function as a priest again, and I thanked God daily for the opportunity to work among this hidden flock, consoling and comforting men who had thought themselves beyond His grace.”

In December he was assigned to mining coal for ten hours a day with no breaks.  After this he became a construction worker in an ore mining plant.  After work he heard confessions from his fellow prisoners.  After hours he would clandestinely say Mass in the offices of the plant.  He even began giving retreats!

In 1953 he was sent back to the coal mines for another two years.  On April 22, 1955 he was released, although he was forbidden to leave Norilsk.  He got a job in a chemical factory.  Most of his co-workers were young women who quickly learned that he was a priest.  They liked him and would cover for him when he had to leave work to perform a Mass, a baptism or a funeral, and several of these ladies became converts.  His clandestine Masses on Sunday became so popular that he said three Masses each Sunday and had to rotate the locations to keep the authorities from finding out.  Easter midnight Mass in 1958 was held to an overflowing crowd in an abandoned barracks.  Alas, some of the attendees were from the secret police and Father Ciszek was called in for questioning on the following Wednesday by the KGB, the successor organization to the NKVD.  He was told to get out of Norilsk and to never think of coming back.  Ten days later the KGB flew him to Krasnoyarsk.

By his second month in Krasnoyarsk he had established three mission parishes and was holding Masses with over 800 people in attendance.  The KGB, quickly realizing what was happening, told him to get out of Krasnoyarsk and gave him only forty-eight hours to do it.

From 1959-1963 Father Ciszek resided in Abakan, one hundred miles south of Krasnoyarsk.  He got a job as an auto mechanic and continued to carry on his clandestine missionary activities.  His time in the Soviet Union came to an abrupt end when he was exchanged for a Soviet spy captured in the US.  As he flew out of Moscow he made the sign of the Cross over the land he had dedicated so many years to.  In the US he continued his work as a priest at Fordham University, gave retreats and counseled the many people who sought him out.  He wrote two books about his experiences, With God in Russia, and He Leadeth Me, both of which I heartily recommend.  He died on  December 8, 1984, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

In October 1990 Father Walter Ciszek, SJ was proclaimed a Servant of God.  His canonization process is proceeding forward.

When an advisor pointed out the position of the Vatican on an issue, Stalin contemptuously inquired as to how many divisions the Pope had.  Stalin is long dead, his Soviet Union is one with Nineveh and Tyre and the Catholic Church flourishes, by the grace of God and due to men and women of the faith and courage exemplified by Father Ciszek.  A Faith that can inspire a Walter Ciszek to struggle against overwhelming odds to bring Christ to others is a Faith more powerful than all the Armies that have ever marched.

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