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Fifteen of these years were spent in confinement and hard labor in the Gulag, plus five preceding them in Moscow's infamous Lubyanka prison. He was released and returned to the United States in 1963, after which he wrote two books, including the memoir With God in Russia, and served as a spiritual director.
Early life and studies
He was born on November 4, 1904 in the mining town of Shenandoah, Pennsylvania to Polish immigrants Mary (Mika) and Martin Ciszek, who had emigrated to the United States in the 1890s. A former gang member, he shocked his family by deciding to become a priest. Ciszek entered the Jesuit novitiate in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1928. The following year, he volunteered to serve as a missionary to Russia, which had become the Soviet Union after the Bolshevik Revolution 12 years before. Many religious rights for Soviet residents were curtailed, the religious believers were openly persecuted, and few religious believers had access to the services of a priest. Pope Pius XI made an appeal to priests from around the world to go to Russia as missionaries.
In 1934, Ciszek was sent to Rome to study theology and Russian language, history and liturgy at the Pontifical Russian College (or 'Russicum'). In 1937, he was ordained a priest in the Byzantine Rite in Rome taking the name of Vladimir (see Russian Greek Catholic Church).
In 1938, Fr. Ciszek was sent to the Jesuit mission in Albertyn in eastern Poland. With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the Soviet Union occupied eastern Poland and forced Ciszek to close his mission. Arriving in Lviv, he realized that it would be very easy for a priest or two to enter the Soviet Union amid the streams of exiles going East. After securing the permission of Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky, he crossed the border in 1940 under the assumed identity of Władymyr Łypynski. With two of his fellow Jesuits, he travelled 2400 km (1500 mi) by train to the logging town of Chusovoy, in the Ural Mountains. For one year, he worked as an unskilled logger, while discreetly performing religious ministry at the same time.
Captivity in the Soviet Union
In 1941, Ciszek was arrested under accusations of espionage for the Vatican and sent to the Lubyanka prison in Moscow, operated by the NKVD (internal security agency). There he spent a total of five years, most of which in solitary confinement. In 1942, he signed a confession under severe torture. He was convicted of espionage; he was sentenced to 15 years hard labor in the GULAG.
Ciszek was to remain in Lubyanka for four more years. In 1946, he was sent by train to Krasnoyarsk then 20 days by boat to Norilsk in Siberia. There, he was to shovel coal onto freighter vessels, and later transferred to work in coal mines. A year later, he was sent to work in construction at an ore processing plant. From 1953 to 1955, he worked in mines. His memoirs provide a vivid description of the revolts that spread through the GULAG in the aftermath of Joseph Stalin's death (see Norilsk uprising).
Throughout his lengthy imprisonment, Fr. Ciszek continued to pray, to celebrate Divine Liturgy, hear confessions, conduct retreats and perform parish ministry. Until he was allowed to write to America in 1955, he was presumed dead by both his family and the Jesuit order.
By April 22, 1955, his hard labor sentence was complete, and he was released with restrictions in the city of Norilsk. At this time, he was finally able to write to his sisters in the United States.
In 1958, he was ordered by the KGB to move to Krasnoyarsk, where he secretly established mission parishes. After the KGB learned of this, he was forcibly transferred to Abakan, 160 km (100 mi) to the south, where he worked as an automobile mechanic for four more years. In 1963, he finally received a letter from his sisters in the U.S. Several months later, the Soviet Union decided to return him (and an American student Marvin W. Makinen) to the United States in exchange for two Soviet agents. He was not informed of this until he was delivered to an official of the U.S. State Department and told he was still an American citizen.
Release, later life, and legacy
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History of the Jesuits
After nearly 23 years of imprisonment, Ciszek was released on October 12, 1963, in exchange for two Soviet agents (Ivan Egorov, a Soviet U.N. functionary, and his wife Alexandra, arrested for espionage in July). After his return, he is quoted as stating, "I am an American, happy to be home; but in many ways I am almost a stranger." In 1965, he began working and lecturing at the John XXIII Center at Fordham University (now the Center for Eastern Christian Studies at the University of Scranton in Scranton, Pennsylvania), counseling and offering spiritual direction to those who visited him, until his death.
Nine audio tapes of interviews conducted with Fr. Ciszek (ca. 1964) remain at Georgetown University.
In 1985, a Carmelite nun, Mother Marija, who was the mother superior of a Ruthenian Rite Carmelite monastery which Fr. Ciszek helped found, and formerly under his spiritual direction, began to petition for official recognition of Fr. Ciszek and his work within the Catholic Church. In 1990, Bishop Michael J. Dudick of the Eparchy of Passaic, New Jersey, opened an official diocesan process of investigation for official recognition on the road to beatification, a step toward possible canonization as a saint. His case is currently being handled by the Diocese of Allentown, Pennsylvania.
Ciszek Hall at Fordham University in New York City is named after Fr. Ciszek. It currently houses Jesuit scholastics in the first stage of formal study for the priesthood. There is also a Ciszek Hall at the University of Scranton. Shenandoah, Pennsylvania also commemorated his legacy by the founding of a Catholic elementary school named Father Walter J. Ciszek School, later renamed Trinity Academy.
- The power of prayer reaches beyond all efforts of man seeking to find meaning in life. This power is available to all; it can transform man's weaknesses, limitations and his sufferings.
- Across that threshold I had been afraid to cross, things suddenly seemed so very simple. There was but a single vision, God, who was all in all; there was but one will that directed all things, God's will. I had only to see it, to discern it in every circumstance in which I found myself, and let myself be ruled by it. God is in all things, sustains all things, directs all things. To discern this in every situation and circumstance, to see His will in all things, was to accept each circumstance and situation and let oneself be borne along in perfect confidence and trust. Nothing could separate me from Him, because He was in all things. No danger could threaten me, no fear could shake me, except the fear of losing sight of Him. The future, hidden as it was, was hidden in His will and therefore acceptable to me no matter what it might bring. The past, with all its failures, was not forgotten; it remained to remind me of the weakness of human nature and the folly of putting any faith in self. But it no longer depressed me. I looked no longer to self to guide me, relied on it no longer in any way, so it could not again fail me. By renouncing, finally and completely, all control of my life and future destiny, I was relieved as a consequence of all responsibility. I was freed thereby from anxiety and worry, from every tension, and could float serenely upon the tide of God's sustaining providence in perfect peace of soul.
- With God in Russia, (with Daniel L. Flaherty, S.J.), memoir (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964).
- He Leadeth Me, (with Daniel L. Flaherty, S.J.), memoir (New York: Doubleday, 1973).
- Ciszek, Walter J. (1973). He Leadeth Me. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. pp. 79–80. ISBN 0-89870-546-0.
- "About Father Ciszek", the Father Walter Ciszek Prayer League
- Members of the Byzantine-Rite Russian Catholic Church, like members of other Eastern Catholic Churches, are in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church but differ in rites, customs and canon law from the western, or Latin-Rite Catholic Church. The majority of Catholics in Russia have always been members of the Latin Rite church, however.
- Walter Ciszek, SJ Tribute by Images of Heaven
- Tribute to Walter Ciszek, S.J.
- A Moscow Miracle: The Beautiful Death of An Ego (Daniel S. Osborn, M.J.)
- Details of Ciszek materials at Georgetown University library
- Time Magazine 1963 story on the release of Walter Ciszek
- Summary of the Writings of Walter Ciszek