25 November 2008

Fr. Walter Ciszek, Servant of God

In 1939, Jesuit priest Fr. Walter Ciszek secretly entered Russia, not to emerge until over two decades later, having spent most of that time as a prisoner of the Soviet government. Arrested on false charges of being a Vatican spy, he spent five years in solitary confinement at notorious Lubianka prison, where he underwent a time of spiritual purgation in preparation for a fruitful apostolate in the arctic prison camps. Although his story is told vividly in his book With God in Russia, his spiritual struggles and insights are masterfully detailed in his memoir He Leadeth Me. An excerpt:
Before my own sad experiences in Lubianka, where I finally came to understand that everything depends on God and not on self in matters spiritual, I had always thought I had a definite answer and an explanation for all the moral questions in every problem of conscience. Having failed the test myself, however, having learned God's truth the hard way, I was able in the camps to be of humble service to the men God sent my way each day.
The key word, in fact, of our priestly apostolate in the camps had to be the word "witness". It was not so much a matter of preaching God and talking religion to the men around you as it was a matter of living the faith that you yourself professed. Many of them could not at first understand a life dedicated to God in work, in suffering, and in sacrifice. But they began by respecting it, and from that respect grew a sense of admiration and then of inquiry. It was not so much what you said, but what you did, how you lived, that influenced them. They were wise in the ways of the prison camp and the prison system; they knew that priests were the object of special harassment by the officials. Yet they saw these same priests refuse to become embittered, they saw them spend themselves in helping others, they saw them daily give of themselves beyond what was required without complaint, without thinking of themselves first, without regard for their own comfort or even safety. They saw them make themselves available to the sick and to the sinning, even to those who had abused or despised them. If a priest showed concerns for such people, they would say, he must believe in something that makes him human and close to God at the same time. This quality in a priest was what appealed most to them. And it was this quality that led them to seek a new relationship with God by reconciling themselves to his laws and to conscience. To help prisoners return to a belief in God they had long abandoned or simply ignored for many years was our greatest joy and consolation.
The first phase of Fr. Ciszek's cause for canonization is complete, and the second phase will soon be underway.