HORTLY after it relates the story of feeding the five thousand, John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus was pursued by a crowd, who sail across the sea from Tiberias to Capernaum. There they engage with the Lord, who admonishes them not to seek food that perishes, but rather the food that endures unto eternal life. Jesus first identifies this food with the manna given to the chosen people during their pilgrimage through the wilderness. He then identifies this food with Himself, saying: “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35, RSV). Lodged in between these two statements is a beautiful verse, wherein the crowd makes an impassioned plea: “Lord, give us this bread always” (John 6:34, RSV).
I have been reminded of this passage in recent days, listening to the heartfelt sentiments of so many of the faithful who long for the opportunity to participate again in Holy Mass. That opportunity will, indeed, return, although as yet we know neither the day nor the hour.
Last week, I offered a word of encouragement in the hopes that we all might seize this as an unexpected opportunity for spiritual growth. Today I’d like to build on those thoughts by sharing some of the remarkable experiences of a great missionary priest and Servant of God, Father Walter Ciszek, SJ (1904-1984).
Hailing from an area that we Pennsylvanians call the “coal regions,” Fr. Ciszek was inspired by Pope Pius XI’s call for priests to serve as missionaries in Russia. For a few years, he managed to exercise a clandestine ministry in Poland, Ukraine, and the Soviet Union. In 1941, however, he was falsely accused of espionage and arrested.
Fr. Ciszek then spent some twenty-three years in confinement in Soviet prisons and Siberian labor camps. This included five years of incarceration in the notorious Lubianka prison (which he calls “dreaded Lubianka”). He suffered cruel tortures of every kind: hard labor, starvation, non-lethal electrocution, freezing temperatures, isolation, humiliation, being placed on a firing line, and more.
In 1963, through diplomatic intervention, Fr. Ciszek was freed and returned to the United States.
Thereafter, with the help of a Jesuit confrere, he wrote two fascinating books. The first, entitled With God in Russia, is a memoir detailing his experiences from childhood through his release from prison. This book met with wide success, but Fr. Ciszek determined that the book he really desired to write was not a memoir of his life’s experiences, but rather an account of his spiritual journey. So he wrote his second book, He Leadeth Me.
For the record, it has always surprised me that Fr. Ciszek did not think of his first book as recounting his spiritual journey sufficiently. With God in Russia is replete with very inspiring, yet utterly simple, spiritual content. Again and again, his spirituality of surrender to the will of God emerges from the almost unbelievable account of events.
During much of his imprisonment, Fr. Ciszek was separated from the liturgical life of the Church. He had no bread or wine or missal to offer Mass. He had no priest to hear his confession. He had no breviary to pray the Divine Office.
In spite of all these deprivations, Fr. Ciszek did everything he could to remain connected to the Church and her liturgy. At one point during his hellish first year of incarceration, interrogation, and intimidation at Lubianka, he endured several weeks of severe isolation. Read this extraordinary account of those weeks carefully:
I began to organize my days as if I were in a Jesuit house back home, and I made up a daily order for myself. Just as soon as I got up in the morning, I would say the Morning Offering; then, after the morning wash-up, I would put in a solid hour of meditation. The 5:30 rising hour and seven o’clock breakfast were much like the daily order in most of the Jesuit houses I’d been in, and the days began to fall into a pattern.
After breakfast, I would say Mass by heart—that is, I would say all the prayers, for of course I couldn’t actually celebrate the Holy Sacrifice. I said the Angelus morning, noon, and night as the Kremlin clock chimed the hours. Before dinner, I would make my noon examen (examination of conscience); before going to bed at night I’d make the evening examen and points for the morning meditation, following St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises.
Every afternoon, I said three rosaries—one in Polish, one in Latin, and one in Russian—as a substitute for my breviary. After supper, I spent the evening reciting prayers and hymns from memory or even chanting them out loud: the Anima Christi, the Veni Creator, the Salve Regina, the Veni, Sancte Spiritus, especially the Dies Irae and the Miserere—all the things we had memorized in the novitiate as novices, the hymns we had sung during my years in the Society [of Jesus], the prayers I had learned as a boy back home.
Sometimes I’d spend hours trying to remember a line that had slipped my memory, sounding it over and over again until I had it right. During these times of prayer, I would also make up my own prayers, talking to God directly, asking for His help, but above all accepting His will for me, trusting completely to His Providence to see me through whatever might lie ahead. . . . Occasionally I’d make up an extemporaneous sermon or speech on some subject, just rambling along, talking out loud in order to keep myself sane.1
What an incredible account.
Even during his imprisonment, Fr. Ciszek was ever a priest. He took every opportunity to minister as he could, referring to the prison camp as “my parish.”
I talked to the sick from time to time, trying to encourage them as much as I could. But there wasn’t much anyone could do. I could—and did—give many of them absolution, and I’d sit close alongside them sometimes, whispering the prayers for the dying. I only hope it consoled them as much as it did me to be able to act as a priest again. 2
During his time in the prison camp at Dudinka (above the Arctic Circle), Fr. Ciszek had the good fortune to be in proximity to another priest, named Fr. Casper. Fr. Ciszek describes their first meeting:
Fr. Casper came looking for me in the barracks one night. Some of his Poles had told him there was another priest in camp. He found me before I had a chance to look him up and asked me if I wanted to say Mass. I was overwhelmed! My last Mass had been said in Chusovov more than five years ago. I made arrangements to meet him in his barrack next morning as soon as the six o’clock signal sounded.
The men in Fr. Casper’s barrack were mostly Poles. They revered him as a priest, protected him, and he tried to say Mass for them at least once a week. They made the Mass wine for him out of raisins they had stolen on the docks, the altar breads from flour “appropriated” in the kitchen. My chalice that morning was a whiskey glass, the paten to hold the host was a gold disc from a pocket watch. But my joy at being able to celebrate Mass again cannot be described.
Fr. Casper had the prayers of the Mass written out on a piece of paper. Although I knew them by heart, I was so moved and so excited that morning I was glad to have them. Afterward, he made me a copy. I tore them up when I left Dudinka, for fear they would be discovered in the routine processing inspections at the next camp. I wrote them again from memory inside the camp. 3
These passages reveal the heart of a man imbued with a deeply liturgical spirit. Separated against his will from the liturgy of the Church he loved, he intensified his prayer and his awareness of Divine Providence.
What so many Catholics across the globe are experiencing at present—separation from the liturgical life of the Church on account of COVID-19—is nothing by comparison to the sufferings of Fr. Ciszek. In no way do I mean to suggest an equivalence. The reason I am highlighting this great man right now is simple: his faith-filled response to tremendous sufferings can serve as a model for how we might deal with our own sufferings, no matter how they compare in size or scope.
At the outset of With God in Russia, Fr. Ciszek places a question on the lips of his readers and then answers it:
“How did you manage to survive?” To me, the answer is simple and I can say quite simply: Divine Providence. But how can I explain it? I don’t just mean that God took care of me. I mean that He called me to, prepared me for, then protected me during those years in Siberia. I am convinced of that; but then, it is my life, and I have experienced His hand at every turning. 4
Divine Providence is always with us. It calls us, prepares us, and protects us daily, even hourly. Let us resolutely rely upon it.
Grave of Fr. Walter Ciszek, SJ in Wernersville, PA
COVID-19 Pandemic Reflections
On Separation from the Sacraments:
On Returning to the Sacraments:
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 Walter J. Ciszek, with Daniel L. Flaherty, With God in Russia (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997), 88-89.
2 Ciszek, With God in Russia, 149.
3 Ciszek, With God in Russia, 207-208.
4 Ciszek, With God in Russia, 17.