With God in Russia

Fr_ Walter J_ Ciszek, S_J_


Perhaps there are braver men than Walter Ciszek, but they don’t come readily to mind.  Hard enough to be brave for a short period when the adrenaline is flowing.  Ciszek was brave under often horrendous circumstances for almost a quarter of a century.

Born in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania on November 4, 1904, the son of Polish immigrants, he grew to be  a wild, tough kid, a bully and gang member.   He therefore floored his parents when he told them he wanted to be a priest.  Entering a minor seminary he remained tough as he related:

“And I had to be tough. I’d get up at four-thirty in the morning to run five miles around the lake on the seminary grounds, or go swimming in November when the lake was little better than frozen. I still couldn’t stand to think that anyone could do something I couldn’t do, so one year during Lent I ate nothing but bread and water for the forty days –another year I ate no meat at all for the whole year –just to see if I could do it. “

Always looking for a challenge, Ciszek simply presented himself to the Jesuit provincial in the Bronx in 1928 and announced, “I’m going to be a Jesuit!”

In 1929 an announcement was made by Pius XI that he was looking for clandestine missionaries to the Soviet Union.  Ciszek promptly volunteered.  He was sent to the Russian Center, Russicum, in Rome in 1934 to study the Russian language, history and liturgy.  On June 24, 1937 he was ordained.

Assigned to the Albertyn Jesuit mission in Poland, Father Ciszek was present when the Soviet Union invaded eastern Poland in 1939.  Taking advantage of this calamity he decided to slip into the Soviet Union.  Obtaining the permission of Metropolitan Andrei Shetytsky, he entered the Soviet Union, along with two Jesuit friends, under the assumed name of Wladymyr Lypynski.  Traveling 1500 miles by rail,  he became a logger in the logging town of Chusov in the Urals, while carrying on his undercover missionary activities. 

After a year he was arrested in 1941 by the NKVD, the brutal internal secret police of the Soviet Union, and taken to Lubyanka Prison in Moscow, a place where tens of thousands met their ends during these years.  After six months of interrogation and brutal torture which failed to break Father Ciszek, the NKVD drugged him and, under the influence of the drugs, he signed a false confession.  He was bitterly ashamed of this and vowed to always do the will of God for the remainder of his life.  On July 26, 1942 he was sentenced to 15 years hard labor in Siberia.  Surprisingly, Father Ciszek was kept at the Lubyanka for another four years.  I suspect that the NKVD may have feared the influence he might have on other prisoners, and this might explain why he was not immediately sent to Siberia.  To keep from going crazy, Father Ciszek performed exercises each day in his cell, polished the floor of his cell each day, and read everything he could get his hands on.  Of course there was prayer, lots of prayer.   There were more interrogations, but in time Father Ciszek got used to them and eventually looked upon them as mere irritations.

In 1946 he was sent to Norilsk, the northern most city in Siberia, to shovel coal as a slave laborer for 12 hours each day.  Here he met another priest and was finally able to say Mass again.  Polish prisoners made wine from raisins.  His chalice was a shot glass, and his paten was a cover from a gold watch.    Father Ciszek was overjoyed:  “But my joy at being able to celebrate Mass again cannot be described. . . . I heard confessions regularly and from time to time was even able to distribute Communion secretly after I’d said Mass. The experience gave me new strength. I could function as a priest again, and I thanked God daily for the opportunity to work among this hidden flock, consoling and comforting men who had thought themselves beyond His grace.”

In December he was assigned to mining coal for ten hours a day with no breaks.  After this he became a construction worker in an ore mining plant.  After work he heard confessions from his fellow prisoners.  After hours he would clandestinely say Mass in the offices of the plant.  He even began giving retreats!

In 1953 he was sent back to the coal mines for another two years.  On April 22, 1955 he was released, although he was forbidden to leave Norilsk.  He got a job in a chemical factory.  Most of his co-workers were young women who quickly learned that he was a priest.  They liked him and would cover for him when he had to leave work to perform a Mass, a baptism or a funeral, and several of these ladies became converts.  His clandestine Masses on Sunday became so popular that he said three Masses each Sunday and had to rotate the locations to keep the authorities from finding out.  Easter midnight Mass in 1958 was held to an overflowing crowd in an abandoned barracks.  Alas, some of the attendees were from the secret police and Father Ciszek was called in for questioning on the following Wednesday by the KGB, the successor organization to the NKVD.  He was told to get out of Norilsk and to never think of coming back.  Ten days later the KGB flew him to Krasnoyarsk.

By his second month in Krasnoyarsk he had established three mission parishes and was holding Masses with over 800 people in attendance.  The KGB, quickly realizing what was happening, told him to get out of Krasnoyarsk and gave him only forty-eight hours to do it.

From 1959-1963 Father Ciszek resided in Abakan, one hundred miles south of Krasnoyarsk.  He got a job as an auto mechanic and continued to carry on his clandestine missionary activities.  His time in the Soviet Union came to an abrupt end when he was exchanged for a Soviet spy captured in the US.  As he flew out of Moscow he made the sign of the Cross over the land he had dedicated so many years to.  In the US he continued his work as a priest at Fordham University, gave retreats and counseled the many people who sought him out.  He wrote two books about his experiences, With God in Russia, and He Leadeth Me, both of which I heartily recommend.  He died on  December 8, 1984, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

In October 1990 Father Walter Ciszek, SJ was proclaimed a Servant of God.  His canonization process is proceeding forward.

When an advisor pointed out the position of the Vatican on an issue, Stalin contemptuously inquired as to how many divisions the Pope had.  Stalin is long dead, his Soviet Union is one with Nineveh and Tyre and the Catholic Church flourishes, by the grace of God and due to men and women of the faith and courage exemplified by Father Ciszek.  A Faith that can inspire a Walter Ciszek to struggle against overwhelming odds to bring Christ to others is a Faith more powerful than all the Armies that have ever marched.


Published in: on August 14, 2013 at 5:30 am  Comments (8)  
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  1. Now THAT is one wild man for Jesus!

    • Polish. A country of badasses if there ever was one.

      • “Polish. A country of badasses if there ever was one.”

        Quite true Fabio, and a certain laughing courage.

    • “Now THAT is one wild man for Jesus!”

      Indeed Dennis, the type of faith that moves mountains!

  2. Don,

    My oldest son, Will, the WWII re-enactor I’ve told you of, has quite a devotion to Father Ciszek. One of Father’s nephews attends my FSSP parish. And of course, Father is buried in the next county, not thirty miles from where I sit.

    • “My oldest son, Will, the WWII re-enactor I’ve told you of, has quite a devotion to Father Ciszek. One of Father’s nephews attends my FSSP parish. And of course, Father is buried in the next county, not thirty miles from where I sit.”

      Fascinating Jon! It is truly a small world!

  3. Stalin made the remark about the Pope’s divisions on more than one occasion – it was evidently one of those bons mots he felt were so good as to be worth repeating again and again. The most significant was when France and Britain were trying to insure Soviet neutrality in the coming war, and Stalin was working towards what was soon to become the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Stalin asked a French emissary how many divisions France could field in the event of an immediate war with Germany. The answer was,IIRC, about a hundred. And Britain? Two and two later, said the ambassador. Ah,repeated Stalin, two and two later. Do you gentlemen know how many divisions I would have to field in such an event? Seven hundred. At which point the French emissary argued that they had the support of supposed neutrals such as the USA, and of the Pope. And Stalin repeated his bon mot.

    There is a sour joke behind this joke, as are most of history’s jokes, and a second, and a third. The first, everyone knows: thanks to his far-sighted cleverness in making deals with the Nazi devil, Stalin in the end had to deploy those seven hundred divisions and more, in the most impossible of conditions, with no ally left on the European continent, and in a situation which, but for Nazi mismanagement, would inevitably have led to the destruction of the Soviet Union. (More on this later.) The second is more esoteric: when Stalin had his back to the wall, he reversed the whole Bolshevik policy from the beginning, set the Russian Orthodox Church free, allowed it to elect a Patriarch and to re-establish a network of working parishes and dioceses. Almost at once, the barely resurrected national church made a gift to Stalin of one or two armoured divisions paid entirely from its own resources. Yes, the man who did not believe the Pope had any divisions found himself having to rely on the Patriarch’s divisions. The third joke is that Stalin not only allowed his own worst enemy to grow so strong that he could assail him without fear, but he actually came within an inch of being forced into the war on Hitler’s side! When the Finns finally surrendered to the Soviets on terms, the Western allies were within weeks of sending an expeditionary force to Finland. If the Finns had been able to hold on another month, Stalin would have found himself at war with France and the British Empire.

    You might say – Oh my God,that would have made the Axis victory certain. I don’t know about that. On the immediate tactical stage, it would almost certainly have avoided Italy’s intervention, considering the immense unpopularity of both Germany and Soviet Russia in my country at the time. Without Italy (whose weakness was not easily perceived at the time,since it was more a matter of utterly second-rate leadership than of lack of weapons and men) knocking at France’s southern door, the French government might have decided to go to Algiers instead of surrendering. What is more, it is almost certain that a northern front would have opened, not by German surprise as it happened, but with Allied forces present and probably with Sweden having to come in on the Allied side. This would, at least, have forced Germany to commit major forces in a very unpleasant territory, and with the need to keep transportation going across seas and against crushing Allied sea supremacy. Considering how thin was the German superiority on the Western Front even in our reality, one wonders whether Hitler would have committed himself to a major offensive while a grim and bloody struggle went on in Scandinavia. And looking further into the future, it is even possible that Japan might not have intervened on the German side if Russia had. Their interests in China were incompatible and, just a couple of years earlier, the Soviets had given the Japanese a bloody nose in Mongolia.

    In fact, in my fictional reality, Japan would turn out to be the wicked member of the Alliance, filling the role that Russia did in reality. I feel fairly certain that the Russia that blundered into an aggressive war in support of Hitler would not have been the Russia that fought to survive against him; and even so, and in spite of the monstrous war crimes committed by the Nazis against the Russian people, you have to remember that huge numbers of Russians rallied to the Nazis as soon as they could, so hated was the Soviet regime. Even before the formation of Vlasov’s Free Russian Army more than a hundred Russian battalions were fighting on all fronts under German command. Hitler stupidly resisted the formation of a Russian army until it was impossible to do otherwise; imagine if the Western Allies – with or without America and/or Japan – had found themselves fighting Russia and discovered hundreds of thousands of men willing and able to help? I seriously think that the Soviet regime would not have lasted till 1948, and that there might well have been a Soviet Nuremberg with Stalin among the defendants. (On the minus side, there would probably have been a Japanese land empire in Asia, including China and probably much of Siberia.)

    What does that have to do with the Pope’s battalions? That in real life, one of the reasons why the Soviet Union survived was that it stopped the persecution of the Orthodox Church. The Soviet Union as it was in 1939, with the Great Purges still going on, the Red Army all but beheaded, secret policemen running amok, would have collapsed on its own criminality, whatever the power it seemed to weld; as indeed it eventually did.

    • “The second is more esoteric: when Stalin had his back to the wall, he reversed the whole Bolshevik policy from the beginning, set the Russian Orthodox Church free, allowed it to elect a Patriarch and to re-establish a network of working parishes and dioceses. Almost at once, the barely resurrected national church made a gift to Stalin of one or two armoured divisions paid entirely from its own resources. Yes, the man who did not believe the Pope had any divisions found himself having to rely on the Patriarch’s divisions.”

      I touched upon this in a post Fabio that I did at The American Catholic on the film Alexander Nevski:

      The Arise Ye Russian People sequence from the film Alexander Nevsky. A true work of genius by Sergei Eisenstein who somehow pulled off the feat of making a film about an Orthodox Saint, an aristocratic Prince and pillar of the Church, and ladling it with Communist and anti-religious propaganda, and yet having the final result not be laughably absurd. The film was among the first efforts of Stalin to rally traditional Russian patriotism against the looming threat of Nazi Germany. Poor Eisenstein found himself in the doghouse soon after the release of the film due to the Nazi-Soviet pact. After the onset of Operation Barbarossa, the film was once again released and played to packed houses throughout the war. The song was composed by Sergei Prokofiev. The lyrics roughly translated are :

      Arise, ye Russian people,
      to glorious battle, to a battle to the death:
      arise, ye free people,
      to defend our beloved country!
      All honour to the warriors who live,
      and eternal glory to those slain!
      For our native home, our Russian land,
      arise, ye Russian people!

      Needless to say talking about a free people in Stalinist Russia must have struck many of the listeners as an example of black humor.

      However, Stalin was onto something. Most Russians, not to mention Ukrainians and the other subject nationalities, were ready to greet as liberators virtually any invading army to free them from their Communist oppressors. In one of the great tragedies of history they were invaded by an army all too eager to slaughter them as untermensch, fit only to be killed or to be slaves. Appealing to traditional Russian patriotism, Stalin rallied the nation to fight. Stalin understood this. He remarked to a British diplomat while reviewing Russian troops marching off to the front. “We are not so fond as to think they perform these miracles for us, but for Holy Mother Russia.”

      That of course is why Stalin also enlisted the aid of the Russian Othodox Church which he had done his best to obliterate. He made a joint radio address with the Metropolitan of Moscow appealing for resistance to the invaders and reopened some of the churches the Communists had closed. The Orthodox responded with enthusiasm, preaching a crusade against Nazi Germany and raising funds to equip an armored division which fought under the Orthodox banner. The irony of Stalin, a Communist Georgian atheist, being saved by traditional Russian patriotism and religious fervor is richly self-evident. Here is a rendition of Arise Ye Russian People sans movie
      – See more at: http://the-american-catholic.com/2009/10/17/arise-ye-russian-people/#sthash.hZ35IXkh.dpuf

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