Servant of God Father Walter Ciszek (1904-84) was an American Jesuit priest who was imprisoned for 15 years in solitary confinement and labor camps in the former Soviet Union, and another eight years with restricted freedom, before being allowed to return to the United States.
During his imprisonment, he often struggled to survive under harsh conditions, including the constant threat of starvation. Much of his time was spent in Siberia. When the opportunity arose, he cared for the spiritual needs of the people with whom he lived, providing Mass and the sacraments. Father Ciszek wrote of his experiences in two books, With God in Russia and He Leadeth Me.
Jesuit Father Brian Van Hove serves as chaplain to the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Michigan, and was interviewed as a part of Father Ciszek’s cause for canonization because Fathers Van Hove and Ciszek lived together for two years in the Bronx, New York.
Father Ciszek told him, “I should have died 20 different times in the Soviet Union, but God had something for me to do.”
Russia was a “mad slaughterhouse” during Father Ciszek’s years there (1940-63), Father Van Hove explained, and Father Ciszek saw bloodshed and brutality firsthand. In one incident, as Father Ciszek relates in With God in Russia, he and his fellow prisoners were crammed into the hold of a ship steaming upriver to the work camps in Siberia. Some prisoners rioted due to the poor conditions, and the guards machine-gunned many and threw their bodies in the river.
Yet despite seeing years of ugliness, Father Van Hove told the Register, “Father Ciszek didn’t go into despair or depression. He believed God had a purpose for him to be where he was.”
Father Van Hove remembers Father Ciszek as a cheerful, upbeat, good-natured man, “with piercing blue eyes that could penetrate your soul.” He also had an outgoing personality; Father Ciszek would organize the children of the Bronx into groups with a whistle and lead them in games.
Elaine Cusat, a volunteer with the Ciszek Prayer League, remembers Father Ciszek as “a beautiful person. … I was impressed by his spirituality and holiness; I was drawn to him.”
He was also known for his prayerfulness.
Mother Marija is an 88-year-old Byzantine discalced Carmelite nun who is part of Holy Annunciation Monastery in Sugarloaf, Pennsylvania, which Father Ciszek helped found. She described him as “a man of incredible prayer who loved people. He was a totally selfless and always happy.”
His cheerfulness and easygoing nature didn’t mean he didn’t have strong opinions, according to Mother Marija. When he something upset him, he was able to temper his reactions through his prayer life: “When he had to deal with something he didn’t like, he didn’t expect someone else to change — he changed himself.”
After years of poverty and want in the Soviet Union, for example, he was upset by what he perceived as the wastefulness of Americans and their lack of gratitude to God for their abundance. On a train ride through Pennsylvania during harvest time one year, he observed much of the harvest going to waste. Thinking of the many hungry Russians he’d known, he was initially angry, the nun recalled, but after reflection, he found peace. She explained, “He saw that it was God allowing the waste, so he decided it was okay.”
And Mother Marija related his practice of setting aside a small piece of bread at a meal, blessing it and eating it in gratitude for God supplying him with sufficient bread to save his life in Russia.
Cusat volunteered to cook for Father Ciszek and the sisters to whom he’d offer retreats. She recalled one time when she was cleaning up after a meal, she planned to scrape the residue of meatloaf and carrots from a pan down the sink. He stopped her and told her to scrape the remains into a pot and he’d use them to make soup the next day.
Father Van Hove remembers being outside of a prominent Catholic university on the feast of St. Ignatius, where inside a sumptuous feast awaited the priests and staff. As Father Van Hove recalled, “He refused to go inside. He thought it was a violation of the simplicity and spirit of poverty to which religious were called.”
Father Van Hove also remembered it was hard for Father Ciszek to escape other habits he’d acquired while in Russia. He was able to frequently write old friends in the Soviet Union, for example, despite the closed system of communication prevalent in the country at the time. As Father Van Hove said, “I’d ask him how he could keep connected with so many people. All he’d tell me was, ‘We have our ways.’”
Father Van Hove continued, “This was the way of the Soviet Union — you never reveal anything to anyone. Because if you did, you could get someone hurt.”
In fact, Father Van Hove added, it took years for Father Ciszek to come to believe that his release to the U.S. “was not a KGB trick.”
Mother Marija had the privilege of speaking with Father Ciszek over the phone the night before he died. Although physically in bad shape, he eagerly offered her his full attention. She recalled three things he told her: 1) “If you want to have peace when you die, try to do God’s will every day.” Or, as he’d always say, “Give God your lousy best.” 2) Realize the great value of confession. 3) “Stay away from evil; leave evil to God” — as in let God take care of evil.
As she said, “Father Ciszek was a great blessing in my life. I’m grateful for my friendship with him.”
Jim Graves writes from Newport Beach, California.
The Father Walter Ciszek Prayer League (Ciszek.org) will celebrate “Father Ciszek Day” Oct. 15 at the league’s center, 218 West Cherry St., Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. The center will be open noon to 1:30pm, followed by the Divine Liturgy at St. Casimir Church, 229 North Jardin St., Shenandoah. The homilist will be Jesuit Father Brian Van Hove, who once lived in community with Father Ciszek.