Many years ago Father Walter Ciszek preached a retreat in our Community. And years afterward, I visited him several times at Fordham University. There is a hall named for him up at Fordham. The cause of his canonization is being pursued and he has been declared a “Servant of God.”
Walter Ciszek was the son of Polish immigrants, born in a coal-mining town in Pennsylvania in 1904. He had a rough child hood – and was even a member in a gang. So his family was shocked when he announced that he wanted to become a priest. Young Walter ended up joining the Jesuits, and went to the Soviet Union to serve as a missionary. For a while, he worked as a logger, ministering to people privately, trying to avoid arrest.
But in 1941, he was arrested and charged, falsely, with working as a spy for the Vatican. He spent the next 23 years in prison – sometimes in solitary confinement, sometimes in a gulag, at times doing hard labor.
Despite that, he found ways to celebrate mass – often at tremendous risk. Years later, Fr. Ciszek wrote about it.
He described in painstaking detail how the prisoners would observe the Eucharistic fast, often going without breakfast, working all morning on an empty stomach, so they could receive communion. A priest would gather them in an assigned spot – everybody, even the priest, wearing rumpled work clothes. And there he would take a small piece of bread and a few drops of wine and transform them into the body and blood of Christ.
As he wrote: “In these primitive conditions, the Mass brought you closer to God than anyone might conceivably imagine. The realization of what was happening on the board, box, or stone used in the place of an altar penetrated deep into the soul.”
And he explained:
"Many a time, as I folded up the handkerchief on which the body of our Lord had lain, and dried the glass or tin cup used as a chalice, the feeling of having performed something tremendously valuable for the people of this Godless country was overpowering. I was occasionally overcome with emotion for a moment as I thought of how God had found a way to follow and to feed these lost and straying sheep in this most desolate land…I would go to any length, suffer any inconvenience, run any risk to make the bread of life available to these men.”
This feast of Corpus Christi today, this feast of remembrance, let us remember that. Every Sunday, we come forward for communion. But we cannot take this miracle for granted. And let us realize not only the tremendous gift we have been given, but also the generosity of the one who gave it. The words we pray just before communion, the words of the Centurian before Christ, speak for us all: “Lord I am not worthy.”
We aren’t. None of us is. And yet we pray to be made worthy, drawn to this sacrament by love, and by hunger. A hunger for the bread of life. A hunger to take God into our hands, and bring Him into our hearts.
And we are drawn as well by the desire to live out those six words that have changed the world – and that will change each of us, if only we let them.
“Do this in remembrance of me.”