Tuesday of the Eighth Week in Ordinary Time Lectionary: 348
Reading 1 Sir 35:1-12
Responsorial Psalm PS 50:5-6, 7-8, 14 and 23
Gospel Mk 10:28-31
Today we hear the perplexed Peter pose the weighty question, “what about us? We’ve given up everything to follow you. Will we make it?” You can tell it is a frightening question to ask because it is laden with the fear of rejection and purposelessness. On a personal level it asks, “do I matter to you? I thought I did.” You can sense an unspoken dialogue behind the few stated words. Although the words of Jesus sound harsh to many, he means them as a compassionate response to their anxiety. Yes, they have a place with him, and yes, their reward will be more abundant than they imagine.
This passage does remind us of the primacy of our relationship with Jesus, and that can be frightening. I have often heard concerned people pray for their loved ones who turned away from the church and/or Christ. It breaks their heart. They want the best for their loved ones and they want to know they will be with them in the eternal life that is to come. Their love is so strong that it sometimes gets in the way of following the direction Christ sets for them.
Family bonds are impenetrable. We are extremely interconnected and we know that we cannot erase the bonds that exist, and as a reconciling people, we want to reach out to others and settle disagreements. As Christians, we want to heal the rift between the estranged. This is in the fabric of our understanding of charity. To reject property or family or lands for Jesus is fantastically too difficult to digest.
The key to the story is held in the passage we heard yesterday when the rich man walked away from Jesus with great sadness. He gave up on the potential friendship. He walked away and left Jesus. The chance that Jesus could become meaningful to him was snuffed out. He closed his mind, heart, and attitude to the possibility of a friendship. We haven’t done that, and we are not likely to do so. In this, we can find great comfort.
But it also tells us that worrying about relationships with others, especially families, doesn’t help us. We are to go where he leads us or be where he wants us to be. If we trust in Christ strongly enough, the other stuff matters, but it is not within our control. He will take care of the relationships that we can’t shape. The best thing we can do is to share our desires with him. We can’t control or change anyone else and it is very wrong for us to try. We look to God who gives us freedom and we follow God’s example. God doesn’t manipulate. God doesn’t intervene to control a situation. God gives us freedom – and we are not used to living in freedom.
I think of Walter Ciszek of the Society of Jesus who was imprisoned in Russia, mostly in Siberia, for nearly a quarter of a century. Each day, the prisoners were lined up for roll call. They stood before the guards hands behind their back. On the day of his release, his name was called by the guards, and he lined up in the usual formation, hands behind his back, awaiting words from his captors. He followed the same routine that saved him each day, and now that he was free, he did not know what to do. His captors laughed at him as they shouted, “You are free. You can go.” Those rhythms necessary for survival are painful to break.
And it tells us that our freedom comes from the outside. We know we can’t fix what is broken within us. We’ve tried. We haven’t succeeded, and yet we keep trying to make our situation manageable. No matter what we do, we can’t solve ourselves. Only Christ’s concern for us can achieve this. Christ himself can unlock to door to our prison. We have to let him be the one who releases us from our captivity, and then we have to learn to live like him – like one who savors the victory of his freedom.
The first reading tells us of the just one who finds joy in freedom. One who is free is marked by generosity and gratitude with a spirit that impels one to offer oneself for others. We notice in this person a change of disposition or attitude. Who among us wants to be with someone who is also grumpy and critical? No one. We can offer our care and concern, but the person who constantly speaks and acts negatively is seldom willing to allow Christ and others to affect their lives. They reject the assistance they may inwardly crave. Little good will come to a person like this until one avails oneself of the love that hovers around the person. And yet less and less love hovers because the person makes himself or herself unlovable.
Who doesn’t want to be around one who is happy and content? Happiness is very attractive. When we realize the amazing affection God has for us, we become like Mary as we sing our own Magnificat. We sing our own song that tells of God’s goodness to us. This is a song that needs to be sung because so many others are yearning for the freedom Christ offers. It is a tune that helps us remember the gratitude of the one who saved and saves us. It is a single note, pure and easy, playing so free like a breath rippling by.
Although we carry heavy concerns on this retreat, let us find some time to offer praise as our sacrifice. We traditionally think of sacrifice as giving up something meaningful. It means denying oneself and going without. It means making one a little less comfortable for the sake of a greater good. This traditional definition has its place, but today let’s offer praise as sacrifice to the Trinitarian God for the goodness we receive each minute of our day. Let’s offer essentially who were are – our feelings and desires, our freedom, our good and bad memories, our comprehension of life’s events, and the toughest one of all – our will. Take time today to give generously and have a cheerful countenance.
Though we have given up lots to follow Christ, he tells us we will receive much more than we ever give up. This is the abundance of God in the kingdom. This is the God who has given you yourself as gift and wants you to return it joyfully. This is the God who delights in you and gushes over you, just as proud parents tells friends about their beloved children. Let God make you feel special today. Let God gush over you and feel proud.
Far in the bitter Russian north, word of the death of Joseph Stalin spread—even among the political prisoners and criminals who toiled ceaselessly, doomed and forgotten, in the mines and forests of Siberia. The news was a spark of hope that lit the fuse of rebellion. The camps erupted in violence as prisoners’ pent up frustrations with hard labor, hunger, and indignity were loosed. They never had a chance. By the butt of the rifle and the muzzle of the machine gun, Soviet soldiers put the uprising down. Among the prisoners of Camp 5, sprawled in the dirt and desperately trying to avoid the gunfire, was a Catholic priest from Pennsylvania. How he came there—and how he came back—is a study in, as the priest himself put it later, “the strange and mysterious ways of divine providence.”
Walter Ciszek’s seemed an unlikely vocation. By his own account, he was a “bully, the leader of a gang, a street fighter … I had no use for school, except insofar as it had a playground where I could fight or wrestle or play sports.” Walter’s Polish immigrant parents—his father was a mineworker and then a barkeeper in eastern Pennsylvania—were so exasperated by their difficult son that they once asked the police to take him off their hands. It was not the typical childhood of a follower of Ignatius of Loyola, who was required, among other things, to observe strict obedience to superiors and to achieve intellectual prowess through a long and rigorous regimen of academic study. But Walter Ciszek did not lead a typical life.
Born November 14, 1904 in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, Walter was the seventh of Martin and Mary Ciszek’s thirteen children. His mother’s devotion eventually inspired Walter to form aspirations to consecrated life, though his father remained skeptical that such an obstreperous youth could ever embody the piety and kindness that Martin thought proper to the Catholic priesthood. In the “strange and mysterious ways of divine providence,” however, the path of Walter Ciszek was already laid out: God would use the young man’s very contrariness as a lever to nudge him toward his vocation. His father’s opposition to the idea confirmed Walter’s determination to enter the seminary, and Walter’s own inclination away from the communal religious life and extensive training of the Jesuits convinced him to accept both: “since it was so hard,” he declared, “I would do it.”
In 1929, Pope Pius XI founded a Roman university for the purpose of training Western priests to work among the eastern-rite Catholics of Russia. Early in his religious life Walter learned of “the Russicum” and by the time he took vows in 1930, the dream of ministering to Russian Catholics was planted ineradicably in the young Jesuit’s mind. Father Ciszek was ordained in Rome, June 24, 1937.
By the 1930s, however, Soviet Communism’s implacable opposition to all independent religious activity made it impossible for a Catholic priest to enter the country. Fr. Ciszek was therefore assigned to a small town in eastern Poland, to work among the eastern-rite Catholics of the area and bide his time until a route into the USSR might somehow be discerned.
That day came quickly. Shortly after war broke out in September 1939, the Soviet army overran eastern Poland. Its envelopment by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia was a disaster for Poland, but it was a godsend for Ciszek. He now found himself within the boundaries of the Soviet empire. The American embassy recommended that he leave the country, but he declined. Instead, with the approval of his Jesuit superiors and the local archbishop, he conspired with two fellow Jesuits to enter the Russian heartland and realize his missionary dream.
Aided by his local friends, Ciszek forged papers to show that he was a widowed Polish peasant and volunteered to work in the Soviet war industry, which was hiring recruits throughout Soviet-occupied territory. Thus he found passage on an eastbounad train and crossed into Russia proper. Notwithstanding his careful efforts to hide his identity, he was arrested after only a year spent as a logger in the Ural Mountains. The Communist state had spies everywhere, and they quickly discovered the true identity of the American priest.
So began a brutal, years-long series of interrogations, incarcerations, and forced-labor assignments. The Soviet imagination could not comprehend the religious and charitable motives that impelled a young American man to sacrifice all for the sake of a ministry amidst the embattled and impoverished Catholics of Russia; therefore, they determined that he must be a spy. At first, they insisted that he was in the service of Hitler, then that he was involved in some kind of plot masterminded by the pope. In any case, they would not accept his explanations. He was found guilty of espionage and sentenced to fifteen years of labor in the Gulag.
The early years of his sentence were served in Moscow, within the confines of the notorious Lubyanka prison. Ciszek could not know at the time that the cell at Lubyanka would appear to be luxurious accommodations compared to later hardships. In 1946 he was transferred to Norilsk, Siberia, where his toils over the next decade included construction and coal mining. Daily life was a constant struggle for survival, but Ciszek made the most of his spiritual opportunities, saying Mass when possible, offering solace and sacraments to the religious, and sharing the rudiments of faith with those who had none.
Ciszek’s sentence ended in 1955. He was released into Siberia, but he was not free. As a treasonous ex-convict, not only would he never be permitted to leave the country; he must also seek permission for every transition of employment or residence. This period of relative freedom, however, was Ciszek’s most fruitful as a minister. Priests were in short supply in Russia and Ciszek found grateful parishioners wherever he went. The KGB discouraged Ciszek’s religious activity by harassment and threat, but by this time the hard-bitten priest was not easily cowed, even by the Soviet secret police.
Meanwhile, in the United States, Ciszek was presumed dead. The last contact with his relatives and Jesuit brothers was a postcard sent from Poland in 1940. In 1947, the Jesuits said a memorial Mass for him and his name was added to the official list of the Society’s deceased. Then, suddenly, came a letter, postmarked Siberia. Fr. Ciszek was alive! He remained in sporadic contact with his native country while his family sought to secure his liberty.
On October 11, 1963, the U.S. State Department announced to the world that a deal had been struck with the USSR. Two American prisoners were to be released in exchange for two Soviet spies captured in the United States. One of the Americans was a Jesuit priest. On the morning of October 12, Fr. Ciszek stepped onto the tarmac at Idlewild Airport (now JFK) in New York.
Friends and colleagues implored the repatriated priest to record his experiences, and he did so in two books: With God in Russia (1964) and He Leadeth Me (1973). It is no wonder that his accounts of life “behind enemy lines” were a sensation in Cold War America, but for Catholics they hold a meaning that goes beyond the historical contingencies of a particular period. In the details of this particular life we see written again the themes that play across Christian history: proclamation, witness, sacrifice, death, and resurrection. Fr. Ciszek’s labors evoke the heroism of the great Jesuit missionaries who preceded him: Francis Xavier, Paul Miki, Matteo Ricci, Isaac Jogues, Eusebio Kino. Not to mention the bearers of the gospel who formed the Church for fifteen hundred years before the Society of Jesus existed: Paul of Tarsus, Patrick, Boniface, Cyril and Methodius.
During his time in Russia, Ciszek narrowly escaped death by drowning, freezing, starvation, illness, electrocution, firing squad, explosion, and beating. Millions of victims of the Gulag died in these ways and others. Why did Fr. Ciszek survive? The answer is once again the “strange and mysterious ways of divine providence,” but one might speculate. Fr. Ciszek did: “I felt that one reason that God in his providence had brought me safely home was so that I might help others understand these truths a little better.” Which truths? “That God has a special purpose, a special love, a special providence to all those he has created,” and that, therefore, “every moment of our life has a purpose, that every action of ours, no matter how dull or routine or trivial it may seem in itself, has a dignity and a worth beyond human understanding.”
In the midst of the Cold War, this was a message the West needed to hear. Fr. Ciszek was uniquely qualified to announce it. He possessed a combination of street-smart intelligence and genuine humility; an astonishing memory; an indomitable faith; and a native appreciation of American culture that was untainted by jingoism or xenophobia. His story helped to shape among American Catholics an anti-Communist ethos that was tethered to faith and fueled not by hatred of the Russian people but by a desire to free them from oppression—to restore to them the transcendent truth about man’s relationship with God that materialist ideology tried to stamp out.
Ciszek remained for the rest of his life in the United States, residing and teaching at Fordham University. He died on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1984, and his cause for canonization was formally introduced in 1990 at the behest of the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Passaic, New Jersey. By that time, the Berlin Wall had fallen, the Catholic Church was enjoying its freedom in Poland, and the Gulag where Ciszek had spent ten physically miserable years was largely dismantled. Yet changing circumstances do not diminish the timeless witness of the saints. The good news of God’s “special purpose, special love, and special providence” is a message the world still needs to hear.
Kevin Schmiesing is a research fellow at the Acton Institute. He is the author of American Catholic Intellectuals, 1895-1955 (Edwin Mellen Press, 2002) and, most recently, of Within the Market Strife: American Catholic Economic Thought from Rerum Novarum to Vatican II (Lexington Books, 2004). He is the book review editor for The Journal of Markets & Morality and is also executive director of CatholicHistory.net. Schmiesing earned his Ph.D. in American history from the University of Pennsylvania.
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