“Sometimes I think that those who have never been deprived of an opportunity to say or hear Mass do not really appreciate what a treasure the Mass is.” – Fr. Walter Ciszek
For the past month or so I’ve been making my way through a book called He Leadeth Me, which is the spiritual autobiography of Fr. Walter Ciszek, SJ. He was an American priest and member of the Society of Jesus who responded to the world-wide request from Pope Pius XI in 1929 for priests to volunteer to be missionaries in the Soviet Union. Ciszek eventually made it to Russia, where he was quickly captured by the Soviet secret police. He spent 5 years in solitary confinement at the notorious Lubyanka prison in Moscow before being sentenced to 9 years of work in the slave labor camps of Siberia. After 23 years in the Soviet Union, Ciszek was eventually returned to the United States in 1963 through a prisoner swap.
As a young seminarian preparing for missionary work in the Soviet Union, Ciszek and his classmates knew that there would be times when they would be deprived of the Mass. But, he writes, in those seminary days “the thought that it might someday be difficult to be able to say Mass was really only a daydream. It was something you talked about, something you read about in the history of the Church persecutions, but not really something you had ever had to suffer or experience.”
During his five years in solitary confinement, Ciszek was completely deprived of the consolation of saying or attending Mass. While in the gulag, the prisoners devised clever ways of smuggling in the bread and the sacramental wine necessary to have Mass. But offering Mass in the camps was very difficult. One challenge was the general state of borderline starvation among the prisoners. In those days, priests and those who wanted to receive the Eucharist at Mass had to observe a strict fast, taking no food or water from midnight the night before until the reception of the Blessed Sacrament. “I have seen priests pass up breakfast and work at hard labor on an empty stomach until noon in order to keep the Eucharistic fast, because the noon break at the work site was the time we could best get together for a hidden Mass.” Informers were always a threat, and the authorities would severely punish the priests they caught offering Mass in the camp. “But the Mass to us was always worth the danger and the sacrifice; we treasured it, we looked forward to it, we would do almost anything in order to say or attend a Mass.”
Ciszek’s determination to offer Mass was rooted in his understanding of what the Mass is as well as the desire that the other prisoners expressed for the Mass. “I was amazed at the devotion of these men. Most of them had really had very little formal religious training; for the most part they knew little of religion except the prayers and beliefs that pious parents or grandparents had taught them. And yet they believed, and were willing to make unheard-of sacrifices for the consolation of attending Mass or receiving Communion.”
Over the past 12 hours or so, I’ve been moved by the outpouring of gratitude from parishioners for posting yesterday’s parish Mass on our website. Based on the feedback, I will continue to post Sunday Masses on the website each week. Usually, we priests get (let’s just say) a little annoyed when we hear about people missing Mass without serious reason. Fr. Ciszek’s insight about how under normal conditions we take Mass for granted really hits home at a time where the faithful are forced to miss Mass. It is tragic that we are not able to have Mass together in person, but there is consolation in the fact that we are talking about how much (rather than how many) people are missing Mass.