There is an early, defining moment in Joyce Duriga's biography of Father Augustus Tolton. Father…
The incredible story of Father Walter Ciszek
For tourists, even for pilgrims, the headquarters of the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, in Rome is off the beaten path. It is nothing special in a city filled with landmarks. Rather ordinary in function, history and purpose, it houses officials of the Jesuits, Jesuits working in various jobs in the Vatican and the bureaucracy needed to operate the society.
Its chapel, although perhaps not frequented by visitors, is a place sure to inspire any believer. In view in the chapel are relics of Jesuit martyrs — Frenchman St. Jean de Brebeuf, who was killed under appalling circumstances in present upstate New York; Japanese St. Paul Miki, who preached the Gospel from the cross upon which he was crucified; and the martyrs of the English Reformation, who faced “dungeon, fire and sword,” as the old Catholic hymn, “Faith of Our Fathers,” recalls.
Bravery in the cause of Christ did not end for the Jesuits with martyrs who died 500 years ago. A more recent addition to the list was a native of the United States and an American citizen, Father Walter Joseph Ciszek.
He was born on Nov. 4, 1904, in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, the son of immigrants from what today is Poland. They were not wealthy. As happens at times with less than advantaged youth, he fell in with the wrong kind, so he surprised everyone by announcing his wish to be a Jesuit priest.
Pursuing this goal, he began studies in 1928. Then he declared an even more startling ambition. He wanted to go to Russia, when Russia was first experiencing communism, and it was bitter, especially for religion. The Communists played for keeps, and they despised religion, especially Catholicity.
(It is no wonder that today the former Soviet-dominated, prominently Catholic, societies of western Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Slovakia and others, want no part of Russia. They remember the past and how Catholics suffered.)
Walter Ciszek wanted to step into the footprints of Jesuit missionaries. Above all else, he wanted to bring Christ to others. He wanted to strengthen commitments to Christ. He wanted to embed the sweetness of the Gospel, in hearts, and in societies, where hatred and meanness prevailed.
Ordained on June 24, 1937, Father Ciszek was sent to Poland, to a Jesuit mission near the Russian border. He dared to cross into the then-Soviet Union to search for Catholics. In 1941, the authorities caught him. He underwent severe torture, accused of being a “Vatican spy.” In the end, they sent him to a slave labor camp in Siberia.
Life was wretched. Father Ciszek risked everything, and he knew it, but in the camp, he secretly found Catholics, prayed with them, nursed them, consoled them, heard their confessions and, in the strictest secrecy, celebrated the Eucharist, according to the Byzantine Catholic rite, for them.
Had authorities discovered it, consequences would have been terrifying.
He was never forgotten back home. Word somehow reached President John F. Kennedy, who decided to involve himself in Father Ciszek’s situation. The U.S. Department of State proposed a deal to the Soviets. Release the priest, allow him to go home to the United States, and in return, the Americans would permit two Russians, held in this country for espionage, to return to Russia.
Agreement came only a month before Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, but the plan held.
Back in the United States, Father Ciszek was assigned to teach at the University of Scranton, a Jesuit school. He died on Dec. 8, 1984. He is being considered for canonization. His autobiography, “With God in Russia,” is still in print. So is “He Leadeth Me,” his spiritual testimony. Both are fascinating reads.
The martyrs, like Father Ciszek, who endured living deaths, should make us all ask why Christ, and the Catholic faith, were so precious that to keep the knowledge of Christ alive they went through so much.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s chaplain.