Thursday, December 8, 2011

December 8 - Walter Ciszek, Prisoner, Priest, Seed Planted in the Gulag

"Walter, have you heard that Lubyanka is the tallest building in Moscow?" asked Walter's fellow prisoner," they say you can see Siberia from the basement." It had been meant as a joke to relieve some of the mundane and oppressive tension that highlighted the lives and days of the prisoners in Lubyanka. Walter laughed but it might be because of the absurdity of it all and his growing need for companionship with other people. Walter was primarily kept in solitary confinement while at Lubyanka even though he was no physical threat to the other prisoners or the guards. He was confined for the purposes of cruelty and restricted on a whim. He had come a long way from the small Polish family in Shenandoah, Pennsylvnia, in the United States of America. Even now his family wondered what had happened to Walter. He had not led an exemplary life in the United States but his family still dearly missed him and prayed daily for his safe return. Regrettably, though, they were increasingly convinced that he would never return and was likely no longer alive. When he had left the life of a gang member behind to become a Jesuit priest, they had assumed that his life was taking steps in the direction of safety and security. But then he had accepted a calling.

Walter heeded the desperate call by the pope for priests to become missionaries to Russia in the early twentieth century. It was not an especially safe time for men to immigrate to Russia but the Church seized upon the opportunity and soon he found himself in Rome studying to become a priest while also learning the Russian language and history. When he arrived in Russia, he became a logger and got to work becoming part of a culture that was not his own. In his spare time, he began hearing confession and saying mass in secret. The Soviet State had no room for Christians and was quick to isolate them from others. Perhaps the Soviets had learned from the actions of Rome and knew that the Christian story was contagious and would continue to spread--maybe even faster-- as you tried to kill Christians to silence them. So, instead of killing Walter, they arrested him and threw him into one of their most secure prisons. This hadn't been enough and he continued to share his faith with the people he met and eventually they were forced to further restrict him. In an act of desperation, they ordered him sent to one of the many Gulag camps. It seems that they truly could see Siberia from the basement at Lubyanka.

In this attempt to silence Walter, they only firmly planted a seed in frozen Russian soil. They had dropped him into the camp expecting him to give up and eventually die from exhaustion and exposure. He was among prisoners of all different types and crimes. Some had been sent to the camp for speaking out against the government--even as little as telling a joke that was deemed disrespectful of the State--or being too closely related to somebody who had been marked for exile. Children, women, and men labored in the cold to support the State and save their own necks. Yet, Walter still heard confession and held services in the camp. In their attempt to isolate Walter, the State had only given him a larger audience and nurtured the tiny plant that was Walter's ministry in Russia.

Even after he was released from the camp and moved between other cities, he continued to offer ministry and aid to those who were seeking it. He wrote to his family for the first time in nearly fifteen years and they were surprised and overjoyed to learn that the brother and son whom they had presumed dead was alive--the one they thought lost had been found. His release was eventually negotiated by the United States of America so that he might come home and a Soviet spy and his wife might return to Russia. Even as he was being released, the Soviets still considered him a spy and failed to understand that he had been a missionary for a Kingdom that is not of this world. After twenty-three years of imprisonment he was reunited with his family and lived the remainder of his days as a minister in Pennsylvania. Twenty-five years ago, today, he died.

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