Hunger

I’ve just finished reading Fr. Walter Ciszec’s amazing account of his years as a prisoner in the Soviet Union, With God in Russia.

For those who are not familiar with the story, Fr. Ciszek was a Jesuit, and was sent into Poland in the late 1930’s, with a dream of someday ministering to Catholics in Russia.  After Russia conquered the eastern part of Poland, he went into the Soviet Union to begin fulfilling his dream.  Unfortunately, after a short while, he was arrested as a spy, and then spent the next fifteen years in captivity first in the notorious Lubyanka prison, then in the labor camps of the Gulag.  He was tortured, harassed, forbidden to communicate with his family for twenty years, subjected to harsh punishments, and treated as a slave at hard labor.

But throughout it all, Fr. Ciszek never lost his faith and his trust in the Providence of God’s holy will.  Every chance he got, he celebrated Mass, heard confessions, baptized, married, and counseled the people he lived with — and was frequently punished by the Communists for doing so.  His story is a profound testament to faith, and I strongly urge people to read both With God in Russia and his magnificent spiritual memoir, He Leadeth Me. 

Throughout his memoir, Fr. Ciszek repeatedly writes about hunger.  Food was very scarce in the prison and the Gulag, and even after he was released, in the Siberian towns where he was living.  The prisoners constantly thought about food, schemed to get food, and even fought over food.  Deep physical hunger was a daily reality for these men, and it was rarely, if ever, fully satisfied.

But Fr. Ciszek also encountered another hunger — for the sacraments, for Mass, and especially for the Eucharist.  Religious practices were systematically suppressed in Soviet Russia, and the people rarely had the chance to worship and receive the sacraments.  At one point, Fr. Ciszek wasn’t able to celebrate Mass for over five years, until he finally encountered another priest in the Gulag:

… he asked me if I wanted to say Mass.  I was overwhelmed! … my joy at being able to celebrate Mass again cannot be described… I heard confessions regularly and, from time to time, was even able to distribute Communion secretly after I’d said Mass.  The experience gave me new strength.  I could function as a priest again, and I thanked God daily for the opportunity to work among this hidden flock, consoling and comforting men who had thought themselves beyond His grace.

I was reading this during the Synod of Bishops, which was meeting to discuss the challenges and pastoral needs of families.  Here in America, the awful media coverage of the Synod was dominated by their obsession with two issues — whether divorced people who enter into a civil marriage can receive Communion, and how to include homosexual people in the life of the Church.

Considering these issues, I couldn’t help but think of Fr. Ciszek’s experience of hunger that so rarely was satisfied.  These issues present hard questions, because they must be confronted within the very clear and unchangeable moral teaching of the Church and of Christ himself that all sexual activity outside of a valid marriage is immoral (see Mt 5:32, and Mk 7:20-23).

Yet they must be confronted.  There is a sizable number of people who hunger for the sacraments, especially the Eucharist.  Many of them have been led to believe that they may even be beyond God’s grace.   Too often, I take my daily access to Confession and Communion for granted, and can’t conceive of the hunger that must be in my brothers’ and sisters’ hearts.  I hope and pray that our bishops and the Holy Father can find an answer.

I think of the story of Jesus encountering the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn 4).  Jesus confronted her plainly but gently with the fact that she was living in an immoral relationship, with a man who was not her true husband.  And he spoke to her of the living water and the true food that all of us desire — His own body and blood.  This is a powerful story of Christ’s willingness to encounter and accompany the Samaritan woman — an outcast in the eyes of the Jews — while at the same time calling her to transform her life in accordance with God’s will.

There are no easy answers.  Chastity is a virtue that all must live, but it is very hard for many of us.  And the hunger in our hearts continually yearns to be satisfied.

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