(The Sacred Art Series will feature and explain the artwork in the Our Lady of Belen Chapel. The chapel is scheduled to be completed in the winter of 2021.)
Fr. Walter Ciszek was born in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, on November 4, 1904. His parents were Polish immigrants. He had a tumultuous youth, even belonging to a gang at one point. His family and friends were shocked when they learned he had decided to become a priest. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1928.
In 1924, Pope Pius XI made an appeal to priests from around the world to go to Russia as missionaries. Ciszek was ready to respond. He was sent to Rome to study theology and Russian and, in 1937, was ordained a priest in the Byzantine Rite.
The following year he was sent to the Jesuit mission in Poland. At the end of World War II, Ciszek decided to secretly slip into Russia. Taking an assumed identity, he began to perform his priestly ministry in the Ural Mountains while working as an unskilled logger.
He was eventually arrested in 1941 and accused of being a Vatican spy. He was sent to the Lubyanka Prison in Moscow where he spent five years in solitary confinement, tortured, and eventually sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in the Siberian labor camps (GULAG).
In Siberia, he worked in the coal mines. Ciszek continued to secretly pray, celebrate Masses, baptisms, and hear confessions. In 1955 he completed his sentence and was ordered by the KGB to Krasnoyarsk where he secretly established a mission.
After 23 years of imprisonment in the Soviet Union, he was exchanged to the United States for two captured Soviet agents. He returned to New York where he worked at Fordham University until his death. He died on December 8, 1984. Fr. Ciszek’s cause for canonization was started immediately after his death and is ongoing.
Central Figure: Fr. Walter Ciszek is represented standing in the snow underneath a dilapidated prisoner barrack. He is wearing prison garbs along with shackles on his ankles. The torn and tattered white blanket around his shoulders protecting him from the cold also serves as a chasuble. He holds the Eucharist in his hands, an expression of the great devotion he had to the Blessed Sacrament and a testament to the lengths he went to celebrate the Mass. He is surrounded by other prisoners in adoration.
Phylactery: Over his head is found a red, white, and blue phylactery with two stars. The colors represent Fr. Ciszek’s nationality. The words He Leadeth Me are displayed. Fr. Ciszek often used this phrase to explain his total surrender to God’s providence. It was eventually the title of his autobiography.
Angel: The angel with arms extended over Fr. Ciszek is an expression of God’s constant protection over him, especially in the most difficult of circumstances. She looks down intently at the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
Immaculate Heart of Mary: On May 13, 1917, and for several months after that, the Blessed Mother appeared to three shepherd children in Fatima, Portugal. To them, she revealed three secrets. One of these secrets referred to the need to pray for the conversion of Russia and to have the Soviet Union dedicated to her Immaculate Heart.
Hammer and Sickle: At the bottom of the painting is the Soviet star with the communist symbols of the hammer and sickle. The star lays thrown and broken on the snow in front of Fr. Ciszek. In part, the broken symbol testifies to the communists’ inability to keep Fr. Ciszek from performing his priestly ministry, the eventual fall of the Soviet Union and communism in Eastern Europe, and, ultimately, the fulfillment of Our Lady of Fatima’s promise of Russia’s conversion.