Friday 22nd March 2019

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Catholic Heroes… Servant Of God Walter Ciszek

January 2, 2019 saints No Comments


Part 2

After living 23 years in Russia in prison camps and various towns in northern Russia, Fr. Walter Ciszek was suddenly given orders to be prepared to go to Moscow. He was never told why he was being transferred to the capital of Russia. When he first arrived, he wondered what was happening. For once, he was treated with respect, but still kept in darkness about his presence in Moscow.
His odyssey in Moscow began when he had been living in Abakan and was allowed to write letters. Eventually, his sister received one of his letters, but was skeptical that it was really her brother. Over several exchanges she determined that it was truly him. Mrs. Helen Gearhart and Sr. Evangeline, OSF, his sisters, with Fr. Edward McCawley and the Kennedy administration, obtained his release.
As the negotiations proceeded, the authorities came to Abakan and began to interrogate him once again for three long days. He began to fear another trial that would end even worse than the one he endured 23 years earlier when he was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in Siberia. Then they inexplicably took him to Moscow.
One cold day in October, Ciszek was picked up from his residence, put in the back of the car, and transported through Moscow. He never knew where he was going until he actually arrived at the airport and his car stopped next to the car holding Marvin Makinen, another America who had been held in prison. Fr. Ciszek’s release took place on October 12, 1963.
Apprehensive yet curious, he did not realize that he and Marvin were being traded for two Russian spies, Ivan and Aleksandra Egorov, who had been assigned to the Russian delegation at the United Nations.
Once on board the British Overseas Airways Corporation flight, he gazed out the window and as they left Moscow, he blessed the land and people with whom he lived for over two decades.
Fr. Ciszek and Marvin Makinen sat in the rear of the plane talking in low tones, trying to avoid notice. Part of the agreement with the Russians was that they would not say anything about their time in Russia until they had reached their final destination.
After they arrived in London and before they caught the next leg of their flight to New York, they had a brief layover in Shannon, Ireland, where Fr. Ciszek was amazed at the luxurious products for sale that anyone could buy. As he was immersed in the wonders of the duty-free shop, Makinen heard them being paged. Surprisingly, a reporter had them paged to do an interview. Makinen quickly led Walter to the plane, and once on board expressed his concern privately to the pilot about remaining anonymous.
The captain managed to clear the way for the two celebrities so that when they arrived in New York things would be quiet. They were escorted off the plane to a small group of reporters and little was said at that time. Fr. Ciszek’s sisters and other family members were there to greet him. As he went off with them, Makinen went off with his family.
Father’s sisters then went with him to the Jesuit America house in New York City, where he celebrated Mass for them and his fellow Jesuits. Later he was assigned to the Jesuit novitiate in Wernersville, Pa.
As a novice in Wernersville in the 1930s, Walter Ciszek had been assigned the task of building a cemetery. His first request when he came back to America was to visit the cemetery; he recognized the names of some of the dead.
Upon his arrival he noticed some seminarians and asked to address them. His simple words had great impact: “I’m sure some of you think that you’re wasting your time here; but it’s what I prayed about here that gave me strength to endure all the things I endured during my years afterward.”
Seen walking the grounds of Wernersville, he seemed like a man who had come from another world. It took time to adjust to the amount of freedom, the plentiful food, and the affluence of the Americans. Also he had missed the events of World War II. When someone mentioned December 7 as the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, he had to ask what Pearl Harbor was.
Fr. Ciszek moved to the John XXIII Center at Fordham University in the summer of 1964. He said Mass privately since he had to relearn English, and to adjust to the Mass of the Roman Rite. At the center he marveled at the food and limited his intake, avoiding foods he deemed too rich for his system.
One of the first words from Fr. Ciszek after his return from Russia in the spring of 1964 was a remark on the automobile: There were so many cars, used cars were so cheap, and he once saw a nun driving a car!
Another surprise for the priest was seeing a crucifix in so many public places. In Russia all the crucifixes were kept hidden. On the other hand, it saddened him that so few people made an effort to attend Mass in America whereas the Russians took great risks and made great sacrifices to attend Mass.
Though Fr. Ciszek had been ordained, he had never made his final vows and he now prepared to do so while at Fordham. He made them on August 15, 1964. He continued pastoral work, organized activities for the youth, provided spiritual direction for religious as well as laity, and prepared to make his fourth vow regarding obedience to the papacy.
In August 1976, however, he suffered a heart attack and was transferred to the Campion Center in Weston, Mass. By August 1977, he had recovered sufficiently to return to Fordham where he made his fourth vow to his superior, Fr. John Geary, on August 15.
For the next seven years he continued to give retreats and write hundreds of letters giving spiritual advice, and he also gave lectures at the John XXIII center. He was particularly close to the nuns of Holy Annunciation Monastery in Sugarloaf, Pa., which he had helped found.
During the retreats he gave, he related his experiences in Russia, for which he held no bitterness, “You can’t love God and hate what He loves.” He gave reflections on generosity, having patience with ourselves, the mystery of suffering, humility, faith, love of God, the Mystical Body of Christ, and the Presence of God.
In 1983 his retinue of volunteers helped him send out over 1,000 Christmas cards. He remarked then that he would not be around to do so for the next Christmas. His health was failing, but he still maintained as much work as he could.
In early December 1984, plans had been made for sending out the Christmas mailing, but Fr. Ciszek became very weak and warned one of his daily Mass attendees that she should attend Mass at the nearby parish. The next morning she noticed the ambulance outside his residence.
He had passed away on December 8, 1984.

+ + +

(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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