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Catholic Heroes … Servant Of God Walter Ciszek

December 13, 2018 saints No Comments

By CAROLE BRESLIN

Part 1

Unless people are faced with no choice in hardship, they will never know just how much pain and suffering they are able to endure, especially with the help of God’s grace. The concentration camps of World War II, the flotillas of Vietnamese boat people escaping a repressive regime, and the horrors of fighting in armed combat bring out the hero in a person.
Fr. Walter Ciszek persevered through the frigid winters of Siberia wearing little more than rags, survived on starvation rations, and withstood countless brutal interrogations. Enduring such things is amazing enough, but loving those who perpetrated such treatments is most heroic.
Walter, the son of Polish immigrants, was born to Martin and Mary Ciszek on November 4, 1904 in Shenandoah, Pa. He was the seventh of their thirteen children, whom Martin supported by working in the coalmines.
The religious parents were firm disciplinarians and quick to help other immigrants, knowing how difficult the transition to the new land was. Of their thirteen children, only six girls and four boys survived.
Walter was an unruly boy with a quick mind, and a thrill-seeker eager to raise his fists for the slightest provocation. He was so eager to prove his toughness that he would provoke others to achieve his aims.
The young Pole formed a gang by the fifth grade and once or twice the gang would have to rescue him from fights and carry him back to school. There he received no sympathy for his injuries, but he did receive a scolding from the nuns.
The next few years he became more belligerent until his father lost hope for his son to receive the education he and Mary hoped their children would get.
Walter then ran away from home and when they finally found him, they took him to the police, hoping they would keep Walter, who was a “shame to the house.” However, the police convinced Martin to take Walter home.
When Walter was sent to Boy Scouts camp, he snuck out to go to the amusement park where he spent all of his return train fare. With no money, he jumped on the last train home, clinging to the side of the train, narrowly missing the tunnel walls on the route. Cold, tired, and scared, he arrived at his home station late in the night to find his father patiently waiting for his arrival.
The wayward son became a destructive teen, stoning windows and street lights and killing cats. He would skip school, tried to derail trains, and constantly worked to be the leader of the boys by performing more and more daring feats.
His parents continued to fret for his salvation and after years of scolding, prayers, and punishments, he seemed to get the picture. He decided he needed to change when the nuns refused to let him be an altar boy because of his bad reputation. In addition, when he witnessed his two older brothers graduate with academic awards, he determined to redirect his competitive energies to scholastic achievements.
Perhaps no one was more stunned than Walter’s parents when he announced that he wanted to become a priest. His father grunted and asked what sort of priest he could be since priests were holy and Walter was anything but that.
What Walter kept hidden was his nightly prayers — he said his prayers every night before bed. Ultimately his mother insisted he be allowed to go to the seminary. Walter went to Saints Cyril and Methodius Polish Seminary in Orchard Lake, Mich., in September 1921.
At the seminary he developed a devotion to St. Stanislaus Kostka (1550-1568), another tough, stubborn Pole, who walked from Warsaw to Rome. Walter decided to test his own endurance by rising at 4:30 every morning to run five to eight miles around the lakes on the extensive property. In November, when the temperatures hovered around freezing, he would go swimming. He sought only to do that which was most difficult, including near starvation fasts — all this quietly seeking to be unnoticed.
During the summer of 1928 he attended parties, went dancing, and continued dating. Even so he still rose for 6 a.m. Mass every day to pray about the calling he felt to enter a religious order, rather than the secular priesthood.
He entered the Jesuit novitiate on September 7, 1928 at St. Andrew-on-the-Hudson, Poughkeepsie, N.Y. He continued his early morning exercises, much to the surprise of his superiors.
In 1929, in response to the Pope’s call, Walter volunteered for the ministry in Russia where the Soviets had closed the seminaries and arrested the bishops and priests. Thus, at the end of his second year of Jesuit studies, he went to Rome to study at the Russian college. He was ordained on June 24, 1937 and celebrated his first Mass.
Soon after, Walter was sent to Albertyn, Poland, to teach at the Jesuit seminaries. When the Catholic Church was persecuted there as well, he obtained another identity as a worker. The Russians hired him to work in a factory in the Urals in 1940. He loaded logs during the day and would sneak to the woods to celebrate Mass in secret.
In June he was arrested for being a German spy. Interrogations were frequent and brutal, including the use of strong drugs. In a drug-induced stupor and near death, he signed a confession which he immediately regretted. The commissar sentenced him to fifteen years of hard labor in Siberia.
Strangely, they kept him in Lubyanka for four more years before sending him to Norilsk, inside the Arctic Circle. He shoveled coal all day long in the frigid cold, wearing little more than rags. Perhaps his November swims prepared him for such conditions.
After five years, he finally met another priest and was able to say Mass. He was also thrilled to hear the Confessions of his fellow prisoners.
In 1947 the Russians moved him to construction work where they had more “luxuries” such as vermin-infested blankets. In 1953 he worked in the mines and was finally released on April 22, 1955. He was outside the walls, but still not free. He stayed in Norilsk, working in a chemical factory and secretly celebrating Mass, Baptisms, and weddings. The factory workers would cover for him, and he even converted some of them.
His Christmas Midnight Mass was so crowded that two secret police found him more space for the celebration. However, he was arrested and sent to Krasnoyarsk. There he managed to build secret missions, celebrating the sacraments after Masses — one time he married and baptized for 72 hours straight.
Then the KGB called him to their office in 1959, telling him his passport had been canceled and he had 48 hours to leave. This time he went 100 miles south to Albakan where he worked as a mechanic.
Six months later, the KGB woke him in the middle of the night and told him to be ready to leave Albakan in three days for Moscow. He was given the VIP treatment there until October 12, 1963, which made him wonder why they were treating him so well.
(To be continued.)

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(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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