I recently told a friend that one Catholic in my lifetime I really wish I could have met was Father Walter Ciszek, SJ. Father Ciszek (1904-1984) was a remarkable American priest. His dream was to evangelize Russia, and in 1939 he crossed from Poland into the Soviet Union amid the chaos of World War II. 

Quickly caught by the KGB, for 23 years he was in prisons and slave labor camps and finally internal exile before returning to New York in 1963. 

Father Walter Ciszek after being released from Russian imprisonment in 1963. (© The Father Walter Ciszek Prayer League)

Father Ciszek wrote two books. “With God in Russia” is an account of the events of his life in the Soviet Union. But the real treasure is “He Leadeth Me,” a powerful spiritual memoir of those events.

When we talk about 21st-century evangelization, he could be its patron saint: Imagine the bravery and the faith it took to go into an ideologically hostile land, an atheistic Communist police state, trying to be a witness of the Gospel under the darkest, scariest, most isolated circumstances. 

At the end of “He Leadeth Me,” he tells the story of talking with ordinary Russians during his internal exile after release from prison. Most of them had been filled with anti-religious propaganda from their youth. They brought to him their criticisms of religion: “The greed of the Church … the sexual perversions of priests and nuns, the political influence and power politics of the Church. …” The same arguments we face today.

“I didn’t try to defend these things — God alone knows whether they can be defended,” Father Ciszek said. Instead, he talked about “God as I believed in him.” He told the story of mankind’s struggle with sin and evil, and the promise of Jesus Christ. He tried to show that the professed ideals of the Communist state were embodied in the person of Christ.

“I wasn’t out to convert anybody,” he said, during these long discussions. It was not a question of “giving long sermons or explanations of the Church’s doctrine.” 

“It wasn’t a matter of telling them that I had all the answers and they had all the questions and problems.” Rather, he tried to show that the doubts and longings stirring their hearts pointed toward God and a meaning beyond this life. 

He concluded that the witness of courageous Russian Christians who gave up so much for their faith or his own long discussions with his Russian neighbors may not make many converts at the time, “but they must surely prepare the ground for the seeds of faith, which God alone can plant in the hearts of men.”

We may like to think that ours is a society far different from what Father Ciszek faced. Yet in truth it is as materialistic and distracted, as cynical about faith and as beset by doubts and fears for which all the self-help books and Xanax can’t fix. Its divisions and its anger testify to its unhappiness. 

And if we want to bear witness to the faith, which is our duty and should be our love, we might reflect on Father Ciszek’s “little way.”

  • He didn’t choose to debate every wrong, to respond to every challenge. 
  • “I wasn’t out to convert anybody.” It may sound counterintuitive, but the outcome wasn’t his goal. That was in God’s hands.
  • Instead, he tried to listen, to hear their doubts, their hopes, their concerns.
  • And he spoke from the heart. He told them in an honest and straightforward way what faith in God meant for him.

Surely this must prepare the ground for the seeds of faith, “which God alone can plant in the hearts of men.”

This is not to say that studying doctrine and understanding the creed are not important. As Bishop Michael Burbidge wrote in a recent pastoral letter on evangelization and communication, “There remains a deficit of knowledge about the faith among Catholics.” We must educate ourselves, not to win arguments over others but to better understand how to live our faith in the world today.  

When we think about evangelization, we are afflicted by two separate temptations: that we must somehow be intellectually armed to the teeth or that we must conform to some out-of-reach saintly ideal. 

Father Ciszek would say that we simply need to be human: open, honest, humble. Faith is a gift from God, after all. It’s not a program. It’s not something we can mandate (as any of us who have kids knows). It is a great gift, and if we value that gift, we want to share it.

Everyone wishes there was a magic program for evangelization, a way to spread the faith that guarantees droves of baptisms. Humility suggests a more modest goal, recognizing that God is the farmer who sows and harvests. We are the plow, preparing the soil. That is our job.