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“He Leadeth Me,” the spiritual classic by American Jesuit Father Walter Ciszek (1904-1984), is being featured on the prayer and meditation app “Hallow” this Lent, and the book was recently a bestseller on Amazon.

Learn more about Fr. Ciszek, a missionary who was imprisoned for more than 20 years in the Soviet Union, first in solitary confinement and then in a Siberian gulag.

A Jesuit in Russia

Born on November 4, 1904, in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, to Polish immigrants, Fr. Ciszek joined the Jesuits in 1928. The next year, he learned that Pope Pius XI was calling on seminarians to enter a new Russian center in Rome to prepare priests for work in Russia. For Fr. Ciszek, it was “almost like a direct call from God.”

Fr. Ciszek with two friends in Russia in the 1950s

Missioned to Rome to study theology and the Byzantine Rite, Fr. Ciszek was ordained in 1937. Because priests could not be sent to Russia, he was assigned to work in Poland. When war broke out in 1939, Fr. Ciszek was able to enter Russia with false identification papers. He worked as an unskilled laborer until June 1941 when the secret police arrested him as a suspected spy.

Captivity in Soviet Prison and Siberian Gulag

After his arrest, Fr. Ciszek found himself in the infamous Lubyanka Prison in Moscow, where he was interrogated as a “Vatican spy.” He spent five years there, most of it in solitary confinement, before being sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in Siberia. Although forced to work in a Gulag coal mine, Fr. Ciszek found ways to hear confessions and say Mass.

“For all the hardships and suffering endured there, the prison camps of Siberia held one great consolation for me: I was able to function as a priest again. I was able to say Mass again, although in secret, to hear confessions, to baptize, to comfort the sick, and to minister to the dying,” he wrote.

Fr. Ciszek in prison

In 1955, Fr. Ciszek’s sentence ended early since he had surpassed his work quotas, and he was freed from the labor camps but forced to live in the Gulag city of Norilsk, where he worked in a chemical factory. After years of being presumed dead, Fr. Ciszek was finally allowed to write to family members in the United States.

Fr. Ciszek married a couple (seated at his right and left) in Norilsk in 1955.

In Norilsk, Fr. Ciszek and other priests ministered to a growing parish but, before too long, the KGB threatened to arrest him if he continued his ministry. Missioned to another city, Krasnoyarsk, the KGB shut him down again and transferred him to the city of Abakan.

U.S. Homecoming

In 1963, Fr. Ciszek learned he was going home. In a release negotiated by President John F. Kennedy — just one month before the president’s assassination — Fr. Ciszek and an American student were returned to the United States in exchange for two Soviet agents.

Fr. Ciszek and American student Marvin Makinen were returned to the U.S. as part of a prisoner exchange on October 12, 1963.

On October 12, 1963, Fr. Ciszek arrived in New York after 23 years in Russia. He was greeted at the airport by some of the editors of America magazine, including editor-in-chief Fr. Thurston N. Davis, SJ, who recounted the experience in America:

We stood on the airway apron as BOAC Flight 551 from London blocked to discharge its human cargo. Down the steps he came with slim, young Marvin W. Makinen, an American student who had been held for two years as a prisoner in the Soviet Union. In his green raincoat, grey suit, and big-brimmed Russian felt hat, Fr. Ciszek looked like the movie version of a stocky little Soviet member of an agricultural mission. As though by reflex, he and Makinen at once fell into step with ten New York policemen who formed a cordon around them. Off they marched. A reporter yelled “Hi, Father!” Ex-prisoner Ciszek looked up and smiled his first smile. Later we drove him to America for Mass and breakfast.

Following his return, Fr. Ciszek worked at the John XXIII Center at Fordham University (now the Center for Eastern Christian Studies at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania) until his death in 1984.

Fr. Ciszek with his sisters Helen and Sr. Evangeline upon his return to New York

Cause for Canonization

Fr. Ciszek’s canonization cause was formally opened in March 2012. The Walter Ciszek Prayer League, dedicated to the cause, maintains a museum in his birthplace of Shenandoah honoring his life. With his cause for sainthood opened, he can now be called “Servant of God.”

Fr. Ciszek’s (center) first Solemn High Mass at St. Casimir’s Church in Shenandoah upon his return from Russia; with him are Fr. Edward McCawley, SJ (left), and Msgr. Julian Zagorski, pastor of St. Casimir (right).

Forty years after his death, people are still learning about Fr. Ciszek’s life through his two books, “With God in Russia” and “He Leadeth Me,” as well as a collection of previously unpublished writings, “With God in America,” released by Loyola Press in 2016.

Among other tributes, Ciszek Hall — one of the U.S. houses of First Studies, where Jesuits in formation go to study philosophy and theology, near Fordham University’s campus in the Bronx, New York — is named for him. Fr. Ciszek is buried on the grounds of the former Jesuit Center in Wernersville, Pennsylvania, which was originally his novitiate.

Fr. Ciszek is beloved by American Jesuits, and those who knew him remember his kindness and humility. Read one such remembrance, “A Powerful Story of Walter Ciszek’s Quiet Holiness.”

Photos courtesy of the Father Walter Ciszek Prayer League.

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