March 18, 2022

Reflection / Sean Gallagher

St. John Paul II was a war refugee, Father Walter Ciszek served them

Sean GallagherAs an invading army closed in on the city and planes rained bombs on its frightened inhabitants, a young man who had just finished his first year in college and his aged father fled east on foot as refugees.

They joined thousands of others on the road, sometimes seeking shelter in ditches to avoid being strafed by diving fighter planes.

For a couple of weeks, the pair walked about 120 miles away from the fighting in the west, only to learn that another invading army was coming at them from the east. So, they returned to their home and did the best they could living for the next several years in their occupied city.

Some of this might sound like the story of the millions of refugees that have fled or are trying to flee Ukraine since Russian forces began an all-out invasion of the eastern European country on Feb. 24.

It’s actually the story of St. John Paul II and his father, Karol Wotlyla, Sr.

Early on Sept. 1, 1939, the young Karol Wotlyla went to Krakow’s Wawel Cathedral to serve at a Mass.

Air raid sirens and the boom of anti-aircraft guns and bombs dropped from the sky by German Stukas soon interrupted the Mass. But the priest and his young adult server completed it, if a bit hastily, and then made their way to safety.

Around the same time that the future Pope John Paul and his father were fleeing Krakow as refugees, a young American Jesuit priest was serving in an Eastern Catholic parish in Poland near the Soviet border.

Father Walter Ciszek had dreamed of being a missionary in the Soviet Union, but it was impossible for him to be sent there when he was ordained in 1937.

At the start of World War II, though, the Soviet Union came to him when it invaded Poland. And with the approval of the archbishop of L’viv (now in Ukraine), he and another Jesuit priest posed as refugees and worked in a logging camp in the Ural Mountains, investigating the possibility of ministering to Catholics there.

Father Ciszek was arrested on charges of espionage in 1941. He was kept in solitary confinement for nearly five years in the notorious Lubyanka Prison in Moscow, where he experienced tremendous psychological torture. Convicted as a Vatican spy, Father Ciszek was sentenced to hard labor in Siberian work camps, surviving the inhumane conditions there from 1946 until his release in 1955.

In the camps and different cities in Siberia where he was forced to live afterward, Father Ciszek covertly ministered to Ukrainian and Lithuanian Catholics, many of whom were forcibly relocated there by the Soviets.

Father Ciszek was finally able to return to the U.S. in 1963 in a spy swap between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. He died in 1984. The cause for his beatification and canonization was opened six years later.

More can be learned about Father Ciszek’s experiences in captivity in the Soviet Union in two books he co-wrote with Jesuit Father Daniel Flaherty, With God in Russia and He Leadeth Me.

The tremendous challenges that Catholics in Ukraine face today are sadly not new as the stories of St. John Paul II and the Servant of God Walter Ciszek show us.

With the help of God’s grace, both of these men and countless other Catholics at the time found paths to holiness in the midst of the terror of war. This can give us hope that God is at work through us for our good and the good of the world even in the midst of such evil as the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Let us also call upon the prayers of St. John Paul and Father Ciszek for peace in Ukraine and the continued faithfulness, ministry and witness of the Church in this once again war-torn country.

(Sean Gallagher is a reporter and columnist for The Criterion.)

Local site Links: