Posts Tagged ‘Jesuit Father Walter Ciszek’

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

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.

Father Walter Ciszek: Still Inspiring Jesuit Vocations

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.

Jesuit Timothy O’BrienI 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.

With God in Russia coverCiszek 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.

Jesuit Father Walter Ciszek: A Life in Service

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 Jesuit Father Walter Ciszek 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.”

Jesuit Father Walter Ciszek in 1938

Jesuit Father Walter Ciszek (center) in 1938.

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 hometown welcome for Fr. Ciszek upon his return to the United States in 1963.

A hometown welcome for Fr. Ciszek upon his return to the United States.

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.