The Priest Who Died Three Times

Fr. Walter Ciszek

The first time Walter Ciszek “died” was in 1947. The American Jesuit had disappeared in 1940, shortly after slipping into Communist Russia to work as an underground priest. After 7 years, his family and religious community gave him up for dead.

Tough and Proud of It

“Born stubborn,” young Walter Ciszek was a strong kid who liked picking fights and missing school. Parental talks and discipline had no effect. His father, was stunned when Walter decided to become a priest. While Ciszek struggled with the need for obedience as a Jesuit, he later explained, “I finally decided, since it was so hard, I would do it.”

Send Me! 

In 1929, Walter volunteered to go to Russia, where the Soviets had closed seminaries and imprisoned bishops and priests. He was sent to in Rome. In 1940, Ciszek finally got into Russia in a boxcar of Polish laborers headed for a lumber camp. He didn’t mind the hard work and harsh conditions of that camp. But he was frustrated and disillusioned to find no outlets for his priestly ministry. It was “almost a non-apostolate,” he said, for even the Catholic workers feared Communist informers and refused to speak or hear of God. He was later arrested as a spy and sent to Moscow’s dreaded Lubianka Prison. He spent 5 years there, mostly in solitary confinement.

Moments of Truth

Initially, Fr. Ciszek wasn’t too worried. He was innocent. And he had great confidence in his ability to stand firm against any interrogator. His strength, discipline, and habits of prayer certainly helped. But Lubianka wore him down with its constant hunger and isolation and the all-night interrogations, with their mind games and agonizing afterthoughts. After a year—brutalized, drugged, threatened with death—Ciszek did what he had been sure he would never do: He signed papers that gave the impression he had been spying for the Vatican.

Burning with shame and guilt for being “nowhere near the man I thought I was,” he finally faced the truth. — I had asked for God’s help but I had relied almost completely on myself in this most critical test—and I had failed.

The interrogations continued, and Ciszek threw himself on God, pleading his utter helplessness. Then, in a moment of blinding light, he was able to see “the grace God had been offering me all my life.” —- I knew that I must abandon myself completely to the will of the Father and live from now on in this spirit of self-abandonment to God. And I did it. — a sense of “letting go,” giving over totally my last effort or even any will to guide the reins of my own life. It is all too simply said, yet that one decision has affected every subsequent moment of my life. I have to call it a conversion… . It was at once a death and a resurrection.

Selfless in Siberia

Walter Ciszek was a new man. Realizing they could not manipulate him, the Soviets sentenced him to 15 years of hard labor in the Siberian Gulag. Conditions there were horrific. Prisoners were starved and overworked, poorly housed and poorly clothed. Perhaps 1.5 million of them died in the push to industrialize the frozen wasteland.

Yet in this nightmare realm, Fr. Ciszek knew the joy of bringing Christ to his fellow prisoners. In secret, he baptized, heard confessions, tended the sick and dying, gave homilies and retreats, said Mass, and distributed Communion. With quiet heroism, he built “a thriving parish,” though it cost him. He was punished with assignments to the dirtiest work. He shoveled coal for 15 hours straight, hauled logs out of a frozen river, crawled through dangerous mine tunnels, and dug sewer trenches with a pickaxe in subzero temperatures.

On the prison train out of Moscow, Fr Ciszek was thrown into a compartment with 20 hardcore criminals who took his clothes and threatened his life. Angry and afraid, he sat in his corner and tried to regain composure. “This was the situation, these were the people, I kept trying to tell myself, that formed the will of God for me today.” Peace returned as he resolved to accept these and all circumstances as from God’s hands and to offer them back to him as best he could.

Discharged from the camps in 1955 but confined to Siberia, Fr. Ciszek dedicated himself to serving local Christians, who were starved for the sacraments and priestly support. He ministered so widely and effectively that the police hounded him from one city to another. His unexpected release back to the United States in 1963 probably spared him another arrest.

In 1963, he was sent back to the United States in 1963—traded for two Russian agents—it seemed like a return from the dead. For the rest of his life, Ciszek lived and spread his “simple truths.” Based at Fordham University in New York, he reached out in writings, talks, retreats, and counseling. According to Mother Marija, his final message for the Carmelite novices. “If they want to have peace at the end of their lives,” he said, “tell them to do God’s will every day. Tell them to give God’s will their lousy best.” However “lousy” it seems, that gift of death to self—a gift each one of us can give—is the sure path to life in Christ.




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