The labor camps and prisons of Stalin’s Russia most likely produced thousands of anonymous saints, men and women who bore terrible hardship and persecution, forgotten by history.
There is one man, however, who is not unknown. He survived 23 years in some of the worst camps and prisons of that nightmarish period. Even more remarkably, he was an American who freely chose to enter the Soviet Union so as to minister as a priest to whomever he found. His name is Jesuit Father Walter Ciszek, and it is my fervent hope that he will one day be raised to the altar.
He wrote two books, both available from Ignatius Press. “With God in Russia” tells his remarkable story in a modest and straightforward manner. The second, “He Leadeth Me,” is a meditation on the spiritual fruits of his arduous experience. It is a masterpiece.
Father Ciszek came to mind this week when I was reflecting on the Oct. 30 Gospel reading from Matthew. In it Jesus warns his disciples not to follow the example of the Pharisees: “They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues.” Instead, “the greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
This is the scriptural justification for the greatest papal title, “Servant of the Servants of God.” How much the Church hungers for this kind of humility, and how often its desire is thwarted by the pharisaical desires that lurk in all our breasts.
Father Ciszek has an eye-opening meditation on this topic. When he was first arrested, he thought the other prisoners, if not his captors, would respect him more knowing he was a priest. In fact, the opposite occurred, with even the prisoners treating him with contempt.
“I was stunned at the depth of feeling and prejudice against the Church that came spilling out,” he wrote. In his Polish-American upbringing, he was used to a priest being “treated as someone special.” In the prison “I was at a loss to understand it and furious at the added injustice of this stupid, blind prejudice.”
In frustration, he turned to God in prayer for consolation, but Father Ciszek writes that the “consolation” he received was the awareness that “I was feeling sorry for myself.”
“As for the humiliation I felt because I did not get the proper respect as a priest of God, was ‘the servant greater than the master’? Our Lord had said to his disciples, ‘If they despised me, they will despise you.’ I had been taught from my youth to respect a priest because he represented God among men. But as a priest I had also come to expect this respect (and even some adulation) from others. How then did I truly think I was following in the footsteps of the Master? ... Should I not rejoice that I had been allowed to imitate him more closely?”
In many parts of the world, this is a difficult time to be a Catholic, and even more so to be a priest. A seminarian I know was set upon by protesters during World Youth Day, knocked to the ground and spat upon. But there are so many other humbling incidents in this time of scandal and controversy. Every priest knows the looks of distrust, knows also how vulnerable he is in the present climate.
There is something humbling in this, and perhaps for bishop, priest and laity, this message is the one God wants us to hear. Indeed, what is striking in some recent controversies between priest and bishop, or priest and religious superior, is the lack of humility that seems to accompany ideological righteousness.
As laity too, our challenge may be to eschew the outrage of the victim for the humility of the sinner. It is counterintuitive, I know, but so is the idea of a crucified God.
Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.