Today in 1941 we travel to Russia where the American Jesuit Walter J. Ciszek was arrested under suspicion of being a spy for the Vatican and sent to the Lubyanka prison in Moscow. He had slipped into Communist Russia to work as an underground priest. He would eventually be released, 22 years later. in a prisoner exchange. His memoir ‘With God in Russia’ which gives an account of his clandestine missionary work was originally published in 1964 and has been translated into numerous languages.
One template for understanding his remarkable life, was that he often talked about his multiple deaths, familial, spiritual and ultimately physical. In 1947, six years after his arrest, his family and religious community gave him up for dead. He had spent five years, mostly in solitary confinement and intense interrogation. When the Russians realised they couldn’t manipulate him, he was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 15 years of hard labour in the GULAG.
The Gulag is an acronym to describe the network of forced labour camps set up by Lenin and expanded by Stalin. By 1940, there was a network of 423 labour colonies in the Soviet Union where many people were worked to death. Millions died as a result of their incarceration. The Brutality of the Gulags was exposed to the world, with the publication of The Gulag Archipelago. The author, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, had survived eight years of Gulag incarceration, and likened the scattered camps to "a chain of islands". What is historically valuable about the book is that as an eyewitness he describes first hand the horrors of life there. Solzhenitsyn would win the Nobel Prize for Literature. However, Walter Ciszek was tough and survived, and it was not until 1955, when Fr. Ciszek got a letter to his sister in Pennsylvania, that anyone outside the Iron Curtain suspect he was alive. When he was sent back to the United States in 1963—traded for two Russian agents—it felt like a return from the dead.
"Born stubborn," young Walter was a strong kid who liked picking fights and missing school. Parental talks and discipline had no effect. His father, a hardworking Polish immigrant, was stunned when his son decided—for no apparent reason—to become a priest. In junior seminary in Michigan, he spent the next few years proving he was tough. Without anyone’s advice or permission, he undertook disciplines like swimming in an icy lake and eating only bread and water during Lent. Warned that he might injure his health, the headstrong seminarian retorted, "I know what I’m doing. "His competitive spirit lead him to the Jesuits. Inspired by St. Stanislaus Kostka, a Polish teen who walked five hundred miles to join the order. Soon after entering the Jesuit novitiate, he volunteered for ministry in Russia, where the Soviets had closed seminaries and imprisoned bishops and priests. He was sent to study at the Pontifical Russian College in Rome. In June 1937, he was ordained in the Byzantine Rite, and in 1940 Ciszek finally managed to get into Russia in a boxcar of Polish laborers headed for a lumber camp. It was hard work and harsh conditions in the Ural Mountains. Because of Communist informers he and a fellow Jesuit said their furtive Masses in the forest.
After he was arrested as a spy and sent to Moscow’s dreaded Lubianka Prison. He ended up in Siberia sentenced to fifteen years of hard labour in the Siberian Gulag. Conditions there were horrific. Prisoners were starved and overworked, poorly housed and poorly clothed. It is estimated that one and a half million of them died in the push to industrialize the frozen wasteland. However, surprisingly for Ciszek, clandestine ministry was easier there. In secret, he baptized, heard confessions, tended the sick and dying, gave homilies and retreats, said Mass, and distributed Communion. In his own words he built "a thriving parish," though it cost him. He was punished with tougher and tougher assignments, he shovelled coal for fifteen hours straight, hauled logs out of a frozen river, crawled through dangerous mine tunnels, and dug sewer trenches with a pickaxe in sub-zero temperatures. Enduring his fifteen years, after he served his sentence, he ministered so widely and effectively in Russia that the police hounded him from one city to another. His unexpected release back to the United States in 1963 probably spared him another arrest.
For the rest of his life, he was based at Fordham University in New York, he reached out in writings, talks, retreats, and counseling. Following up his ‘With God in Russia’ with a bestselling book ‘He Leadeth Me’ He died for real on December 8, 1984, at age eighty, two decades after being released.