Diocese to Host Online Lecture on Prisoner-Priest in USSR, Dealing with Isolation

Father Ritz’s presentation, “Living in Isolation: The Story of Fr. Walter Ciszek,” will be livestreamed Tuesday, April 28 at 8 p.m. Eastern Time.

Father Ciszek.
Father Ciszek. (photo: CNA.)

DENVER, Colo. — Jesuit Fr. Walter Ciszek, wanted to be a missionary in the Soviet Union. He didn't know he'd spend most of the decades he lived inside the country within the walls of a prison, much of the time in complete isolation. But Father Ciszek found closeness to God in labor camps and prison cells, never knowing what might happen to him next.

The isolation Fr. Ciszek experienced as a prisoner of the Soviet Union brought out heroic virtues that can help those suffering from the isolation of the coronavirus pandemic today, says a priest who will discuss Ciszek’s life in an April 28 webcast.

“Father Ciszek lived many kinds of isolation,” Father Eugene Ritz told CNA. “He experienced physical isolation from his family, his Jesuit spiritual family, and friends. He often lived in isolation from the sacraments. He lived in isolation from a culture that permitted a notion of God and worship of Him. He lived in interior and spiritual isolation, especially when he could not present himself as a priest or exercise ministry.”

“Many lost faith during their time in the Gulag, including other priests,” said the Pennsylvania priest. However, Ciszek showed the virtue of fortitude in his isolation. Father Ritz praised Father Ciszek’s “firmness in difficulty, his constancy in pursuit of the good, and his resolve to resist temptation, conquer fear and face tremendous trials.”

Father Ritz’s presentation, “Living in Isolation: The Story of Fr. Walter Ciszek,” will be livestreamed Tuesday, April 28 at 8 p.m. Eastern Time. The event is presented by the diocese’s Commission for Young Adults.

Fr. Ciszek was born in 1904 in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, in what is now the Allentown diocese.

He entered the Jesuit novitiate in 1928 and was ordained in 1937, after training to say Mass in the Russian rite. After two years in Poland, he used the chaos of World War II as cover to enter the Soviet Union so that he could minister to Christians who lived under communist persecution.

He was arrested by the Soviet authorities as a supposed spy in 1941. His imprisonment included torturous interrogation, solitary confinement and years of hard labor near the Arctic Circle. Despite the dangers, he said Mass in secret and heard the confessions of other prisoners.

When he was not imprisoned, he also ministered to several parishes. Ciszek was not released until a 1963 prisoner exchange, when he returned to the United States. He recounted his experiences and their spiritual meaning in his popular memoirs “He Leadeth Me” and “With God in Russia.”

Father Ritz, who serves as the Allentown diocese’s chancellor, is co-postulator of Ciszek’s canonization. In this role he helps advance the late priest’s case to become a saint through the processes of the Catholic Church.

For Father Ritz, there is much to learn from the priest’s example.

“One of my favorite lessons of Father Ciszek is that Christ alone guarantees success,” he said. “It was his message to the priests in the labor camp in Siberia that in their struggles of being isolated from their families, friends, parishioners, religious communities, and too frequently the celebration of the Sacraments, Father Ciszek called them to refocus on the person of Christ and his providence.”

The lecture is linked to the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed some 200,000 people worldwide.

The pandemic has left many people isolated. Those in the hospital are barred from receiving visits. In dozens of countries authorities have ordered millions more to stay at home, disrupting family life, social life and economic life around the world.

“To those not handling this very well I would tell them that they are in good company, and remind them that what we suffer helps us to grow in virtue, and that in all things trust the providence that God remains with us, and he alone guarantees our success,” Father Ritz said.

Bishop Alfred Schlert of Allentown will provide opening remarks for Ritz’s lecture. The bishop, too, reflected on Father Ciszek’s example in a world rocked by a new disease.

“The people of the Diocese of Allentown, especially those in the area where Father Ciszek was born and raised, pray always that this man who once walked among us, will someday be a saint,” Schlert told CNA April 27. “As a priest, he spent many years in captive isolation in the Russian gulag. Due to the pandemic, we now live in a form of isolation, and so we look to Father Ciszek to teach us what God would want us to learn about our spiritual lives in this time of hardship.”

Father Ritz said the lecture will give an overview of Father Ciszek’s life and his cause for canonization. His heroic virtue is particularly relevant due to his response to atheistic communism and contemporary Americans’ response to secular relativism. As a priest, Ciszek is a model of holiness and identity for priests today.

Father Ciszek also escaped his isolation, Father Ritz told CNA, telling the story of the long-suffering priest’s return home.

“One of my favorite pictures of Father Walter is at JFK Airport, being escorted by his sisters. They have expressions of sheer joy on their faces while Father Walter almost looks startled,” Ritz said. “He recounts being ‘taken back’ when the agent of the U.S. State Department addressed him as Father Ciszek in English. It was the first time he heard that in decades. To my knowledge, he did not know he was returning home until it happened.”

Father Ciszek, who died at Fordham University in 1984, is buried in the Allentown diocese on the grounds of the Jesuit Center in Wernersville, Pennsylvania. The Father Walter Ciszek Prayer League, the official organization to promote his cause for canonization, is located in his hometown of Shenandoah.

“His accounts of time in Russia speak of his desire to return to Shenandoah,” said Ritz, who reported that Ciszek is “very well remembered there.”

“His grave is a place of pilgrimage, as is the font at which he was baptized, still in use at Saint Casimir Church,” Ritz continued. “To say that he is the most favorite son of the town or a hometown hero would be an understatement. We seek his intercession in ways that are miraculous, and learn heroic virtue from studying his life.”

The Easter season is also a key time to reflect on the Gospel passages that inspired Ciszek.

“The life of Father Walter points us directly to Christ,” Father Ritz said.

“There are moments we cannot feel the presence of God, especially when absent from usual consolations and especially the sacraments,” the priest continued. “From Mary Magdalene weeping at the tomb we learn that at moments of grief Christ is calling to us by name.”

In the gospel account of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, when the distraught disciples only recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread, “we understand that when we are downcast Jesus is there, even when we don’t recognize him,” said Ritz.

More inspiration can be found in the account of St. Thomas in the Upper Room, or the story of when Peter recognized Jesus on the shores of the Sea of Tiberias.

“In that locked room we become certain that in our deepest moments of fear Christ can reach us and offer us peace, even when we can only recognize him by the wounds of his suffering,” said Ritz. “At the Sea of Tiberias we recognize that Christ is still concerned for our earthly needs, and that at times it takes moving closer toward him or even the miraculous to know he is present.”

Father Ciszek’s canonization cause was opened in March 2012.