Next year, perhaps, God willing, we will again go to jail.
~ Dorothy Day
Oleksa Zarytsky, a Greek-Catholic priest, died in a Kazakhstan prison 53 years ago. It was his second go-around behind bars on account of his dogged faith, and he’d already survived years of forced labor at the hands of the Bolsheviks. Still, the human body can only take so much, even when it’s a saint’s body, and Zarytsky succumbed to the beatings and mistreatment, earning a martyr’s crown on October 30, 1963.
I was doing a bit of research on Fr. Oleksa, beatified by John Paul II in 2001, and I printed out some materials I found online. When I went to retrieve them from the shared printer at work, a colleague met me in the hall and handed them over. “I figured these were yours,” she said (I’m the token Catholic at our evangelical college), “and I hope you don’t mind my reading them. What an edifying story – he kept witnessing to the Gospel even at the risk of being returned to prison.”
The hallway was lined with students studying for their A&P lab, and you could tell they were listening in. I thanked my friend for delivering the documents, agreed with her assessment of Zarytsky’s story, and, mindful of the undergraduates listening in, I added, “Going to jail is certainly a mark of distinction for Christians.”
A different colleague, listening from his office, hastily added a qualifier (perhaps for the students): “If it’s for the right reasons!” – and who can argue with that? Nevertheless, it’s important to remember that Christianity and imprisonment have a long and noble shared history. Religious liberty is rightly on our radar these days, both here at home and abroad, but there’s little question that Christians belong in jail.
At the very least, we belong there as visitors – it’s one of the corporal Works of Mercy that Jesus himself enumerated in Matthew 25 – although we seem to belong there as occupants as well. Just this past Thursday, for example, we heard St. Paul in the first reading ask the Ephesians for their prayers, that he’d continue “to make known with boldness the mystery of the Gospel for which I am an ambassador in chains….” Those chains weren’t a metaphor, and the New Testament attests to Paul’s repeated imprisonments for refusing to compromise on the Gospel, not to mention the persecution of all Christians in those earliest years of The Way.
It’s a historical reality that was brought home for me when I had a chance to visit Rome long ago with my parents and sister. They were primarily interested in ancient Rome, but happily they were willing to indulge my penchant for the more Catholic side of the Eternal City.
Occasionally, our interests overlapped – as when we toured the Colosseum, so closely identified with Roman persecutions of the early church. Another site of mutual interest, and a highlight of the entire trip for all of us, was the little out-of-the-way 5th-century basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli. In English, that’s “St. Peter in Chains,” but my mother preferred the fluidity of the Italian and she delighted in affecting an accent when enunciating it. I can still hear her voice – San Pietro in Vincoli – and see her satisfied grin as the words tumbled from her tongue.
Our family visit to San Pietro occurred long before the advent of GPS and cell phones, so it took us a while to wind our way through the back streets of the Esquiline and track it down. When we finally did so, we were hot and tired, and it was a relief to enter the dark, cool church. Fodor’s immediately directed us to Michelangelo’s Moses off to the right. The imposing sculpture, intended for a Vatican monument in honor of Pope Julius II, was waylaid at San Pietro’s for a variety of reasons, and now it’s a permanent fixture there.
However, it wasn’t Moses that captured our attention when we visited, but rather the chains. According to tradition, the Basilica’s high altar houses the fetters that held bound the Apostle Peter when he was arrested in Jerusalem – the very chains that “fell off his hands” when an angel appeared to effect his release (Acts 12.7). After receiving them as a gift, Pope Leo the Great sought to compare the Jerusalem relics to a second set of chains associated with St. Peter’s Mamertine confinement in Rome. When the Pontiff brought the separate shackles together, they miraculously fused, almost as if to ratify their historicity.
Regardless of their provenance, those chains in the impressive glass-encased reliquary at San Pietro make very concrete the biblical tales of saints being locked up for their faith and for spreading his Good News of salvation in Christ. For my mom, a devout evangelical, seeing those actual restrains was a confirming touchstone of belief – a Roman apostolic equivalent to visiting the Holy Land and walking where Jesus walked.
Of course, that kind of radical Christian witness didn’t cease with the apostolic age, which brings us back to Fr. Zarytsky, a very modern example of absolute abandonment to the Lord. Born in 1912, Oleksa had his sights set on becoming a priest from a very young age, and the triumph of Stalinist atheism in his native Ukraine didn’t dissuade him. He attended seminary in Lviv, received ordination in 1936, and set about his priestly duties with relish – catechizing, baptizing, hearing confessions, and, above all, celebrating Mass and giving the people their Eucharistic savior. Not surprisingly, the Communists caught up with him in time, and he was deported to a Kazakhstan labor camp in 1948.
After his release in 1957, Fr. Oleksa rebuffed Soviet pressure to denounce the Pope and he redoubled his priestly efforts on behalf of the land’s beleaguered Catholic minority. Eventually he was appointed Apostolic Administrator of Kazakhstan and Siberia, and he became known as “The Tramp of God” on account of his tireless travels to bring the Gospel and the sacraments to his vast pastoral territory.
Arrested again in 1961, Zarytsky was returned to the prison where he’d meet his demise two years later. But even in jail, this dedicated priest would not abandon his apostolate. Aside from the comfort he brought to his fellow prisoners, he kept up a lively correspondence with those on the outside. “Who has God in his soul has it all,” Zarytsky wrote his brother by way of explanation. “This is my ray of light, the highest thought of my life.”
So that’s all inspiring, I know, but how relevant is it to those of us who’ll probably never face incarceration? Plenty, and it makes me think of my mother again. Confinement can take many forms, and, in her case, it was a physical confinement – a debilitating neurological illness that ultimately took her life. Even so, she bravely faced each day and sought to glorify her savior despite her significant limitations and ill health. She desperately prayed for healing, and she was honest with God about her anger when it wasn’t forthcoming, but she also never let up praying for her family, for her friends and acquaintances, and for the church at large – particularly for those Christians facing persecution in the far-flung corners of the world.
Hence the full meaning of St. Paul’s reference to his ambassadorship in chains: That, regardless of circumstances, regardless of whatever might hamper our human mobility or psychological freedom or even physical existence, we can nonetheless be conduits of grace and envoys of Christ wherever we find ourselves. “Have no anxiety about anything,” wrote the imprisoned St. Paul, “but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Fr. Zayrtsky could only concur. “Every day and every hour we have to offer everything to the suffering Jesus who carried his cross on Calvary to show us how to come to eternal life,” he advised from inside the labor camp. “Pray a lot. Prayer is our greatest strength.”
No manner of chain can keep us from that.