When Father Walter Ciszek celebrated Easter in Soviet Russia

Soviet prisoners of war, January 6, 1940. (Wikimedia.)  

Editor’s note: This article has been republished as part of America’s special 110th anniversary issue. It was originally published March 28, 1964.

Easter has suffered badly in the West. Liturgically, of course, it has remained the greatest of our feasts; the liturgy fairly shouts itself hoarse with alleluias at Easter. The family traditions, though, which the faithful of the Eastern churches have woven around the feast—the sort of thing we in the West have done so warmly and so well for Christmas—are missing from our customs and traditions at Eastertide.

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Yet Easter, to the earliest Christians, was the feast above all others, the greatest day of the year. It was Easter that made up the core of the “good news” preached by the apostles. It was the joy of Easter that made them seem “full of new wine.” It so intoxicated them that Peter told the Sanhedrin they “could not refrain from speaking” of it, no matter what the threat of punishment. It was this same explosive joy of Easter that drove them like dervishes throughout the then known world to announce this victory over death, a victory awaited since the day Adam first brought death into the world.

“I began the solemn intonation of the Easter Mass, and I thought the chapel would explode with sound. I shall never forget their enthusiasm. Tired as I was, I felt elated and swept along. I forgot about the MVD, the cold and everything except the Mass and that exciting joy of Easter in their voices.”

Last October 12, Fr. Walter Ciszek, S. J., returned to the United States after nearly 24 years in Siberia. Until 1955 he had been officially presumed dead. His fellow Jesuits had said Masses for the repose of his soul. If you can imagine the shock—and then the joy—relatives and friends felt when news came that he was still alive, you begin to get some pale inkling of the apostles’ joy and exultation that first Easter morning, when at last they dared to believe the news the women brought them from the tomb.

 

In 1958, Fr. Ciszek spent the days and nights of Holy Week without sleep, crisscrossing the town of Norilsk on foot to hear confessions and bless the traditional baskets of Easter foods. At midnight on Holy Saturday, he returned to the tiny, one-room bolok (a shack, really) that served as his “chapel” for the Easter Vigil Service. He found a crowd of the faithful surrounding it, so large and so obvious the MVD [secret police] were there already. The people simply ignored them and stood patiently in the midnight cold, waiting for the Easter Mass to begin.

The shanty chapel itself was so jammed it was impossible for Father to put on the vestments; someone else pulled them over his head. The people inside the chapel had been there overnight, without food, just to have a place before the altar. “Finally,” he told us, “I began the solemn intonation of the Easter Mass, and I thought the chapel would explode with sound. I shall never forget their enthusiasm. Tired as I was, I felt elated and swept along. I forgot about the MVD, the cold and everything except the Mass and that exciting joy of Easter in their voices.”

The Easter Vigil lasted until 3 A.M. The crowds made it impossible to distribute Communion during Mass; so afterwards a constant stream of people approached the “altar” to receive under both species, and it was 9 A.M. before they finished. Those still inside the chapel could hear the joyous, shouted greetings of those outside returning home: “Khristos voskres!” (Christ is risen!) and the equally joyous shouts in answer: “Voistinu voskres!” (Indeed, He is risen!)

It is that spirit of Easter joy and gladness we would wish our readers, too, this Eastertide.

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