Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Lessons from With God in Russia

“I felt I was destined to spend my life doing what I could for my ‘flock’ here in Russia who, as Our Lord had said, were lying like sheep without a shepherd.  Let the KGB do what they ‘must.’  The Lord was my shepherd.  He had proven that.”

One day in 1929, while he was in seminary, Fr. Walter Ciszek heard someone read a letter from Pope Pius XI.  In the letter, the Holy Father spoke about Soviet Russia, where religious persecution was rampant.  There, all the Catholic bishops had been arrested and sent to concentration camps. There, hundreds of parishes lacked a pastor.  It was illegal to teach religion to children.  Seminaries were closed.  The Holy Father expressed the urgent need for well-trained and courageous priests who would go into Russia, to this lost flock.

Even as Father Weber read the letter something within me stirred.  I knew I had come to the end of a long search.  I was convinced that God had at last sought me out and was telling me the answer to my long desire and the reason for all my struggles.   

Yet, while his calling was clear, the way was not.  Catholic priests were not permitted into Russian in 1937.  So first Fr. Ciszek was sent to Albertin, Poland.  He could not enter Russia, but very soon the Russians came to him: the Russian soldiers occupied Poland.  

At this time Russia was hiring workers from occupied territories to work in the Urals, a mountain range in western Russia.  Fr. Ciszek, along with another priest, proposed volunteering to work in the area.  The Archbishop cautiously approved of the plan, directing Fr. Ciszek to return in a year to report whether the conditions were favorable for ministering to the Russian people there.  

On the Feast of St. Joseph (March 19), the train carrying Fr. Ciszek, along with many other volunteer workers, passed into Russia.  

There was no way of knowing what the future would bring, but we were doing at last what we had dreamt so many years of doing.  It didn’t matter if no one else in that boxcar knew we were priests.  We knew it.  Crossing the border gave me a strange sense of exhilaration, and yet, of loneliness, of a beginning and an end to the life we had known. 

At the Urals, Fr. Ciszek worked as an unskilled laborer hauling logs from the river and stacking them over six feet high.  It was demanding labor, with no breaks, and he was paid based on how many logs he stacked.  He later worked as a truck driver, which carried its own hazards in a place where temperatures at times dropped forty degrees below zero.  One night the truck stalled and wouldn’t start.  He spent forty-eight hours sitting in the truck, his cheeks literally freezing, until someone came to help him.  

Fr. Ciszek found ways to continue his ministry as a priest.  He memorized the prayers of the Mass by heart, in case someone took his Mass kit away.  He would offer Mass in the forest after work, using a stump as an altar.  He befriended the children and teens at the camp, asking what they had learned about God in school (nothing) and answering their questions.  The teens especially were curious about religion.  Mostly though, he turned his demanding work into prayer.

Then, unexpectedly, in June 1941 at 3:00 AM secret police surrounded the barracks where he was sleeping.  They found two bottles of Mass wine, a half-pound bag of tooth powder, and a sheet of paper with letters on it, which Fr. Ciszek had been using to teach a little boy the alphabet.  The secret police claimed that the bottles contained nitroglycerin and the powder was gun powder: materials for making bombs.  The paper with the letters was a secret code.  In short, Fr. Ciszek must be a German spy.  

For two months Fr. Ciszek was imprisoned in a 30 by 30 foot cell containing more than 100 people.  

“Of course, there was no such thing as privacy, even to perform the natural processes.  Each evening we were led in groups to the prison toilet, but at all other times we had to use a covered barrel in the cell.  The odor in the room was foul.  Every afternoon, too, we were taken out in groups to walk in the courtyard for perhaps twenty minutes of exercise.  Otherwise, we were confined like sardines, with not even enough room to stretch out and sleep.  The only measure of privacy was to withdraw within yourself, as many did, or else to engage in conversation with one or two people nearest you and try to ignore what was happening in the rest of the room.”

Sometimes people were called out for interrogation.  Some never returned; some came back with bruises.  Fr. Ciszek himself was interrogated, sometimes for a whole day.  They knew far more about him than he ever expected.  They always asked the same questions.  Who were his contacts?  What kind of information had he sent to the Germans?  No matter how often he told his story, they refused to believe him.  He was hit, beaten with clubs, drugged, and put into solitary confinement: a cell of complete darkness. 

Fr. Ciszek spent four years at the famous prison of Lubianka.  For almost a year he lived in a room alone, speaking to no one.  He did his best to order his day around prayer.  He would scrub his wood floor twice each day for exercise.  He read voraciously, including many classic Russian novels.  Outside he could hear the sound of German planes dropping bombs onto Moscow.   

Still, the interrogations continued.

“The weary round of questioning continued; since there had never actually been any espionage or sabotage plot, they couldn’t prove anything, but they kept doggedly insisting.  Tired of the subject as I was, I was equally dogged in insisting that my only motives for entering Russia, or going anywhere in Russia--no matter where--had been purely spiritual ones, like those of priests anywhere.”

Fr. Ciszek and the communists spoke different languages and by that, I do not mean English and Russia.  The communists simply could not understand the spiritual realm.  It probably would have been easier for Fr. Ciszek to make up a story and go along with their insistence that he was a spy.  But he spoke the truth and held fast to the truth of his spiritual motivations.  Our Lord said that the truth will set you free.  It would be many years before Fr. Ciszek would be physically free, but his soul was free .. and he continued to depend on God during those long years in prison, learning to abandon himself to Divine Providence.  

Lubianka was a hard school, but a good one.  I learned there the lesson which would keep me going in the years to come: religion, prayer, and love of God do not change reality, but they give it a new meaning.  In Lubianka I grew firmer in my conviction that whatever happened in my life was nothing else than a reflection of God’s will for me.  And He would protect me.

After being found guilty of espionage, Fr. Ciszek was sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor in Siberia.  There he worked as a coal loader, miner, and construction worker.  Many times he almost died: he was electrocuted and once the ceiling in one of the shafts of the mine almost fell on top of him.  But there were other dangers.  Many of the other prisoners were common thieves and fights would break out within camp.  In 1952 there was a revolt in the work camps and the Russian troops had to violently restore order.  

Here Fr. Ciszek quietly ministered to his hidden flock.  He would offer Mass in another priest’s barrack.  He would go on walks outside and seemingly “run into” a group of two or three men … and quietly distribute Holy Communion to them.  He heard confessions and even offered retreats.  

In April 1955 Fr. Ciszek was informed that he had served his sentence.  He was now a free man … but not really.  The KGB informed him where he would live and even how much money he could earn.  He also had to report to the police station and tell them his address. 

As soon as he was settled, Fr. Ciszek quietly resumed his priestly duties: baptizing, offering Mass, witnessing marriages.  His parish grew as more people came, seeking the sacraments.  They were starving for them.  And yet, just when his ministry was really thriving, the KGB told Fr. Ciszek he had to leave that city and move somewhere else, since he was “agitating the people.”  So he left, went to a new city, and began his spiritual work once again.

Eventually, in 1963, Fr. Ciszek was allowed to return to the United States, in exchange for a Russian spy.  As the plane took off leaving Russia, he made the Sign of the Cross over the country where he had been wrongly accused, sentenced without a trial, beaten, starved, worked mercilessly, frozen, and imprisoned.  But it was not a curse he offered for all that suffering and pain; he offered a blessing.  He was called to Russia to minister to the Russian people and that he did--in prison, in Siberia, in the cities controlled by the communists.  They were his flock and, trusting in Divine Providence, he was their shepherd.

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