Posts Tagged ‘Russia’
By 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.
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.
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.
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.
Jesuit Father General Adolfo Nicolás visited the Russian region from July 4 – 10. The visit began in Novosibirsk where he participated in a meeting of Jesuits working in the region. The theme of the meeting was “Apostolic and Communal Life in the Russian Region: a Challenge/Call to Live in Unity of Minds and Hearts.” The gathering was scheduled for three days and was an occasion for Fr. Nicolás to learn first-hand the opportunities and challenges facing the region, and to offer reflections regarding the future. From Novosibirsk, Father General traveled to Moscow where, on the morning of July 9, he met with representatives of the Department of External Relations of the Orthodox Russian Church. That afternoon, he attended a reception at the St. Thomas Institute, the theology, philosophy and history faculty run by the Jesuits in the Russian capital, and visited with the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Antonio Mennini. The next day, Father General “played tourist” visiting Red Square and other places of interest in Moscow; he also paid a visit to Archbishop Paolo Pezzi of Moscow.
As a young Jesuit from Arizona, Father Anthony Corcoran, SJ went as missionary to Siberia after the fall of the communism. He served in the parishes in and around Novosibirsk and in the formation of young priests. Recently, Fr. Corcoran was appointed as regional superior for the Jesuits in Russia, Siberia, Belarus, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Fr. Corcoran spoke of his support of the Jesuit and collaborators in the region and also of the development of the Saint Thomas Philosophical Institute in Moscow and a new Spiritual Center in Novosibirsk in a “Jesuit Voices” podcast from the Jesuit headquarters in Rome. Click here to listen.