I cannot remember exactly the year I first met FATHER WALTER CISZEK, SJ. I do know I was a novice so it must have been in the early 70s. Who knew when he first came to visit us that he would one day be on the path to sainthood. At present he is Venerable. We have been praying to him for a miracle in healing of Mother Felicitas’s son Carl, who has pancreatic cancer. We tell this saint to be, if you are going to get that final stamp of approval, you do need the miracle! So why not for us???
Father was born in the mining town of Shenandoah in Pennsylvania of Polish parents. According to the story he was a member of a gang, so all were surprised when he announced in the 8th grade that he wanted to be a priest. I do remember his once telling us that his “rough” childhood most likely prepared him for the trials ahead.
After joining the Jesuits, he informed his superiors that God wanted him to go to Russia, so he was sent to study in Rome at the “Russicum,” the Jesuits’ Russian center, and in 1937 he celebrated his first Mass in the Byzantine rite. Aiming to infiltrate Russia through Poland, he taught ethics in a seminary in Albertyn, Poland. But in 1939 Hitler invaded from the west and then the Russians came from the east, invading the seminary. In 1940 the Ukrainian Archbishop of Lvov permitted him to enter Russia, and he headed for the Ural Mountains, a two-week trip in a box car with 25 men. While hauling logs in a lumber camp, he said Mass furtively in the forest. Secret police arrested him as a Vatican spy when they found his Mass wine, which they called nitroglycerine, and kept him in a cell 900 feet square for two weeks with 100 other men.
After six more months, beaten with rubber clubs, starved, and drugged, he signed a confession. This he later called one of the darkest moments of his life. On July 26, 1942, he was sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor, starting with five years of solitary confinement in Moscow’s notorious Lubyanka prison. He was then sent to Siberia. After a slow 2,500-mile trip in a sweltering boxcar, he was sent on a barge to Norilsk, 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, working 12-hour days shoveling coal into freighters, with rags for shoes. In hushed tones he said Mass for Polish prisoners using a vodka glass for a chalice and wine made from stolen raisins. Having been transferred to work in the coal mines for a year, he became a construction worker in 1947, returning to the mines in 1953.
Throughout his lengthy imprisonment, Fr. Ciszek continued to pray, to celebrate Mass, hear confessions, conduct retreats, and perform parish ministry. He was presumed dead by both his family and the Jesuit Order until he was allowed to write to America in 1955. What got him through those years? “No danger could threaten me, no fear could shake me, except the fear of losing sight of Him. The future, hidden as it was, was hidden in His will and therefore acceptable to me no matter what it might bring. The past, with all its failures, was not forgotten; it remained to remind me of the weakness of human nature and the folly of putting any faith in self. But it no longer depressed me. I looked no longer to self to guide me, relied on it no longer in any way, so it could not again fail me. By renouncing, finally and completely, all control of my life and future destiny, I was relieved as a consequence of all responsibility. I was freed thereby from anxiety and worry, from every tension, and could float serenely upon the tide of God's sustaining providence in perfect peace of soul”.
In Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, Father quickly established several parishes. Then came four years just south in Abakan, working as an auto mechanic. In 1963 the KGB hauled him back to Moscow and handed him over to the American consulate in exchange for two Soviet agents. As the plane flew past the Kremlin, he related, “Slowly, carefully, I made the sign of the cross over the land that I was leaving.” In New York he gave spiritual direction at Fordham University in a residence now named for him, writing his monumental books With God in Russia and He Leadeth Me. Believe me, these books read better than the best mystery novels!
In spite of all those years of deprivation Father lived till the age of 80. He was remembered by us all as a man of prayer, totally submissive to the will of God, but with an ever present smile, and a wonderful sense of humor. “The power of prayer reaches beyond all efforts of man seeking to find meaning in life. This power is available to all; it can transform mans weaknesses, limitations and his sufferings”.