Posts Tagged ‘Ciszek’
Timothy O’Brien, a Jesuit scholastic of the Maryland Province and a graduate student at the University of Chicago Divinity School, offers this reflection on Jesuit Father Walter Ciszek, whom the Society of Jesus in the United States is highlighting for National Vocation Month.
I first met Jesuit Father Walter Ciszek in 2007. I was a restless 23-year-old government bureaucrat discerning a vocation to the Society of Jesus. He had been dead for about as long as I had been alive. Nonetheless, we were introduced when a Jesuit friend recommended Ciszek’s two books — “With God in Russia” (1964) and “He Leadeth Me” (1973) — as spiritual reading while I awaited the Society’s decision on my application to enter the novitiate. “Walter Ciszek is one of our un-canonized saints,” my friend told me. “For now,” he might have added.
Even on paper, Ciszek made quite a first impression. Within the first pages of “With God in Russia,” he disabuses readers that he was a very likely candidate for the priesthood or for the Society of Jesus — let alone sainthood. As a kid, Walter was a local tough; he was a terror who picked fights just because he knew he could win them. Later on, well into his vocational discernment, he relates both a screaming match with his father (who opposed his entering the Jesuits) and talking back to his novice master (who had suggested that the Jesuits might not be the right fit). Far from a haloed image on a holy card, Ciszek emphasized his impressive stubbornness and his open hostility to exaggerated piety. This was clearly no ordinary saint’s biography.
I liked him immediately.
And yet his story scared me half to death — or at least intimidated me more than I was comfortable admitting at the time. How could a low-level bureaucrat like me, who read Ciszek’s books over lunch break, hope to join the same Society as a man who had gone (in person and unannounced) from Michigan to New York to tell the provincial he was determined to enter the Jesuits? How could I, who met my match teaching a weekly 8th grade Sunday school class, follow in the footsteps of one who volunteered for the Russian missions — and then spent twenty years in Soviet captivity? Two peas in a pod we were not.
But the intimidation factor of reading about his exploits was only a small part of our acquaintance. The truth is, my heart was stirred as he told his story. The idea of a saint who took the scenic route to sanctity was (and is) endlessly hopeful and consoling. For all our differences, there were also points of deep resonance between us. He was able to put words to desires that I felt strongly but inarticulately — desires that had impelled me to apply to the Society of Jesus in the first place. Two of these remain vivid to this day: first, the intuition to seek the presence of God everywhere, even, and perhaps especially, in the most unlikely places. And second, the desire to speak of God with those who do not know him — who may even be hostile to knowing him — in ways that are honest, real and guided by experience.
Ciszek was convinced that he was put in very challenging, even life-threatening, circumstances because it was God’s will for him at that time. God, he said, “was asking only that I learn to see these suffering men around me, these circumstances [in prison], as sent from his hand and ordained by his providence.” He was convinced, in other words, that the story he was telling was not just his own, a tale of his private sufferings. Instead, it was the story of his life with God, a God who met him in places that we can only describe as godforsaken (e.g., the Gulag). He saw his time in Russia as a gift — no doubt a hard one — given him by God for the good of those he met there, and the good of all those moved by his later writings.
This struck me as profoundly true, though our circumstances were as different as could be. Throughout my own discernment process, I had the sense that God was calling me someplace that I had not chosen, but that was exactly where God was waiting to meet me — and therefore was precisely where I needed to be. Then as now, the times in my life when God has felt the closest were also the times when I was most vulnerable and therefore most dependent on God. Then as now, I prayed for Ciszek’s breathtaking ability to see the hand of the Lord in those places I all too hastily regard as cordoned off from God.
Practically everywhere he went in Russia, Walter Ciszek found himself doing some form of ministry. At times this was sacramental, at times it was a ministry of presence. But his ministry that struck me most forcefully was his constant engagement in “spiritual conversation.” And like so many Jesuits before and after him, Ciszek was not speaking with the pre-converted. He was a priest and believer in officially atheist Russia. His interlocutors were skeptical, if not outright hostile, to religious belief. And they were well versed in the faults and failings of churches and those who lead them.
As one who came of age and began discerning my vocation to the Society of Jesus during the height of the sex-abuse crisis in the American Church, these types of conversations became familiar. They mirrored the very topics that came up with friends, family and even the occasional perfect stranger. Yet I was encouraged by how Walter Ciszek handled them: with honesty and humility, never dodging or evading obvious problems. In words that can only be described as unflinching, he admitted that the Church “has its share of scandals and bad leaders, of mediocre minds, of selfishness and skin-deep spirituality, of fallible and imperfect men who do not always practice what they preach.” And yet his eyes were always trained on what God was doing in the Church — not his imperfect ministers. Behind any troubles, he saw the Lord who called this Church into being, and who, despite all shortcomings, sustains it still as the place “wherein even the weak can be made strong.” This was true when Ciszek was in Russia, true as I was applying to join the Society and true today.
I was intimidated upon first reading about Walter Ciszek partly because I thought my Jesuit life might not look just like his own. It doesn’t exactly work that way, I’ve found. Instead, we are asked to see and respond to the needs of God’s people in the present, here and now. The details are different in every age, but we are always called to respond generously. Saints, like Walter Ciszek, show us how to do that with honesty, integrity and eyes fixed on God. May we follow his example.
Walter Ciszek, pray for us.
Today is the feast of All Saints and Blessed of the Society of Jesus, and also when National Vocation Promotion Day is observed by Jesuits and their partners.
Jesuits are blessed to continue to have prayerful men with generous hearts who desire to labor in and for the Kingdom. Today, Jesuits recognize the ongoing need to engage men who might be called to religious life.
The Society of Jesus is a community of priests and brothers dedicated to the service of God and the Church for the betterment of the world around us. No matter what the work, from university to infirmary to barrio, it is for the glory of God and the help and salvation of souls.
Even within the Society of Jesus, there is a great variety of voices, an array of talents, but all are at the service of the call and the mission. Some are gifted at social analysis, others at immediate and effective working with people at the margins of life or society. Many are scholars, many are missionaries. Whether teaching, preaching, giving the sacraments or praying for the society, the voices are as varied as the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, but there must be one message: to love God with all our hearts and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
If you or someone you know is discerning a vocation calling to join the Jesuits in service, we encourage you to visit jesuit.org for more information on the Society of Jesus.
Today, on National Vocations Promotion day, National Jesuit News offers a prayer for vocations to the Society of Jesus.
in the name of Jesus,
through the power of Your Holy Spirit,
we pray that You inflame the hearts of men
with courage and trust
and the desire to labor for Your Kingdom
We ask You
through the intercession of Mary, our Mother,
St. Ignatius, and all Your saints,
to bless the Society of Jesus
with bountiful vocations
that it may continue to serve Your church
with passion and zeal.
May Your will be done.
Below, Jesuit Father Robert Ballecer, national director of vocation promotion for the Society of Jesus urges us to reflect on this day of the feast of All Saints and Blessed of the Society of Jesus and asks that you help us to continue the mission.
On October 12, 1963, American-born Jesuit Father Walter Ciszek (1904-1984) arrived in New York after 23 years in Russia, much of it spent in captivity in Siberian labor camps and Soviet prisons. To add to the intrigue surrounding this extraordinary Jesuit’s life, Fr. Ciszek’s daring release — a complicated prisoner exchange — was negotiated with the help of President John F. Kennedy just one month before the president’s tragic assassination. Although Fr. Ciszek’s life reads like a Hollywood script, his experience results from one simple question: Will you devote your life to the service of others? As Jesuits have for centuries, Fr. Walter Ciszek answered that call.
To commemorate his inspirational life, the Society of Jesus, the largest order of priests and brothers in the Roman Catholic Church, has chosen to highlight Fr. Walter Ciszek and the theme, Life in Service, for November’s Vocation Month.
Father Robert Ballecer, director of the Office of National Vocation Promotion for the Jesuits, explains, “Walter Ciszek’s work is a legacy of the frontier spirit of the Society of Jesus. It’s the spirit of ‘Where is God calling me today?’ Walter Ciszek answered the call by going to the Soviet Union. Today, Jesuits are working around the globe on the frontiers – from building schools in Malawi to aiding migrants at a small border town between the United States and Mexico. That’s the spirit of the Society; that’s the spirit of service.”
According to Fr. Ballecer, Fr. Ciszek is still beloved by American Jesuits, and those who knew him remember his kindness and humility. Among other tributes, Ciszek Hall, the community of young Jesuits in “First Studies” at Fordham University, is named for Fr. Ciszek.
A Call Answered
Born in 1904 in Shenandoah, Pa., to Polish immigrants, Fr. Ciszek joined the Jesuits in 1928. The next year, he learned that Pope Pius XI was calling on seminarians to enter a new Russian center in Rome to prepare priests for work in Russia. For Fr. Ciszek, it was “almost like a direct call from God.”
Missioned to Rome to study theology and the Byzantine rite, Fr. Ciszek was ordained in 1937, but since priests could not be sent to Russia, he was assigned to work in Poland. When war broke out in 1939, Fr. Ciszek was able to enter Russia with false identification papers. He worked as an unskilled laborer until June 1941 when the secret police arrested him as a suspected spy.
After his arrest, Fr. Ciszek found himself in the infamous Lubianka Prison in Moscow, where he was interrogated as a “Vatican spy” and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in Siberia. Although forced to work in a Gulag coal mine, Fr. Ciszek found ways to hear confessions and say Mass.
“For all the hardships and suffering endured there, the prison camps of Siberia held one great consolation for me: I was able to function as a priest again. I was able to say Mass again, although in secret, to hear confessions, to baptize, to comfort the sick, and to minister to the dying,” he wrote.
In 1955, Fr. Ciszek’s sentence ended early since he had surpassed his work quotas, and he was freed from the labor camps but forced to live in the Gulag city of Norilsk, where he worked in a chemical factory. Happily, after decades of being presumed dead, Fr. Ciszek was finally allowed to write to family members in the United States.
In Norilsk, Fr. Ciszek and other priests ministered to a growing parish but, before too long, the KGB threatened to arrest him if he continued his ministry. Missioned to another city, the KGB quickly shut him down again.
Then, in 1963, Fr. Ciszek learned he was going home. In a release negotiated by President John F. Kennedy, he and an American student were returned to the United States in exchange for two Soviet agents. Following his return, Fr. Ciszek worked at the John XXIII Center at Fordham University (now the Center for Eastern Christian Studies at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania), until his death in 1984.
Jesuits Called to the Frontiers
Like Fr. Ciszek and his Jesuit brothers, the present-day Society of Jesus is also called to the frontiers.
Fr. Ballecer explains, “In Fr. Ciszek’s time, the frontiers were physical boundaries, parts of the world we hadn’t fully explored. Today, the frontiers are often in new areas, including media, science and technology. From Jesuits working with a development team on a particle accelerator in Europe to the Higher Education at the Margins program, which brings college courses to refugee camps, Jesuits aspire to serve where the need is greatest.”
An Inspiring Life in Service
A quarter century after his death, Fr. Ciszek’s life is still inspiring those considering a Jesuit vocation, and soon even more people may learn of his legacy. This past March, the Vatican gave its formal approval to begin the canonization process for Fr. Ciszek.
Fr. Ballecer says Fr. Ciszek is more relevant today than he ever was. “A life in service like Walter Ciszek’s means commitment; it means something that’s unknown; it means relinquishing control of your life to something that’s bigger than you. What will you do when someone asks you to do something difficult, but worthwhile?”
In his memoir describing his years in Russia, “He Leadeth Me,” Fr. Ciszek wrote: “My aim in entering Russia was the same from beginning to end: to help find God and attain eternal life.” By devoting his life to serving God and his people, Fr. Ciszek succeeded in both goals.