by Archbishop Naumann
Recently, I decided to reread the book, “He Leadeth Me,” by Father Walter J. Ciszek, a Jesuit priest who spent almost 25 years in Russian prisons or Siberian slave labor camps.
With all the negative press recently about misconduct by bishops and priests, I wanted to reacquaint myself with the story of this heroic priest who volunteered in the 1930s, while in formation for the Jesuits, to be trained to serve as a Catholic missionary to communist Russia.
By the time Father Ciszek was ordained a priest, it was impossible for him to enter Russia legally. He was assigned to a parish in eastern Poland. When that part of Poland was captured by the Russians in 1939, Father Ciszek, disguised as a worker, immigrated to the Ukraine with other Polish war refugees.
He was arrested by the Russian secret police in 1941 and brought to Moscow, where he was imprisoned for several years, most of the time in solitary confinement. He underwent relentless interrogations, until he was finally sentenced as a Vatican spy to 15 years of hard labor in Siberian concentration camps.
While in Siberia, Father Ciszek exercised his priestly ministry at great personal risk, attending to the spiritual needs of his fellow prisoners. Father Ciszek celebrated clandestine Masses, administered the sacrament of penance and gave retreats based on the Ignatian Exercises.
Surviving against all odds the hard labor and inhumane conditions of the Siberian labor camps, he served his sentence and was released. However, he was still not free to leave the Soviet Union and was restricted where he was permitted to reside.
Father Ciszek was constantly under police surveillance and was harassed for any report of an attempt to exercise his priestly ministry. Father Ciszek worked as an auto mechanic, while still secretly providing sacramental ministry to spiritually starved Russians.
His family and Jesuit community for many years presumed he had died, since no one had heard from Father Ciszek since 1945. Memorial Masses were offered for the repose of his soul. After the American government learned of his survival, they were able to negotiate his release in October 1963.
Even before his capture and imprisonments while working as a laborer in the Ukraine, Father Ciszek had already experienced profound disillusionment. He had come to the sad realization that his dream of being a missionary in Russia was a foolish fantasy.
Father Ciszek wrote: “The notion that we could ever effectively work in this country, under these conditions, seemed in retrospect nothing but a pipe dream. We had entered upon what we thought was a great missionary endeavor, full of zeal and enthusiasm, only to come smack up against reality. Things here were not at all as we had envisioned them, and we were not at all equipped to face things as we found them. So much for our hopes, our expectations, our dreams, our convictions, above all, our enthusiasm! . . . The whole Russian venture seemed now to have been a mistake, an ill-conceived missionary effort based on hopes and dreams rather than on hard facts, a plan born of insufficient information and misinformation.”
In retrospect, Father Ciszek recognized his temptation to despair in the Ukraine was not so different from the disillusionment many face as they attempt to persevere in living their vocation.
Father Ciszek observed: “And though our situation may have been somewhat unique, the temptation itself was not. It is the same temptation faced by everyone who has followed a call and found the realities of life were nothing like the expectations he had in the first flush of his vision and his enthusiasm. It is the temptation that comes to anyone, for example, who has entered religious life with a burning desire to serve God and him alone, only to find the day-to-day life in religion is humdrum and pedestrian, equally as filled with moments of human misunderstandings, daily routines and distractions as the secular life he left behind in the world.
“It is the same temptation faced by young couples in marriage, when the honeymoon is over, and they must face a seemingly endless future of living together and scratching out an existence in the same old place and the same old way. It is the same temptation to say: This life is not what I thought it would be. This is not what I bargained for. It is not at all what I wanted, either. If I had known it would be like this, I would have never made this choice, I would never have made this promise. You must forgive me, God, but I want to go back. You cannot hold me to a promise made in ignorance; you cannot expect me to keep a covenant based on faith without any previous knowledge of the true facts of life. It is not fair. I never thought it would be like this. I simply cannot stand it, and I will not stay. I will not serve.”
Father Ciszek is correct. Variations of this temptation come to everyone in the unique circumstances of our lives.
Amid this current crisis within the church, it is easy for me to fantasize how nice it would have been to be a bishop at a more serene time in the history of the church, when there were not so many people upset with failures of Catholic leadership. It is the temptation of wanting to serve God in the circumstances that we prefer rather than in the reality of our lives.
Father Ciszek remembered one of the foundational principles of Ignatian spirituality: to strive to become indifferent to the particular circumstances of one’s life, while recognizing the opportunity to reverence and praise God in the world as it is, not in the world as we would prefer it.
Living this basic spiritual principle of embracing the opportunity to praise God in the actual reality of our lives is the key to discovering meaning and experiencing happiness.
During his long time of imprisonment and hard labor, Father Ciszek learned and relearned the simple truth that the purpose of all of our lives is to do the will of God.
Father Ciszek explained: “Not the will of God as we might wish it, or as we might have envisioned it, or as we thought in our poor human wisdom it ought to be. But rather the will of God as God envisioned it and revealed it to us each day in the created situations with which he presented us. His will for us was the twenty-four hours of each day; the people, the places, the circumstances he set before us in that time.”
This is the wisdom of the saints — to seek the will of God in the reality of everyday life, not in some fantasy land! It is the key to discovering the path to authentic and enduring joy.
With this attitude, we can find meaning, purpose and the opportunity to love in every situation and circumstance — no matter how difficult or ostensibly unattractive.
Discovering God’s will in life, as it is, gives us the ability never to be without purpose, hope and cause for joy.