A “tough guy” priest, in the gulag and beyond

Father Walter Ciszek is known for his courage while imprisoned in the Soviet Union. But his spiritual writings show him to be “a saint of the ordinary life.”

Father Ciszek (center) is met in New York by his sisters Helen and Sr. Evangeline, upon his release from the USSR. (Photo courtesy of the Father Walter Ciszek Prayer League)

“For each of us, salvation means no more and no less than taking up daily the same cross of Christ. … What it means, in practice, is spelled out as always by the poor old body. It means getting up each morning and going to bed exhausted. It means the routine, not the spectacular.”

“The kingdom of God will grow upon earth, will be brought to fulfillment, in the same way it was established: by the daily and seemingly hidden lives of those who do always the will of the Father.”

  • Father Walter Ciszek, SJ

Father Walter Ciszek, SJ (1904-84) was an American Jesuit priest who was imprisoned in the former Soviet Union for 15 years in labor camps and another eight with restricted freedom, before being allowed to return in the United States in 1963. During his imprisonment he often struggled to survive under harsh conditions, including the constant threat of starvation. Much of his time in the Soviet Union was spent doing a variety of jobs, such as shoveling coal, mining, and performing construction work. As much as was possible, he cared for the spiritual needs of the people with whom he lived, providing Mass and the sacraments. His cause for canonization is under review in the Vatican.

John DeJak is co-editor with Father Marc Lindeijer, SJ of With God in America (Loyola Press), a new collection of Father Ciszek’s writings. (Dr. Edward N. Peter’s CWR review of the book recently appeared at CWR.) DeJak is also president of Father Gabriel Richard High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

CWR: How did you develop an interest in the life of Father Ciszek?

John DeJak: I was born and raised in Cleveland, where I attended St. Ignatius High School. It was operated by the Jesuits, and it was there I was introduced to Father Ciszek. I read his book He Leadeth Me, a collection of his spiritual reflections. I never had the opportunity to meet Father Ciszek, however. He died in 1984; I was in my senior year of high school in 1994.

CWR: Why do you think Father Ciszek’s story is important to share?

DeJak: I was impressed with him because I found him to be a “tough guy” priest; the heroism of his priesthood first attracted me. I return to He Leadeth Me again and again for spiritual insight.

I think a broader audience will appreciate Father Ciszek’s message because he offers an ordinary, dirt-under-your-fingernails spirituality. He encourages us to take advantage of ordinary opportunities to become holy. It was something he lived and expressed to those who came to him for counsel.

Father Ciszek shares his story in With God in Russia, a chronicle of his day-to-day life in the Soviet Union. But to gain more insight into his life, one should read He Leadeth Me, which is the more spiritual and meditative of the two books. Father would later say that the first book was the one his superiors wanted him to write, and the second was the one he wanted to write.

CWR: You’ve interviewed many people who knew Father Ciszek. How did they describe him?

DeJak: He was trained under the old Jesuit regimen, so you would have found him to be well educated, with a solid grasp of philosophy and theology, and fluent in multiple languages. Although he was very humble, and this is not something he would have advertised. He was tough, the rare bird who survived many years of imprisonment in the Soviet gulag. He’d bear the cross, referring all things to God.

He was gentle yet firm with others, taking the time to listen to anyone who needed help. His attitude when he met someone was that Christ put that person in my life at this moment, how can I refuse to help him? He would give all his attention to such a person as if Christ Himself were visiting.

Also, for many years he was on the verge of starvation in the gulag. So, when he was freed and returned to the United States, he’d treat every piece of bread as a treasured gift.

CWR: What did Father Ciszek do with his time after returning to the United States?

DeJak: After a year, he continued his priestly work at the John XXIII Center at Fordham University, which is now the Center for Eastern Christian Studies at the University of Scranton, Pennsylvania. He lived in community, celebrated the Byzantine liturgy, gave retreats, offered spiritual direction, and kept up a voluminous correspondence. You might find him helping out at local parishes, saying Mass or hearing confessions.

CWR: Was he bitter about his imprisonment in the Soviet Union?

DeJak: Not at all. He prayed for his captors and the people of Russia. I had the opportunity to interview the man who accompanied him back to the US from Russia. The man was a non-believer, but told me that if anyone walking the Earth could be considered a saint, it would be Walter Ciszek. Father had great pity for the communists, and was sad that so many in Russia were so far from God.

Upon his return to the United States, he noted that he was taken by its excess, but didn’t offer that as a criticism, but an observation. At times it seemed as if he would have been more at home in Russia.

CWR: Did he ever return to Russia?

DeJak: No, but he did participate in activities with people who had escaped from there and the Eastern bloc countries. One interesting note: in the book he gives the names of two Jesuits who were his partners in his work in the Soviet Union. To protect them, he did not use their real names. It wasn’t until many years later that he found out what happened to them. One had been shot in 1941. The other, during a time of limited freedom, was able to call him out of the blue in the 1970s.

CWR: How do you think his experiences in the Soviet Union impacted him?

DeJak: My initial thought was that he grew in holiness due to his time in the Soviet Union. But, after writing With God in America, both my co-editor, Father Lindeijer, came to believe that the Soviet Union was kind of a second seminary for him, and that his true holiness was attained after he returned to the United States. In both his books he writes that he was a very prideful individual, and that God had to humble him. He humbled him in a stern way in Russia. It was God’s way of purifying him.

CWR: What is the status of his cause for canonization?

DeJak: We completed the diocesan phase—gathering testimony, doing research—and have sent the material to the Jesuit postulator in Rome. We’re awaiting a determination as to if Father Walter will be declared venerable.

CWR: Does Father Ciszek have a big following among Catholics?

DeJak: I think he does, particularly in Pennsylvania and on the East Coast. More and more people are discovering him. Father Walter is a very real person. He had his foibles as a youth; he overcame them to develop a very healthy spirituality. It is an accessible spirituality, doable for any person. People find great comfort in that he’s approachable and realistic.

CWR: Father Ciszek Day is Sunday, October 15. Can you give some highlights?

DeJak: There are some details on the Father Walter Ciszek Prayer League website, www.ciszek.org. People can visit the Ciszek Center in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania and learn about Father. Shenandoah is a mining town where Father was born. We’ll have Mass at St. Casimir’s Church in Shenandoah at 2 pm. Father Brian Van Hove will be the homilist. He is a Jesuit priest who once lived with Father Ciszek.

CWR: Tell us a bit about your book, With God in America.

DeJak: My co-editor, Father Lindeijer, and I met in Rome. I worked stateside and he worked in Europe. It was our goal to put together a book that chronicled Father’s last 21 years of life. We wanted to publish material that had not been published before, things that he had said in conferences and retreats, or advice he had given to people. The book took shape on its own. Father Ciszek is the author, and we are the editors. We added some introductions and provided context for situations.

CWR: What else would you like to share about Father Ciszek?

DeJak: He is a true friend in heaven who will help anyone just as he helped others during his time on Earth. He is a saint of the ordinary life; his view is that the people God puts in your path or the troubles you face each day are sent by God to help you achieve holiness.

About Jim Graves 136 Articles

Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.

5 Comments

  1. Wonderful, inspirational story about a “good Jesuit”.

    Most of today’s “pansified” Jesuits wouldn’t last 5 minutes in the gulag.

  2. I met Father Ciszek several times in the late 70’s and early 80’s. I tell stories about him and his holiness. Although he went back to Wernersville after his release from Russia I never Met him there, but I used to go on retreats at the Noviciate in Wernersville Pa. He died there on his favorite day of the year the Feast of The Immaculate Conception December 8, 1984. His grave is there of which I have a small amount of dirt.
    I also met Father Marucca (spl) who was once responsible for sifting through historical documents I believe. Not sure where that is today? Your today stirred many pleasant prayerful memories of which I am grateful.
    Deacon Jim Walsh

  3. Thank everyone for their comments. Here’s how I “met” Fr. Ciszek. The Cardinal Archbishop of New York had died. I don’t recall if it was John Cardinal O’Connor or
    Terrance Cardinal Cooke. His body was lying in State at St. Patrick’s cathedral, and I went into the city to pay my respects. On the north side of the church I saw
    a bookstore and went in. As soon as I stepped inside I felt a pull from one of the
    back bookshelves, not just the shelf, but a pull to a particular book – “He Leadeth Me”. To say the experience was strange is an understatement. I’d never heard of
    Fr. Ciszek nor the book, but I knew I must buy it. The book changed my life. I thought I’d share the story of how I met Fr. Ciszek with you.
    Ed Micca
    Sayville, NY

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