On October 12, 1963, American-born Jesuit Father Walter Ciszek (1904-1984) arrived in New York after 23 years in Russia, much of it spent in Siberian labor camps and Soviet prisons. To add to the intrigue surrounding this extraordinary Jesuit's life, Fr. Ciszek's daring release — a complicated prisoner exchange — was negotiated with the help of President John F. Kennedy just one month before his tragic assassination. Although Ciszek's life reads like a Hollywood script, his experience results from one simple question: Will you devote your life to the service of others? As Jesuits have for centuries, Fr. Walter Ciszek answered that call.
We have chosen to highlight Fr. Ciszek and his inspirational life of service during November which is Vocations Month. Jesuit Father Robert Ballecer, director of the Jesuit's Office of National Vocation Promotion, explains, "Walter Ciszek's work is a legacy of the frontier spirit of the Society of Jesus. It's the spirit of 'Where is God calling me today?' Walter Ciszek answered that call by going to the Soviet Union. Today, Jesuits are working around the globe on the frontiers — from building schools in Malawi to aiding migrants at a small border town between the United States and Mexico. That's the spirit of the Society; that's the spirit of service."
A Call Answered
Born in 1904 in Shenandoah, Pa., to Polish immigrants, Walter joined the Jesuits in 1928. The next year, he heard a letter from the pope that changed the course of his life. Pope Pius XI was asking that "seminarians, especially our Jesuit sons" enter a new center in Rome to prepare priests for work in Russia. For Ciszek, it was "almost like a direct call from God."
Missioned to Rome to study theology and the Byzantine rite, Fr. Ciszek was ordained in 1937. At the time, priests could not be sent to Russia so he was assigned to work in Poland.
When war broke out in 1939, Fr. Ciszek was able to enter Russia with false identification papers. He worked as an unskilled laborer until June 1941 when the secret police arrested him as a suspected spy.
After his arrest, Fr. Ciszek found himself in the infamous Lubianka Prison in Moscow, where he was interrogated as a "Vatican spy" and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in Siberia. Although forced to work in a Gulag coal mine, Fr. Ciszek found ways to hear confessions and say Mass:
"For all the hardships and suffering endured there, the prison camps of Siberia held one great consolation for me: I was able to function as a priest again. I was able to say Mass again, although in secret, to hear confessions, to baptize, to comfort the sick, and to minister to the dying."
In 1955, since he had surpassed his work quotas, Fr. Ciszek was freed early from the labor camps but forced to live in the Gulag city of Norilsk, where he worked in a chemical factory. After decades of being presumed dead, he was finally allowed to write to family members in the United States. In Norilsk, Fr. Ciszek and other priests ministered to a growing parish but, before too long, the KGB threatened to arrest him if he continued his ministry. Missioned to another city, the KGB quickly shut him down again.
Then, in 1963, Ciszek learned he was going home. In a release negotiated by President John F. Kennedy, he and an American student were returned to the United States in exchange for two Soviet agents. Following his return, he worked at the John XXIII Center at Fordham University (now the Center for Eastern Christian Studies at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania), until his death in 1984.
Jesuits Called to the Frontiers
Like Fr. Ciszek and his Jesuit brothers, the Society of Jesus today is also called to the frontiers. Fr. Ballecer explains, "In Fr. Ciszek's time, the frontiers were physical boundaries, parts of the world we hadn't fully explored. Today, the frontiers are often in new areas, including media, science and technology. From Jesuits working with a development team on a particle accelerator in Europe to the Higher Education at the Margins program, which brings college courses to refugee camps, Jesuits aspire to serve where the need is greatest."
An Inspiring Life in Service
Fr. Ciszek is very much beloved by American Jesuits. As a tribute, the community of young Jesuit seminarians at Fordham University is named Ciszek Hall, in his honor. A quarter century after his death, Ciszek's life is still an inspiration to those considering a Jesuit vocation. Soon his legacy may become even more well known for, in March of 2012, the Vatican gave its formal approval to begin Ciszek's canonization process.
Fr. Ballecer said Fr. Ciszek is more relevant today than he ever was. "A life in service like Walter Ciszek's means commitment; it means something that's unknown; it means relinquishing control of your life to something that's bigger than you. What will you do when someone asks you to do something difficult, but worthwhile?"
Describing his years in Russia, Ciszek wrote in his memoir, He Leadeth Me: "My aim in entering Russia was the same from beginning to end: to help find God and attain eternal life." By devoting his life to serving God and his people, Fr. Ciszek succeeded in both goals.
Watch a video interview with Fr. Ciszek
A life in service like Walter Ciszek's means commitment; ... it means relinquishing control of your life to something that's bigger than you. What will you do when someone asks you to do something difficult, but worthwhile?