January 9, 2009

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Possible U.S. saints: Father Walter Ciszek

John F. Fink(Thirty-first in a series of columns)

When Walter Ciszek, born in 1904, was growing up in Shenandoah, Pa., he seemed an unlikely candidate for the priesthood. He later wrote that he was “tough, stubborn, a bully, the leader of a gang, a street fighter.” So his father was amazed when Walter announced, after he completed eighth grade, that he wanted to be a priest.

He entered SS. Cyril and Methodius Seminary at Orchard Lake, Mich. He kept in top physical condition by running five miles a day and swimming in a cold lake. He said that he always wanted to do “the hardest thing” so when a priest talked about the toughness of the Jesuit St. Stanislaus Kostka, Walter decided he wanted to be a Jesuit, too. He studied at Jesuit seminaries in this country before finishing his education at Gregorian University and the Russian College in Rome, and was ordained on June 24, 1937.

Well before his ordination, he hoped to be able to answer the pope’s invitation to Jesuits to minister to the persecuted Church in the Soviet Union. His Jesuit superior, therefore, assigned him to a parish in Poland, where he waited for a chance to minister in Russia.

When Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland in 1939, Father Ciszek hopped a railroad boxcar for the Ural Mountains in Russia. Using the alias Vladimir Lypinski, he got a job hauling logs from a river and piling them on shore. He celebrated Mass on a tree stump. Gradually, believers learned of the priest’s presence, and Father Ciszek ministered to them at night.

In 1941, the Soviet Union’s KGB arrested him. He was surprised to learn that the KGB knew his real name, national origin, and the fact that he was a priest.

However, they thought he was a German spy. They sent him to the infamous Lubjanka Prison in Moscow. For four years, he was confined to a cell measuring six feet by 10 feet, and allowed out 20 minutes daily for exercise. He spent his time praying the Mass prayers, the Angelus, several rosaries and other prayers.

He also underwent “relentless questioning.” Eventually, after being given drug-laced tea, he confessed to being a Vatican spy. When presented with an agreement to work as a spy for the Soviet Union, he refused and was beaten.

He was then sent to Siberia, where he spent 15 years at two slave-labor camps at hard labor—coal miner, log-retriever, construction worker. In those camps, too, he worked as a priest among his fellow prisoners.

In 1955, after 15 years, he was released, but told to remain in Norilsk, Siberia. There he celebrated Mass, performed baptisms and weddings, and visited the sick. Later, he was sent to two other cities, where he continued his ministry.

In 1963, he and another American were exchanged for a Russian couple who had been convicted of spying in the United States. He returned to the United States, where he taught at Fordham University until his death in 1984 at age 80. †

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