Before there was an Armistice Day, Walter Ciszek was born on November 11, 1904, and lived through a crucified century. Death came gracefully in 1984 on the feast of the Immaculate Conception. In boyhood he was a bully in a gang on the gritty streets of Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, and Ciszek's Polish immigrant father dragged him to the police station, hoping to put him into a reform school. Everyone thought he was joking when the eighth grader announced that he would enter the Polish minor seminary. The seminarian swam in an icy lake and rose before dawn to run five miles, pummeling the body like his forebear in holy belligerence, Saul of Tarsus. A biography of St. Stanislaus Kostka inspired him to go to the Bronx in 1928, where he told the Jesuits he wanted to join up.
Guileless Ciszek then informed his superiors that God wanted him to go to Russia, where in ten years more than 150,000 Russian Orthodox priests had been wiped out. They sent him to study in Rome at the "Russicum," the Jesuits' Russian center, and finally in 1937 he celebrated his first Mass in the Byzantine rite. Aiming to infiltrate Russia through Poland, he taught ethics in a seminary in Albertyn. But in 1939 Hitler invaded from the west and then the Russians came from the east, despoiling the seminary, and so the young alter Christus was on the cross between two thieves. In 1940 the Ukrainian Archbishop of Lvov permitted him to enter Russia, and he headed for the Ural Mountains, a two-week trip in a box car with 25 men. While hauling logs in a lumber camp, he said Mass furtively in the forest. Secret police arrested him as a Vatican spy when they found his Mass wine, which they called nitroglycerine, and kept him in a cell 900 feet square for two weeks with 100 other men.
After six more months, beaten with rubber truncheons, starved, and drugged, he signed a confession, and this he called one of the darkest moments of his life. On July 26, 1942, he was sentenced to 15 years' hard labor, starting with five years of solitary confinement in Moscow's hideous Lubyanka prison, and then off to Siberia. After a slow 2,500-mile trip to Krasnoyarsk in a sweltering boxcar, he was sent on a barge to Norilsk, 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, and worked 12-hour days shoveling coal into freighters, with rags for shoes. In hushed tones he said Mass for Polish prisoners using a vodka glass for a chalice and wine made from stolen raisins. Having been transferred to work in the coal mines for a year, he became a construction worker in 1947, returning to the mines in 1953.
Release came in 1955 and he got news to his sisters for the first time since 1939 that he was alive. In Krasnoyarsk he quickly established several parishes. Then came four years just south in Abakan, working as an auto mechanic. In 1963 the KGB hauled him back to Moscow and handed him over to the American consulate in exchange for two Soviet agents. As the plane flew past the Kremlin, he related, "Slowly, carefully, I made the sign of the cross over the land that I was leaving."
In New York, undeterred by arthritis and cardiac ailments, he gave spiritual direction at Fordham University in a residence now named for him, writing his monumental books With God in Russia and He Leadeth Me. One summer day I was driven by some parish teenagers to a barbeque with him in New Rochelle. We arrived in the quiet suburban neighborhood in a noisily combustive van painted in psychedelic designs, used by the boys for their rock band. My last sight of him was in the garden, bouncing a small girl on his knee. His hair was very white and his radiance was not of the summer sun. "These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb" (Rv 7:14).
Rev. George W. Rutler is pastor of the Church of Our Saviour (www.oursaviournyc.org) in New York City.
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