October

Saintly Encounters

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When Sister Rosemary Stets first met Father Walter J. Ciszek, the Jesuit priest from Shenandoah, Pa., who spent almost 23 years in Russian prisons and Secret Service confinement, she had no idea they would develop a spiritual friendship that would span a dozen years. The two exchanged some 150 personal letters so crammed with insight and thoughtfulness on Father Ciszek’s part that he would write on both sides of the paper, up the sides, across the top and bottom.

On instinct she kept them all, in chronological order, in a special box, which was a good thing because six years after Father Ciszek’s death in 1984 a movement to canonize him began. It picked up steam over the years and last May, Sister Rosemary traveled to Rome to hand-deliver her treasured letters to the assistant postulator for Jesuit causes who is overseeing the inquiry into Ciszek’s life. Father Ciszek’s letters to Sister Rosemary could end up playing a key role in the canonization process.

“Although the assistant postulate had many reports and stories of people who had met Father Ciszek at a retreat...or who met him when he visited the family, no where did he find someone who had a sustained correspondence that extended as many years or was of a similar depth,” Sister Rosemary explained.

“He felt (the letters) would give him different insights about the humanity, spirituality and richness of Father’s life. Maybe even the good and bad mixed together because you can reveal a lot in a letter about what you did or didn’t do, what you wanted to do and didn’t. That was how our correspondence went. I struggled. He struggled. He’d encourage me. I would ask him questions.”

Sister Rosemary was just 19 when she met Father Ciszek, who then was recently released from Russia in exchange for a U.S.- held Russian spy. His sister, Sister Evangeline, a Bernardine Franciscan nun who was the provincial of Sister Rosemary’s province, had invited him to meet the sisters.

“Out of this vast group of sisters who he met and talked to and celebrated Mass for that day was me. But we never talked,” said Sister Rosemary, whose mother was a friend of Sister Evangeline. Five years later, when Sister Rosemary’s father died, her local superior suggested she write to Father Ciszek to ask him to celebrate a Mass for her father. She did. Father Ciszek responded.

A thank you note followed. He sent another note. Christmas cards were exchanged. As the years progressed the correspondence deepened and Father Ciszek became a spiritual mentor. “He was so solid in his spiritual advice. He didn’t tell you what to do or not do, but seemed always to go to the deeper truth about life and the mystery of it all,” she said.

Each time she reread the letters “I saw more of what he was saying. And as I understood more I realized that there was a strong connection between growing spiritually and staying connected to this priest.”

They met in person about a dozen times. She attended a couple of retreats he led. She took Sister Evangeline to visit him in New York. He saw her when he visited his sisters in Pennsylvania. She read his books — “With God in Russia” (1964) and “He Leadeth Me” (1973), both co-written with Father Daniel L. Flaherty. And she began to understand the incredible and brutal journey he never talked about in his letters.

“He would talk more about the spiritual implication of those events. What he learned from those sufferings. What he experienced that caused him to doubt or struggle but finally to overcome or get back on track,” she said. “And always in context of what we were discussing before.”

In the books, Father Ciszek describes how as a very young man he decided to take up Pope Pius XI’s 1929 call to send missionaries to Russia. The Soviet Union at the time was persecuting believers, limiting their access to priests and services, closing down churches.

Born of immigrant Polish parents, Ciszek was a kindred spirit to his family’s former Slavic neighbors. And he always loved a challenge. To prepare for it he studied theology at the Pontifical Russian College in Rome and in 1937 was ordained a Byzantine rite priest. He worked in a Jesuit mission in Soviet-occupied Poland until the war broke out in 1939 and the Soviets closed it down.

Then, using fake IDs, he and another priest snuck across the border into Russia. There, in a small town in the Ural Mountains, he worked as a logger while surreptitiously performing priestly duties until around 3 a.m., one night in June 1941, when the secret police surrounded his barracks and arrested him. They eventually accused him of being a spy for the Vatican.

He spent most of the next five years in solitary confinement in the notorious Lubyanka prison in Moscow. A year into the sentence, tortured, beaten and drugged, he was coerced into signing a confession.

“It was the lowest point of his life. He almost despaired,” said Sister Rosemary. “He felt he had let God down, let the Order down, failed himself. With his own personal high standards, he couldn’t see how he could fall that low. But he said, ‘When I picked myself up I realized then who I truly was and how I needed God’s mercy, and only God could help me get through.’ He reclaimed his faith in an act of courage and kept on going.”

He was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in the Gulag. The years that followed were long, dull, and physically grueling, but also spiritually invigorating. In Siberia he shoveled coal into freighters, worked in an ore processing plant and toiled in the mines. Prisoners showered every 10 days and their clothes were washed every three months. Yet Father Ciszek managed to secretly celebrate Mass in the commandant’s office after he left for the day. “And (prisoners) risked their lives over their lunch hour to meet him in the back of a shed where he would offer the Mass,” said Sister Rosemary. He even managed to run secret retreats. He convinced many prisoners to not commit suicide. “He was known for that. He could in some way instill hope back into their hearts,” she said.

After he was released from prison in 1955 he remained confined to Secret Service-designated towns, where he worked as an auto mechanic and in a chemical plant, all the while continuing to spread the Gospel. The KGB allowed him to write to his sisters that year. It was the first they heard from him since 1939.

They, and the Jesuit Order, had thought he was dead. Finally, in 1963, in a complicated political negotiation honchoed by President John F. Kennedy, Ciszek was allowed to leave Russia and return to the States. He settled in Bronx, N.Y., and worked at the Pope John XXIII Center at Fordham University where he continued his humble everyday ministry.

“He believed that every person he met was not a chance encounter but an act of God,” recalled Sister Rosemary. “He believed that every person who crossed his path was a person that God knew he needed to see. There were people in the Bronx who would call him night and day...homeless people, street people, people who were mentally unbalanced. And he would never discriminate.”

She knew of one man, “an alcoholic or drug addict who would be sick for days at a time,” for whom the priest would wash clothes, bed sheets and towels and return them clean to his apartment, unasked.

The Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome continues its investigation into the documents and testimonies of Father Ciszek’s life to determine if it was one of heroic virtue. If the Holy Father agrees that it was, the Congregation will await the confirmation of two miracles. If the first is accepted, Father Ciszek will be beatified. Upon acceptance of the second miracle he will be canonized.

Sister Rosemary’s letters are part of that historic effort now. In an odd twist, last May was not the first time she gave Father Ciszek’s personal letters to Rome. She had mailed them to the Vatican earlier but the package never arrived. “I was just sick about it,” she said.

A couple of months later the box, battered and bruised but intact, was mysteriously delivered to her at Alvernia. “The (letters) were held up in the Italian postal system and after about two months they were returned, which was like a miracle in itself,” she said. So when the chance to travel to Rome with her Mother Superior allowed her to present them in person, she grabbed it.

“It’s almost as if there were forces out there that didn’t want the letters delivered,” she said, “but God had other plans.”

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