Born in Pennsylvania to Polish immigrants in 1904, Jesuit Father Walter Ciszek’s life as a priest was anything but ordinary. And now this remarkable Jesuit is one step closer to canonization as the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints has agreed to review and examine his life.
Originally assigned to Poland in the late 1930s, Father Ciszek fled to Russia when the Soviet Army invaded Eastern Poland during World War II. Hoping to serve exiles as a priest in disguise, Father Ciszek entered the Soviet Union under an assumed name.
In 1941, Father Ciszek was arrested by the Soviet Secret Police, who claimed he was a Vatican spy. He spent 23 years as a prisoner in the Soviet Union, including 15 years of hard labor in Siberia and five years of solitary confinement. According to Jesuit Father James Martin, Father Ciszek performed many ministries, even under the harshest of circumstances: “During the time, he secretly served as priest to his fellow prisoners, risking his life to offer counseling, hear confessions, and–most perilously—celebrating Mass.”
Father Ciszek himself described the brutal conditions, “We said Mass in drafty storage shacks, or huddled in mud and slush in the corner of a building site foundation of an underground. . . . Yet in these primitive conditions, the Mass brought you closer to God than anyone might conceivably imagine.”
By 1947, both Father Ciszek’s family and the Society of Jesus presumed he was dead; the Society even sent out a death notice. Eight long years later – in 1955 – Father Ciszek was finally allowed to write his first letter to his family, although his joyful reunion would have wait until 1963 when Father was finally returned to the United States after a complicated diplomatic prisoner exchange.
Fr. Ciszek’s cause will now undergo an examination by nine theologians to determine if he exhibited in his life the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, and the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance to a heroic degree. If the theologians agree that his virtue was indeed heroic, the Cause will be passed on to the Bishops and Cardinals, who are members of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, for their study. If their judgment is favorable, the results will be sent to the Holy Father for his consideration. If the Holy Father gives his approval, Fr. Ciszek will be declared a Servant of God or “Venerable.”
While the candidate for canonization who is declared venerable has no feast day, the faithful are encouraged to pray for his intercession. If it is proven that a miraculous cure has been granted in response to those prayers, the “Venerable” will be declared “Blessed.” Finally, if an additional miracle through the intercession of the Blessed is verified, the Church will formally declare Father Ciszek a saint.
Materials and documentation bolstering Father Ciszek’s cause include testimony from 45 witnesses, Father Ciszek’s published and unpublished works, and transcription of hundreds of his handwritten documents.