Posts Tagged ‘Ciszek’

A Jesuit Vocation Story for the 21st Century

Jesuit Jason BrauningerIt’s not uncommon for Jesuits to discover their vocation to the Society of Jesus while attending Jesuit-run high schools or universities. But Jesuit scholastic Jason Brauninger’s vocation story is different — he found the Society of Jesus on the Internet.

Brauninger was always curious about a religious vocation, but the diocesan and monastic life didn’t seem to fit him. The more he researched the Society of Jesus, the more he felt called to it, despite having never met a Jesuit. What he learned online made an impact. He was struck by the Jesuit commitment to working in the world and the emphasis on using one’s gifts and talents to serve others.

Born and raised in New Orleans, Brauninger had started training as a junior firefighter at the age of 14 and received a bachelor’s degree in fire science before entering the Society. However, while praying during a 30-day retreat as a Jesuit novice, he felt drawn toward the nursing profession. “It wasn’t quite what I expected to hear,” Brauninger says of the discovery. “But everything has fallen into place and it all happened because of the grace of God.”

Brauninger completed a bachelor’s degree in nursing at Saint Louis University and became a cardiac care nurse. Now Brauninger is at Regis University in Denver, where he lives with the Regis Jesuit Community, works as a trauma nurse at a local hospital and teaches in the school of nursing.

“It is a great privilege to be at Regis. I’m able to continue my formation as a Jesuit, work as a clinician and learn how to be a professor,” Brauninger says. “I love being with the students.”

Regis University

Father Walter Ciszek’s Years in Russian Prison: School of Prayer?

By John Levko, SJ

Editor’s Note: In 1964, John Levko, a 22-year-old newly minted college graduate considering a vocation to the Jesuits, first met Father Walter Ciszek.  Profoundly influenced by his time with the legendary priest, Levko entered the Society of Jesus, and the two began a friendship that would endure until Fr. Ciszek’s death in 1984. As the first postulator for the cause for Fr. Ciszek’s canonization, Fr. Levko was charged with preparing the supporting documentation for the cause for sainthood. In the following article excerpted for National Jesuit News, Fr. Levko writes about Fr. Ciszek’s many years in Russian prisons and the profound impact it had on his spiritual journey. 

Jesuit Father John Levko with Pope John Paul II

Jesuit Father John Levko presents the Holy Father with the Polish version of Father Walter Ciszek’s book, "With God in Russia."

In October 1963 a small, stocky Polish Jesuit, Fr. Walter Ciszek, SJ, returned to the United States after 23 years in Russian confinement. He was amazed at the wastefulness he found. One of the first things he remarked about was the propensity toward blatant materialism, with spiritual life focused on personal needs rather than gratitude. It had taken him 59 years, five of those in solitary confinement in Moscow’s dreaded Lubianka prison, to realize that progress in the spiritual life was correlated with one’s willingness to let go, with inner freedom, for where there was no risk, no challenge, there was no spiritual growth. It was Walter’s prayer life that held his spiritual journey together, and Lubianka prison was in many respects the school of that prayer.

As with any spiritual journey concerned with growth in prayer, there is always a purification process. As described in his memoir, “He Leadeth Me,” Walter Ciszek experienced the “sinking feeling of helplessness and powerlessness” after his arrest in Russia in 1941. He felt “completely cut off from everything and everyone who might conceivably help him. Considered a Vatican spy, he was transferred to Lubianka prison where men were reportedly broken “in body and spirit.” As he had done in every crisis in the past when there was no one to turn to, Walter “turned to God in prayer.”

While an interior voice helped him focus his faith, it was faith in prayer that sustained Walter, the same faith that made him conscious of his readiness and natural competency to handle whatever came along. Naturally stubborn and strong-willed, Walter spent a great part of his life “developing willpower and training the will.” Because he realized early that self-control was not enough in struggling against depression, fear, and insecurity, spiritual growth was contingent on the depth of his personal relationship with God.

Jesuit Fathers John Levko and Walter Ciszek

Jesuit Fathers Levko and Ciszek at the John XXIII Ecumenical Center at Fordham University.

Walter’s asceticism in Lubianka became a life of prayer and humble faith in God. It was in prayer that self-conversion started and never ended. The absolute silence of God during solitary confinement suggested that he give in to his interrogators. Instead, he turned to prayer and persevered in it until the suggestion vanished. Persevering in prayer countered loneliness, confusion and worthlessness and led to continuous prayer; suffering patiently the internal dilemma of persevering in prayer was the prerequisite for finding that loneliness was the grace of faith given at that moment. He sensed deeply the frustrating pains of loneliness, confusion, and worthlessness while at the same time accepted all these in the spirit of faith and continued to serve God without change or compromise.

For some in Lubianka the time passed quickly, while for others the seconds passed like minutes and even hours. There was only one constant in Lubianka – the total and all-pervading silence.  In this inner darkness Walter experienced despair, lost hope and sight of God, and even for a moment lost the last shreds of his faith in God. Nevertheless, instinctively he turned to prayer and almost immediately was consoled by our Lord’s agony in the garden. He had gone from “total blackness” to “an experience of blinding light” in what he could only call “a conversion experience” that changed his life. From that moment he knew exactly what he must do and completely abandoned himself into God’s hands with a readiness to let Christ fully transform him.

Discernment: A Seeing Soul

Jesuit Father John Levko’s Minor Orders Ceremony,

Jesuit Father John Levko’s Minor Orders Ceremony. Jesuit Father Walter Ciszek is front left.

Walter’s Lubianka conversion allowed him now to have a single vision of Christ in all things and the desire to discern His will in every situation.  After his release from Lubianka, he experienced no anger or bitterness but peace and a deep sense of internal freedom. The forced Lubianka silence was gone and with it the easy prayerful recollection. The need to listen for the interior voice of conscience and discern God’s will in every situation became critical if he was to enter into a relationship with the living Lord. The concentration and attention required in prayer were not acts that deprived him of true freedom, but simply steps leading him to a gradual fuller freedom in God.

The Catholic Church is now taking an exhaustive look at the details of Walter’s spiritual journey in connection with a cause for his canonization. By abandoning himself to God’s will, Walter’s journey in prayer echoed other spiritual journeys of many saints in the past. It was in the silence of his heart that he came to realize that the peak of human freedom is unselfish love. And yet there was a uniqueness in Walter’s journey and certainly in his cross that made him a model for many Christians today, especially in these troubled times. The conversion experience in a silent cell left him with an unconditional readiness to change his life and place everything in God’s hands. Lubianka provided the nails for his cross and the necessary purification for a saintly life of priestly service grounded in discernment and prayer.

Cassian’s Prayer for the 21st Century book coverFor additional reading, Fr. Levko explores the religious traditions of Eastern Christianity in his book “Cassian’s Prayer for the 21st Century,” available from

Jesuit Reflects on Taking Final Vows in the Society

Jesuit Father Joseph MuellerJesuit Father Joseph Mueller, a professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee, recently professed his final vows to the Society of Jesus, the same vows St. Ignatius took when he founded the religious order in 1534.

Fr. Mueller joined the Jesuits soon after graduating from Marquette, and his recent final vows come after years of preparation and reflection.

“I realized in college I actually thought the way the Jesuits thought and looked at the world the way they do,” Fr. Mueller said.

Besides the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience that Fr. Mueller took after two years as a Jesuit novice, the final vows include a vow of special obedience to the pope.

“When I make these final vows, they’re again a perpetual commitment on my part,” Fr. Mueller said. “It’s a lifelong commitment. But this time, the condition that was on them before is no longer there. The Jesuits are saying we think you worked out. You’re in.”

According to Jesuit Father James Martin in an America magazine article on final vows, “It’s somewhat like making tenure (you’re already a professor, but now you’re a ‘full’ one). It’s somewhat like making partner in a law firm (you’re already a member of a law firm, but now you’re a ‘full one).”

“I decided to become a Jesuit when I was a student here. I did it because I thought that’s what God wants me to do. I think Marquette students could benefit from listening for that kind of call from God,” Fr. Mueller said.

Read more about Fr. Mueller’s final vows at the Marquette Tribune.

What Kind of Monk Are You? Following in the Footsteps of Father Walter Ciszek

Jesuit Thomas M. SimiskyBy Thomas M. Simisky

Thomas M. Simisky, a Jesuit scholastic in his third year of theology studies at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, wrote the following reflection about his connection to Jesuit Father Walter Ciszek and his own service in Russia.

“Well, I’m not really a monk.  I’m a member of the Society of Jesus.  This is kind of a pilgrimage, encountering God as St. Ignatius might.” Thus began many conversations in Siberia this past summer when people struggled to figure me out.

Russia is overwhelmingly Orthodox, which means people are familiar with married priests and celibate monks living in monasteries. Religious life in our Western tradition is hard to grasp. The fact that I lived vowed life in community pointed towards monastic life.  However, I spent my days working with Russia’s poorest populations and my weekends socializing with friends. Plus, I smiled too much.

So the question kept arising: What was I doing in Russia and why did I even want to be there? After Jesus and Ignatius of Loyola, Walter Ciszek gets the credit.

Reading His Story

During the first year of my novitiate in Syracuse, our Novice Master asked us to choose an inspiring Jesuit saint. I came across Walter Ciszek, SJ, and immediately felt a connection.  Fr. Ciszek described himself as a tough, stubborn Pole and an unlikely candidate for priesthood. As a former Marine artillery officer, I still had many of my own rough edges.  Though not a canonized saint, he fulfilled my criteria of holiness. He clearly possessed the missionary zeal that I hoped to emulate in my Jesuit life.

Jesuit Thomas M. Simisky

I appreciated his direct style, especially the quotation: “Man was created to praise, reverence, and serve God in this world and to be happy with him forever in the next. That is the fact of the matter; you believe it or you don’t — and that is the end of it.” These words have inspired me at various times when I find myself getting down about something. I hear Ciszek’s advice as: “Tom, quit complaining. Get grateful. Put the focus back on Christ.”

After the novitiate, I spent three years in Bolivia and Chile studying philosophy. There I met a couple of Chilean Jesuits who had been missioned to Russia. I was fascinated by their stories. Later, I taught theology at Cheverus High School in Maine. Just for fun, I signed up for Russian classes through Portland’s adult education program. (Yes, Maine winters are long and one needs hobbies.)

During my second year of teaching, I discussed some chapters of “He Leadeth Me” with my senior theology classes. His story also intrigued many of my students. The consensus seemed to be, if he can find God in Soviet gulags, we should be able to find God in our lives.

Meeting the People He Loved

I am currently in my third year of theology studies at Boston College School of Theology and Ministry and progressing toward priestly ordination. When I arrived, I asked to continue my Russian studies with a private tutor and to do apostolic work there during the summers.

Thomas M. Simisky with Missionaries of Charity sisters

Jesuit Thomas Simisky with Missionaries of Charity sisters.

My first summer was spent in Moscow in 2011. There I volunteered in an orphanage run by the Missionaries of Charity (Mother Theresa sisters) for children with severe disabilities.  I also helped organize books in the St. Thomas Institute library, a Jesuit school that grants bachelor’s degrees in religious studies.

On Sundays, I would attend different masses and be amazed by the enthusiasm of the Catholic community. There are only three Catholic churches in Moscow, each holding masses in various languages (Russian, Polish, French, German, Lithuanian, Spanish and English).  Every mass was standing room only and very international, the beauty of our Catholic faith.

This past summer was spent in Novosibirsk. There, the Society of Jesus runs a retreat house, as well as a pre-seminary for candidates who will move on to the diocesan seminary in St. Petersburg or the Jesuit novitiate in Poland. My task was to work with street alcoholics living at the Missionaries of Charity home. I taught a daily spirituality class in Russian to 15-20 adults whom the sisters had rescued from the streets. The rest of my day would be spent in pastoral conversations and simple housecleaning.

Another privileged encounter with Christ was the “Maly Kovcheg” (Little Ark) summer camp for adults with disabilities. This is a L’Arche-inspired community of Catholic and Orthodox volunteers who have been working together for the past 11 years. While physically challenging in many ways —  transporting patients in a rural setting and the labor involved in setting up the camp — it was a place of overwhelming joy and gratitude.

What Kind of Jesuit?

So, I’m not a monk. I am a sinner, yet called to be a companion of Jesus as Ignatius was (General Congregation 32). St. Ignatius always referred to himself as the pilgrim and dreamed of going to the Holy Land to walk in Jesus’ footsteps.

Walter Ciszek found God in Russia, and I too have found it to be a holy land because of its people. Russians face many challenges today, much of which comes from its history and the devastating effects of alcoholism on so many families. But I am grateful to Fr. Ciszek’s spiritual guidance, pointing me East so that I too might share in the love he had for the Russian people.

Ignatian News Network Highlights Life of Jesuit Father Walter Ciszek

Jesuit Father Walter Ciszek’s life is being celebrated during National Jesuit Vocation Month, and the Ignatian News Network (INN) has released a new video to highlight his story. “Father Walter Ciszek: A Jesuit at the Frontiers” gives an overview of Fr. Cizsek’s life, from his youth to his time in prison and labor camps in the Soviet Union to his release, which was orchestrated by Robert F. Kennedy and President John F. Kennedy. INN did extensive archival research to produce the video, which includes an interview with Jesuit Father Daniel Flaherty, Fr. Ciszek’s co-author on two books about his life.

“If there was one thing Walter prided himself on, it was being tough, so he always wanted to do the harder thing. If you could do it, he could do it better,” says Fr. Flaherty of Fr. Ciszek, whose service on the frontier of Russia still inspires Jesuit vocations today.