Born to Polish emigrants, Walter Ciszek hardly looked the part of a future hero. He spent much of his early youth fighting anyone who would oblige him; his parents, other youths, the law. It got so bad that his father actually dragged him down to the local police station and begged them to place Walter in reform school. His future looked as bleak as the coal mining region of Pennsylvania he was growing up in.
So when this juvenile delinquent decided in the eighth grade that he wanted to be a Catholic priest, not many people believed him. But God apparently did. And in June of 1928 Walter Ciszek entered the Jesuit novitiate, with the intent of being a missionary to Russia.
This coincided with Pope Pius XI’s appeal for the Jesuits to go into what had become the Soviet Union. There, government persecution of religion was threatening the very existence of the Russian Orthodox Church, where the number of priests had plummeted from 157,000 to just 4,000.
Since he couldn’t enter the Soviet Union directly, Ciszek set up shop in Poland, where he taught at the Jesuit seminary and served as a parish priest. However, when the Nazis invaded in September of 1939, the seminarians were sent home. And as the Soviet army invaded Poland from the east, the young priest seized the opportunity to enter Russia with a flood of refugees. With false identity papers, Ciszek stepped into a train bound for Chusovy in the Ural Mountains. There, as “Vladimir Lypinski”, he worked by day as a laborer hauling and stacking logs for a lumber factory, and after hours, snuck into the woods to say Mass and memorize the prayer book in case his Mass kit was discovered.
And sure enough a year later he was arrested and accused of being a spy for the Vatican. He was sent to Lubyanka prison in Moscow, where he sent the next five years mostly in solitary confinement. Under torture he confessed his true identity and story, and was sentenced to 15 years hard labor in a Gulag in Siberia. There, he worked in coal mines, shoveled coal onto freighters, and eventually as a construction worker at an ore mine. Throughout his imprisonment, Ciszek prayed with other prisoners, celebrated Mass, heard confessions, gave retreats, and offered spiritual direction.
In 1955 he completed his sentence and was released with restrictions in Norilsk, a town 10 degrees north of the Arctic Circle. He wrote home to his shocked sisters and his Jesuit community, who had sent out a notice of his death in 1947. For the next three years, Father Ciszek worked in a chemical factory as a front, but carried on his duties as a priest in secret, even establishing mission parishes. However, in 1958 the KGB arrested him again for his religious work, canceled his passport, and gave him 48 hours to leave the region. He was sent to the southern part of the country where he was put to work as an auto mechanic.
Finally in 1963, President John F. Kennedy secured Ciszek’s release in exchange for two Soviet spies. He returned to Pennsylvania where he wrote his memoir, With God in Russia, and joyfully served as a priest until his death in 1984. In 1990, his cause for canonization was opened in Rome.
A beacon of light, placed in the darkest part of the Soviet Union for 23 years, this Servant of God reminds us that no place is God forsaken.
Walter Ciszek is a hero you should know. And I'm Dr. Ross Porter.