Here is some great news: The Vatican has given formal permission to begin the canonization process for Walter J. Ciszek, S.J. Father Ciszek was an American Jesuit (1904-84), the author of With God in Russia and He Leadeth Me (both originally published by America Press) and, to my mind, one of the great religious figures of the 20th century. If modern-day Catholics know him, it is probably for the harrowing experiences that lie at the heart of his books: the years he spent imprisoned first in Moscow and then in Soviet labor camps in Siberia.
Those two magnificent books (written with the help of Daniel J. Flaherty, S.J.) are perennial favorites among Catholics. The first is a straightforward recounting of what transpired in the Soviet Union. The second, as he said in the book’s introduction, represented the answer to the question that many asked after his first book was published: “How did you survive?” He Leadeth Me, then, is his spiritual testament.
How did a Pennsylvania-born Jesuit end up in such perilous circumstances? After volunteering as a young priest in the late 1930s to work in Poland, Ciszek found himself caught up in the turmoil of the Second World War. When the German army took Warsaw and the Soviets overran eastern Poland, Ciszek fled into the Soviet Union along with other Polish refugees.
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 Lubyanka prison, he was sentenced to 15 years at hard labor in Soviet camps in Siberia. After that 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 prisoners in the drafty corners of their barracks or celebrating Masses on tree stumps in the Siberian wilderness—often in danger of being discovered and executed. After decades out of contact with the West, Ciszek was presumed dead by his brother Jesuits until a letter arrived unexpectedly years later announcing his survival. His release from the Soviet Union was negotiated at the behest of President John F. Kennedy.
In October 1963, when Ciszek returned from his arduous sojourn in the U.S.S.R., the first place he came to was the headquarters of America, then located in Upper Manhattan. A photograph that now hangs in our editorial offices shows a smiling Ciszek being welcomed at America House. (A letter from President Kennedy thanking an intermediary for his help arranging the release also hangs on our walls.)
Thurston Davis, S.J., then the magazine’s editor in chief, who met Ciszek at New York’s Idlewild Airport, wrote in America’s issue of Oct. 26, 1963, about his surprise at his friend’s appearance: “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, Ciszek wrote a brief but moving statement in which he said, “In spite of seeming failures, I cherish no resentments or regrets for what transpired in the past years.”
Father Ciszek is beloved among American Jesuits, and those who knew him never fail to mention his great humility. Among the many tributes to him is the naming of Ciszek Hall, a residence for young Jesuits in “first studies” at Fordham University. The perhaps-future-saint is buried with his Jesuit brothers at the Jesuit Center in Wernersville, Pa., a retreat house today but once the Novitiate of St. Isaac Jogues, where the young Walter Ciszek first heard the stirrings of the mysterious call to go to the East.