We are not alone. The Letter to the Hebrews speaks of “a great cloud of witnesses that surround us”. These witnesses are normal people who have managed to soar over the paralyzing mediocrity that encircles us and can thus help us “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” We all need this kind of help.
Cardinal Kazimierz Swiatek is one of these witnesses. Just one month ago, he resigned as Archbishop of Minsk in Belarus because he “reached the age-limit”. The normal retirement age for Bishops is 75. The Pope accepted his resignation only now, four months short of his 92nd birthday!
The story of this man is remarkable. Born on October 21, 1914, Kazimierz was ordained a priest on April 8, 1939, a few months before the army occupied the eastern area of Poland where his parish was located.
He was arrested and kept in the Brzesc prison, where in the course of two months he was interrogated 59 times. On June 21, 1941, he was released by the people of the town, taking advantage of the disorder caused by the German offensive. Father Swiatek walked back to his parish, but found it occupied by the Gestapo, which made it difficult for him to exercise his priestly ministry.
When the offensive of the Soviet Red Army was approaching in 1944, he refused to escape and stayed with his parishioners. He was arrested and sent to prison in Minsk where he spent five months. “They did not shoot me because, as they said, they did not want to waste a bullet on me.”
This was the time when the Church in Eastern Europe was being persecuted brutally by the Soviet regime. “In the times of Stalin, the Soviet Union was nothing but a huge gulag – an endless enclosure of barbed wire where thousands of prisoners died of the inhumane conditions of the life and work imposed upon them inside these labor camps.”
In 1945, he was condemned to ten years of forced labor. He spent two years in the Marinsk gulag and then seven in the correctional facility at the Vorkuta artic circle.
He was kept in total isolation. “It was only during my last years inside the gulag that I managed to obtain hosts and wine to celebrate holy mass in secrecy: I used a ceramic cup as a chalice and kept in a match box consecrated hosts to be brought to Catholic detainees. I remember well the Easter mass held with Catholic prisoners among clouds of steam inside a laundry room. In my whole life as a priest, this is the Easter I recall most dearly.”
One Christmas vigil he organized a mass. “I brought with me my two daily rations of bread, which I had put aside the days beforehand. The other prisoners (about ten or so) offered what they had received in food packages from their families. We even had hosts.”
“As I was speaking to those in attendance, the door flew open. With riot-stick in hand, a government official rushed in with a soldier bearing a rifle and bayonet. “What are you doing?” he asked. I stood up and explained that we were celebrating the Christmas rite. Then, while holding the host, I asked if he wanted to receive it, too, so as to exchange Christmas greetings with us. It was a very unusual and tense situation: both our hands were held tight – his clutching a riot-stick and mine held firmly onto the host. The officer put down the club in his possession, excusing himself for not being able to receive the host while on duty, and allowed us to continue our vigil service. He left the room with the soldier.”
The next morning Swiatek was expelled and sent to Siberia, the far-off tundra region to the north where even the subsoil is frozen permanently!
In 1954 he was released. “I was escorted to the KGB office outside the camp. The chief commander was seated behind his desk as I stood in front of him with my back to the wall. The officer examined a voluminous pile of paperwork documenting my days as a prisoner. Now and again he glanced up at me, scrutinizing me with astounded expression. Having reached the last page, he asked: “How on earth have you been able to bear it all and still be alive?” He couldn’t understand it.
I answered: “Commander, I owe my life to my unshakeable faith in God. It was He who saved me.” He said: “But, God exists”? He sat there a long time in deep thought… He then took pen in hand, and with a sweeping gesture, signed for my release. Afterward, he simply and gently said: “You are free to go.” I left his office unescorted, and I was free! I immediately offered up a prayer of thanksgiving: God, you are so powerful, so good!”
When I read such real life stories, only one question comes to my mind – at what point does our faith has to be become wild and passionate to be credible in this neo-pagan world of ours?
Do you have an answer?!
(c) Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, provided that the content is unaltered from its original state, if this copyright notice is included.