Thanks to Greg Kandra at Deacon's Bench for alerting us to this great bit of news from the Diocese of Allentown: the Vatican has given its formal approval for the canonization process for Walter Ciszek, SJ (1904-1984), to begin. Father Ciszek, an American-born Jesuit, and the author of With God in Russia and He Leadeth Me (both originally published by America Press) is one of the great Jesuits of the 20th century, having endured many years in Soviet labor camps, and, later, anonymous work in Siberian towns, all the while ministering to his fellow human beings as a Jesuit priest, often in grave danger to his life.
Those two magnificent books (written with the help of Daniel J. Flaherty, SJ) are perennial favorites among Catholics--and, by the way, particularly good spiritual reading for retreats. The first book is a straightforward recounting of what transpired in his years in the Soviet Union. The second, as he would say in the introduction, represented the answer to the question that so many asked him after the first book was published: "How did you survive?" That second book, then, was his spiritual testament.
Some background on Father Ciszek: After volunteering to work in Poland in the late 1930s as a young priest, Ciszek found himself in the middle of the turmoil of the Second World War. After the Nazis invaded Warsaw and the Soviets overran Eastern Poland, he fled into the Soviet Union, along with other Polish refugees, and, in 1941, he was captured by the Soviets as a suspected spy. (He was not, of course.) After five years of brutal interrogation in Moscow's notorious Lubianka prison, he was sentenced to 15 years hard labor in a Soviet labor camp in Siberia. Years later, he was released into the general population, and found work in small towns in Siberia.
In all these situations he ministered to men and women as a priest--hearing confessions from other prisoners in drafty corners of his barracks or celebrating Masses on treestumps in the Siberian wilderness--often in danger of being discovered and executed. After years of no contact with the West, Father Ciszek was presumed dead by the American Jesuits, until a surprise letter arrived years later, announcing his survival.) His eventual (and rather daring) release--a complicated prisoner exchange--was negotiated by President John F. Kennedy.
In October 1963, when Father Ciszek returned from his arduous sojourn in the USSR (and years after his brother Jesuit priest had celebrated Masses for his eternal rest) the first place he came was to the headquarters of America magazine. The photograph above, the original of which today hangs outside our editorial offices, is of Father Ciszek being welcomed at America House. (A letter from President Kennedy thanking an intermediary for his release also hangs on our walls.) Thurston Davis, SJ, then the magazine's editor-in-chief, who met him at Idlewild Airport, wrote: "In his green raincoat, grey suit and big-brimmed Russian hat, he looked like the movie version of a stocky little Soviet member of an agricultural mission." In that same issue, Fr. Ciszek wrote a brief statement in which he said, “In spite of seeming failures, I cherish no resentments or regrets for what transpired in the past years.”
He is beloved among American Jesuits, and those who knew him still speak about his kindness and his humility. Among other tributes to him, Ciszek Hall, the community of young Jesuits in "First Studies" Fordham University, is named for him. Father Ciszek is buried with his Jesuit brothers in The Jesuit Center in Wernersville, PA, which was originally Ciszek's novitiate, where he first heard the mysterious call to the East.
Walter Ciszek, SJ, pray for us!
The Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints has issued a decree declaring "valid" the Diocese of Allentown's investigation into the life, virtues and reputation for sanctity of Jesuit priest Father Walter Ciszek, who was born in Shenandoah, Schuylkill County and is buried at the Jesuit Center in Wernersville, Berks County.
Monsignor Anthony Muntone, Diocesan Co-Postulator for Father Ciszek's Cause for Canonization said, "The issuing of the decree by the Congregation is a major step forward in the effort to see Father Ciszek canonized a saint of the Church."
The diocesan investigation took more than a decade to complete. In August 1996, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints granted a request for a change in responsibility for pursuing Father Ciszek's cause from the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Passaic, NJ, where the Diocesan phase of the cause had begun several years earlier, to the Diocese of Allentown.
Over the next ten years, the Diocese of Allentown completed the Diocesan phase of the inquiry into Father Ciszek's life and reputation for holiness and forwarded all the documents pertaining to the investigation to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome in 2006.
Materials and documentation bolstering the cause included testimony from 45 witnesses, Father Ciszek's published and unpublished works, and transcription of hundreds of his handwritten documents.
The Vatican requested additional documents. In 2011, an additional 4,000 pages of documentation from the Jesuit archives in the United States and Rome, the original store of documents archived at the Father Ciszek Center, Shenandoah, and other important documents obtained from state records in Russia, were compiled and sent to the Vatican.
Father Ciszek was a Jesuit missionary to the Soviet Union who was arrested as a spy for the Vatican and held prisoner for 23 years until he was returned to the U.S. in a spy exchange in 1963.