Among 20th Century Jesuits, two heroic holy men stand out

Frs Rupert Mayer and Walter Ciszek

The Jesuits have had a mixed press over the last half-century. During the pontificate of Pius XII they were seen as the shock troops of the Church: highly organised and very loyal. Then came Vatican II and some members of the Society of Jesus changed their focus, especially in Latin America where they espoused liberation theology. The focus was on structures of sin rather than individual sinners.

I mention this in relation to a recent book, With Christ in Service: Jesuit Lives throughout the Ages, edited by Patrick Carberry SJ, in which various Jesuits contribute chapters on some of their famous brethren, past and present. Thus there are potted lives of saints like Francis Xavier, Edmund Campion and Ignatius of Loyola, as well chapters on modern figures like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Karl Rahner and Daniel Berrigan.

On de Chardin, written by David John Ayotte SJ, it is clear that a short chapter is insufficient to explain the complexities of de Chardin’s thought. E.g. “It was his creative fusion of the physical sciences and theological studies that prompted Teilhard…to explore in a new way such traditional notions as original sin.” Belief in original sin is a dogma rather than a “notion”; and Teilhard, as Ayotte acknowledges, was forbidden by the Church to publish his creative ideas.

Daniel Berrigan SJ (1921-2016) was prepared to go to prison for his (non-violent) opposition to the war in Vietnam in the late 1960s. Kevin O’Higgins SJ, who writes about him, comments that in his youth he had “associated priests with altars, pulpits and confession boxes” and clearly approves of Catholic priests who “engaged in anti-war protests.” But “altars, pulpits and confession boxes” are surely what priests are about, rather than directly engaging in politics? After all, their primary task is to celebrate Mass at an altar, preach at a pulpit (or lectern) and absolve sinners in a confessional.

This thought brings me to two other modern Jesuits mentioned in the book: Rupert Mayer (1876-1945) and Walter Ciszek (1904-1984). They were heroic, holy men, who suffered greatly for their witness to their priestly vocation. Caught up in the twin evils of Fascism and Communism they saw their primary role in a traditional way: celebrating the sacraments and inspiring the laity to lead holy lives.

Rupert Mayer, whose tomb in Munich is visited by thousands of pilgrims each year, was a highly popular preacher and confessor. He worked tirelessly to provide shelter and food for the poor of Munich after the First World War and enlisted lay people to help him in this practical apostolate. He constantly denounced the Nazis from the pulpit, as early as the 1920s; for this he was imprisoned in 1940 in Sachsenhausen concentration camp, then interned in a Benedictine monastery. He died celebrating Mass on All Saints Day.

Walter Ciszek spent over two decades within the Soviet gulag system. Crossing from Poland to Russia in 1940, he was arrested and spent five years in the dreaded Lubyanka Prison in Moscow. This was followed by 15 years’ hard labour in penal camps in Siberia. His autobiography, He Leadeth Me, is a modern classic in its moving portrait of a priestly life in captivity: Ciszek forgave his communist captors and prayed for them; whenever possible he would celebrate Mass clandestinely for fellow Catholic prisoners, as well as preach, hear confessions and give retreats.

Although the chapters on them don’t mention it, Rupert Mayer has been beatified and Walter Ciszek has been made a Servant of God.