Padre Paul’s Ponderings: Evangelization: Needed Now More than Ever

Padre Paul’s Ponderings: Evangelization: Needed Now More than Ever

Evangelization: Needed Now More than Ever

One of the things we are all called to be is people of hope, people who make a difference in this world by bringing God into it, and while there will always be evil, when we live out that hope, like the apostles who are sent this week in the Gospel by Jesus to evangelize, what a difference we can make.

Fr. Walter Ciszek is a name you might not know.

He was born in 1904 in Pennsylvania to Polish immigrants. And as a child and teenager, he certainly did not appear to be a future priest. Admittedly “born stubborn” as he put it, young Walter was a strong kid who liked picking fights and missing school. But then in the 8th grade, something happened. Walter made up his mind to be a priest. Eventually his long journey would result in his ordination, and a desire to go to the USSR, which he did, shortly before World War II after his ordination in 1937.

This was incredibly dangerous. No priest could go to Russia, so Fr. Walter went to Poland to teach ethics to Jesuit seminarians. The Germans then invaded from the west and the Soviets from the East. They put the religious books from the seminary in a dump truck, and all that was left was an empty chapel. Fr. Walter and another priest conned their way onto a jammed train going south to a Jesuit school, and he saw the roads filled with refugees. Getting permission from his superior, and of the Ukrainian Archbishop of Lvov, he obtained fake papers. He disguised himself as a widower who’s family died in a German air raid. He ended up on a boxcar in March of 1940 with 25 others on a 1500 mile trip to the Ural mountains. Eventually the Soviets arrested him and sent him to Siberia.

Terrified, he threw himself on God, pleading his utter helplessness and trusted God would see him through. And with God, he would bring hope to a dark, cold place.

He ends up 10 degrees north of the Arctic Circle with thieves, deserters, murderers and political prisoners. For 12 hours he shovels coal into freighters and was still dressed in light cotton summer clothes with rags for shoes; winter clothing is issued in October when it is -30. He did meet another priest and said Mass with wine made out of stolen raisins and the paten a gold watch cover and a chalice that was a shot glass – but he was overjoyed at being able to say Mass again. He also hears confessions, performs baptisms, tends the sick and dying, gives homilies and even retreats despite shoveling coal for 15 hours straight and hauling logs out of the frozen river. He built a little thriving parish from the darkness of that Siberian gulag. He becomes the evangelist of that gulag.

That grace would shine in his ministry. By 1947 he was a construction worker in an ore processing plant. Once every ten days, the men got a shower and turned in their old underwear for a clean set. Their other clothes were washed every three months. After work he heard confessions as the men walked around the prison yard. And once the commandant’s quarters had cleared for the day, he said Mass undetected right in the offices. At times he said Mass in the hospital examination rooms. He even began giving retreats.

In 1953 returned to the mines, and in April of 1955 his sentence was up, and eventually in 1963 he returned to the US as part of an exchange for a spy apprehended in the United States.

He lived the rest of his life in America, working for the John XXIII Center at Fordham University by giving talks, retreats and counseling to people who came to see him until he entered eternal life on December 8, 1984.

What Fr. Walter did throughout his life was to help people answer the question “who is your God?” as he risked his life to do so. Much like the apostles who are sent in the Gospel who took nothing with them, he went off with very little, but in the process helped thousands to come to know God.

This is so desperately needed in a world where there is so much confusion about what truth and happiness are. Our Gospel for this 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time focuses on the apostles being sent – and so too are we sent. Sometimes to our families and friends, as we heard last week, other times to the people we meet in our community, at work or school, or in the larger world. But so often, like Fr. Walter found out, it is a hostile world – yet one we are to engage and transform as people of hope. So how then do we go about doing this?

A starting point is looking at ourselves and asking ourselves who is our God? Is God ultimately the center of our lives? For young Walter, it wasn’t about God, it was about him. He wanted to be the toughest kid on the block. And even in seminary he wanted to be the best at everything. Eventually he let go of that and surrendered, and his whole ministry was about surrender and trust. Trusting God is tough; so too is keeping God as our focus in life. If we are honest with ourselves, our conscience might inform us that our primary God is our ego, our money, our pride, our possessions, or being in control of others. Letting go and letting God needs to be what guides us in all we do, just like the apostles in the Gospel who do the same thing.

As we do that, we then strive go grow in holiness. As St. Paul writes in our second reading this weekend, we are to be “holy and without blemish.” Fr. Walter was always attentive to this. Like so many people of heroic virtue, he was never content with just being a “pretty good” person or doing the bare minimum. When we do a regular examination of conscience, like him we can look for ways we can continually grow in virtue. We become aware of our shortcomings not to feel guilty or to downplay our progress, but to remind ourselves of the fact that we are all “works in progress” striving to grow in holiness.

Growing in that holiness, we, like Fr. Walter, like the apostles sent out in our Gospel, go out into the world. We likely won’t go to Russia. But we go to our families, our workplaces, our schools and engage the world through our words and actions. When we act as a loving parent, a true friend, a compassionate listener and a person who can forgive others, we live out the faith. When we set an example for others by being being a person of service, and someone who makes Mass and prayer a priority, we can bring them to the faith.

Just like the people he ministered to in the USSR, people are searching for deeper meaning in life. The answer doesn’t come from the government, the answer doesn’t come from the ego or serving ourselves, the answer comes from the God who is love and gave everything for us all. As Saint John Paul II reminded us, a person only finds himself in the sincere gift of himself, and deep down people know this. They also have a hunger for God, as exhibited by the people crying out “We Want God!” when Saint John Paul visited his native Poland under the Iron Curtain shortly after becoming pope. Fr. Walter knew that profound truth, and in the process by giving everything he had, helped give thousands behind the Iron Curtain that which the government could never give them, namely peace, love and hope because it was the power of God working through him. That can only happen though when one surrenders to the will of God, and carries out his or her mission. So where’s God calling you to go? Listen. Surrender. Trust. And carry out your mission. For, when we do, like Fr. Walter, we’ll find that so many people found happiness and peace and the way to salvation because we showed them the way.

Have a blessed week!  ~Fr. Paul

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July 2024


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