With God in Russia is the first of two books written by Rev. Walter J. Ciszek, a Jesuit whose cause for canonization is currently wending its way through the necessary channels in Rome. Written under obedience to his superiors, and first published in 1964, it details his experiences in Russia from 1939 to 1963.
Lest this sound like a normal account of a Catholic priest doing mission work in another country, his stay in Russia consisted largely of imprisonment in the notorious Soviet Gulag, the system of prison and work camps operated under the Communist regime.
While there he suffered what many suffered: inhuman conditions at forced labor in Siberia, inadequate food, beatings, interrogations by the secret police, and exile to remote places in Russia after his 15 year sentence for “espionage” was completed. It seems a miracle he survived this, and even more miraculous that he returned to the United States in 1963 – he had been declared legally dead in 1947!
Why was he there? Simply put, he was responding to a call from God. In other words, it was his vocation.
It was his vocation that caused a tough guy, bullying, ready with his fists Polish youth (a juvenile delinquent, in fact: his own father at one point begged the police to take him into custody because he couldn’t do anything with him) with no discernible interest in higher things to suddenly feel he had been called to the priesthood. His toughness of character and body, now finding its proper channel, served him well as he persuaded the Church that he was called to be a priest, a Jesuit, and then a worthy candidate for the Russian mission.
The mission was designed to produce priests who would enter Russia and minister to the Catholic flock there, sadly neglected after the Communist regime had disposed of nearly all the priests and bishops.
Father Ciszek entered Russia, and before long, was arrested and accused of espionage, though his efforts had been purely spiritual. His stay in the Soviet Gulag included a prolonged period in Siberia and more than four years of solitary confinement in Moscow’s infamous Lubianka prison.
The book is not, perhaps, the most elegantly written work of literature, but it clearly tells a story of utterly heroic dedication to the care for souls in Soviet Russia at all costs and risks. While in Russia, outwardly his mission seemed to be a failure: quick detection, lengthy imprisonment, exile, and finally return to the United States as part of a swap for two Soviet spies.
Father Ciszek would not have considered it a failure, though. His idea of success is that of the Saints, fidelity to God’s will. God’s will for him was to suffer many things in Russia, but the world can’t set a price on the Masses he said for the prisoners, the confessions he heard, the counsel he gave and example he set for those around him, and the supernatural hope and comfort he provided people wherever he found himself.
The fact that his cause of canonization if currently underway indicates that he was , finally, a great success in the eyes of the One whose opinion matters most.
- Was it necessary for Fr. Ciszek to go into Soviet Russia, with almost certain arrest and incarceration facing him?
- Fr. Ciszek survived 23 years in Soviet Russia, more than 15 of them in the infamous prison camp system, the Gulag. Are there countries today where Catholics are imprisoned and suffer persecution for their faith?
- Why did the Soviet secret police constantly accuse Fr. Ciszek of being a spy? Did they really believe this? If so, why did they let him live instead of simply shooting him?
- What do you think Fr. Ciszek’s reaction would have been to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991?
- Why were common criminals and gangsters always in charge of life in the Gulag camps instead of the political prisoners? What does this reveal about human nature and totalitarian regimes?