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Among Donald Martin’s most valued possessions are a Cross pen and a few three-by-five index cards. The pen has seen better days, and the cards are dog-eared, but their owner wouldn’t trade them for anything. Mementoes of Father Walter Ciszek, they testify to a friendship that began in the early 1960s, when Martin was a third-grader at St. John of the Cross Parish School, in Western Springs, Illinois.
As a class project, his teacher asked her students to write letters to the Jesuit priest, then newly released from Soviet Russia after twenty-three years of captivity. From his new home on the Fordham University campus in New York, Fr. Ciszek answered every one. The priest wrote on index cards, young Donald noticed, and probably because he had arthritis, his handwriting looked shaky.
The boy wrote back, received a response—and a correspondence was born. A few years into it, Fr. Ciszek sent the gold pen that Martin still treasures today. Then in 1972, the two pen pals met for the first and only time. "Fr. Ciszek attended my Confirmation, said Mass in my parish church, and stayed with my family," says Martin. "I was proud of that because I looked up to him as a man of great courage and faith."
Mentoring by Mail.
The relationship took on a mentoring quality as Martin got older. "Fr. Ciszek took an interest in me—in my life and my family—and I knew he was someone I could tell anything to," he explains. "I wrote him lots of letters and asked him questions I didn’t feel comfortable asking anyone else. About the saints and Mary’s perpetual virginity and the Immaculate Conception. Or sometimes it was, ‘What’s so bad about doing [fill in the blank]?’"
The priest never seemed shocked or surprised, says Martin, and he always gave good, intelligent, "very firm" responses that stressed the importance of faith in Christ and the teachings of the church. "He would cite different Bible references, and I would look them up."
Martin looked forward to those index-card letters, packed with writing. And though he didn’t always take Fr. Ciszek’s advice, his basic message took root. "He told me how Christ had changed his life and said he could change anybody’s life. That it doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done—God loves you and wants to save you through faith in Jesus Christ. That stayed with me."
After some twists and turns, Martin experienced this for himself when he was in college and sat down to read the Bible cover to cover for the first time. "It changed my life. And Fr. Ciszek had a lot to do with that."
Pass It On.
The correspondence continued, though sometimes intermittently, through Martin’s college years and service in the Marine Corps. It ended only with Fr. Ciszek’s death in December 1984. Martin learned about it from a Mass card tucked into an envelope with the priest’s final message, a short prayer for "good health, peace, happiness, and joy" on the occasion of Martin’s marriage.
All but a few of those numerous letters are gone now, destroyed in a flood years ago. "Many times, I’ve wished I had them to read over," says Martin.
But then, as if echoing Fr. Ciszek, who had absolute faith in God’s provident ordering of all things, he adds: "It’s all in God’s hands. The important thing is that God enabled Fr. Ciszek to survive and to touch my life and the lives of so many people, in so many ways. He gave us the example, as Christ did. Now it#8217;s up to us to pass it on."
The letters ceased long ago, but Martin still feels connected to his saintly correspondent. "Fr. Ciszek told me he prayed for me every day, and I believe he’s still looking out for me." And though he hopes to see the priest canonized some day, says Martin, "God knows who he is and has already taken care of him—no question in my mind!"Click here to read an article about Fr. Walter Ciszek.