“It was impossible to say Mass in the barrack, of course.”

With God in RussiaOur religious liberties are not to be taken for granted.  I sometimes consider what I might do when they come for priests and bishops who continue faithfully to preach Catholic doctrine fully.

When my mind goes down this dark track, I inevitably recall what I read With God In Russia by Fr. Walter Ciszek, SJ, imprisoned during the Cold War years for being a Catholic priest. [UK link HERE.]

I finally looked up the passages I recalled from reading the book years ago.

It was impossible to say Mass in the barrack, of course. From time to time, however, Nestrov and I would take a walk into the forest, when we were free from work, and say Mass there. We used a big stump as our altar, and while one of us offered the Holy Sacrifice the other stood guard on the road. It was an experience I’ll never forget. In the heavy silence of the thick forest, you could hear the chipmunks running and the birds gathering overhead. Suddenly, you seemed very close to nature and to God. Everything seemed beautiful and somehow mysterious, all dangers for a time remote.

At other times, if we had an hour alone but couldn’t leave camp to say Mass, we would take turns reciting and memorizing the prayers of the Mass until we knew them all by heart. We were always aware that the Mass kit might be discovered, and we would lose our book and vestments, but we were determined that as long as we could get bread and wine we would try to say Mass.


And later…

After breakfast, I would say Mass by heart–that is, I would say all the prayers, for of course I couldn’t actually celebrate the Holy Sacrifice. I said the Angelus morning, noon, and night as the Kremlin clock chimed the hours. Before dinner, I would make my noon examen (examination of conscience); before going to bed at night I’d make the evening examen and points for the morning meditation, following St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises. Every afternoon, I said three rosaries–one in Polish, one in Latin, and one in Russian–as a substitute for my breviary. After supper, I spent the evening reciting prayers and hymns from memory or even chanting them out loud: the Anima Christi, the Veni Creator, the Salve Regina, the Veni, Sancte Spiritus, especially the Dies Irae and the Miserere–all the things we had memorized in the novitiate as novices, the hymns we had sung during my years in the Society, the prayers I had learned as a boy back home. Sometimes I’d spend hours trying to remember a line that had slipped my memory, sounding it over and over again until I had it right. During these times of prayer, I would also make up my own prayers, talking to God directly, asking for His help, but above all accepting His will for me, trusting completely to His Providence to see me through whatever might lie ahead. (pp. 88-89)

Fathers, seminarians, do you memorize?   It could be good to memorize a Mass formula, such as the classic Votive Mass of the Blessed Virgin Mary along with the Ordinary of Mass.

Frankly, we all should have the necessary prayers of Holy Mass memorized, right?

Parents, perhaps you could motivate your children (and yourselves) to memorize prayers and hymns and catechism answers through some prizes and so forth.

Memorization fell out of favor.  But once you have something memorized, it’s yours in way that it otherwise is … not.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. It is the prayers, Scripture verses and lines from the catechism that we have memorized that come to our aid in times of distress, when we cannot think and reflect.

  2. cwillia1 says:

    It is very useful to have all or part of your prayer rule memorized. Then you don’t need a book to hold or light to read by to pray. It also makes prostrations easier even if you are at home and have a book. Some key elements might be introductory prayers, psalm 50/51, the creed, one or more other prayers and then a rosary or the Jesus Prayer. In the Eastern tradition, we have the rule of St. Pachomius, which is a slightly more elaborate version of what I outlined.

  3. Phil_NL says:

    An entire Mass would be somewhat challenging, especially considering that there are so many seasonal variations, but practice makes not only perfect, it makes it easy as well.

    Frankly, any Catholic over 20 or so would probably have picked up the Credo, Gloria and a few other items from years of Mass Attendance. Which can help in unaxpected places…

    I once attanded Mass in Florence, Italy, in a monastery (the crypt, actually). Besides half a dozen brothers, there were 4 or 5 other tourists attanding. Probably the twelve of us had no language in common (none of the tourists probably had any Italian, I can only guess at the monks English/French/German/Dutch – we didn’t speak afterwards – but probably none of the above). It being a monastery, no missalettes etc there.

    But Mass was in Latin, and we all happened to know the Credo by heart. It was beautiful in its simplicity.

  4. Liz says:

    Thank you, Father. I just ordered this book for a loved one. It also reminded me that I had “He Leadeth Me” from my late father’s books on my shelf so I pulled it down. I ordered this book through your website. I wonder if the other things already in my cart help you. p.s. You young seminarians should memorize what you can when you are young. It’s harder when you are older!

  5. benedetta says:

    Servant of God Fr. Walter Ciszek, S.J., ora pro nobis.

  6. APX says:

    Fr. Cisneros also wrote another book, “He Leadeth Me”, which is about the interior spiritual aspect of his time in the Russian prison camps.

  7. APX says:


    Leave it to autocorrect for opportunities to grow in humility.

  8. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    Memorization is crucial. Crucial.

  9. The Masked Chicken says:

    When one is in distress ones character comes out. When there is little time, ones priorities comes out. On the Cross, Our Lord recited the incipit to Psalm 22 because He had become the Psalm. That is what memorization does – it forms our character and our priorities – what we care about and who we care about. Pity youths who memorize lyrics from Rap. One can only imagine where their heart lies.

    The most touching example of memorization in recent times is the ending of the movie, Fahrenheit 451, directed by Francois Troufau (sorry about the spelling). It snowed just as they filmed the last scene of a young boy reciting back a book over the newly dead body of the old man who taught it to him in the Land of the Book People. The scene is mystical.

    The Chicken

  10. spraffmeister says:

    While there is always the risk of simply reciting words without reflection once memorized (admittedly this risk is also present when reading), the boon of memorizing is that these words also come to you in moments of need, distress or joy.

    It always amazes me when people don’t even know the simplest prayers such as the Angelus or Memorare off by heart. Memorizing is treasuring.

  11. Imrahil says:

    Not to mention, dear Phil, that you can always surprise one of the enthousiastic religious people who ask what do I believe, personally, and all that by answering:

    I believe in God (then make just short enough a pause that they can’t interrupt you)…

    the Father, the Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth, etc.

    Oh yes, speaking of prayers learnt by heart, it is, of course, nice (because easy to recall) when they rhyme.

    Virgin, Mother God’s, of mine,
    let me be entir’ly thine,
    thine in life and thine in death,
    thine until the latest breath,
    thine in cross and thine in pain,
    thine until the final gain.
    Virgin, Mother God’s, of mine,
    let me be entir’ly thine.

    Moth’r, in thee I hope, I build on,
    Moth’r, to thee in call and cry on,
    Mother o goodliest, stand at my side,
    mightiest, protect me, the Spirit’s Bride!

    For thou, yea, canst help me, o mightiest!
    For thou, yea, willst help me, o goodliest!
    For thou, now, must help me, o faithfullest!
    And thou, ‘ndeed, shalt help me, mercifullest!

    O mother of grace, the Christians’ hoard,
    thou refuge of sinners, salvation’s port,
    thou hope of the earth, Heaven’s decor,
    balm of the afflicted, their shielding colór!
    [i. e. banner. I’m forcing the rhyme a bit.]

    Who’s ever, in vain, called for help onto thee?
    When hast thou forgot what a child prayed with glee?
    Hence I shout with persistence, in cross and in pain:
    St. Mary helps always, shall help me again.
    I’m crying with conf’dence in sorrow and death:
    St. Mary shall help me until the last breath.
    That’s what I believe, live and shall die upon:
    St. Mary shall help up to Heaven hereon.

    Virgin, Mother God’s of mine, let me be entir’ly thine, etc.

  12. ConstantlyConverting says:

    Memorization is a great brain workout. My toddler and I memorize songs, prayers, catechism and commemorate 3:00 pm as a habit.

    I particuarly appreciate the apostles creed.

  13. stpetric says:

    Back in the 1990s I heard Terry Waite speak. He was the Anglican layman sent to Beirut by the Archbishop of Canterbury to negotiate freedom for those held in the Lebanese hostage crisis of 1982-92. Instead, he was himself held hostage for 1,763 days, the first four years of which were spent in solitary confinement. He described in the talk I heard how he was sustained spiritually by prayers from the Book of Common Prayer that had become part of him from years of praying them. Somewhat different content from the prayers Fr. Ciszek remembered, but the same process.

  14. Gemma says:

    I cannot agree with Father more. Do what you have to do. Memorize the Mass. Go beyond. Those books by Fr Cizek helped me when I was going through the temptation of my life. Constant reminder of “I will serve” no matter what. Be ready!

  15. kekeak2008 says:

    Such an incredibly wonderful and encouraging story. I’m now motivated to memorize more of my prayers! I do have one question: isn’t a priest required to recite/read certain parts of the mass directly from the missal?

  16. APX says:


    Yes, memorization is great, but we shouldn’t judge, or look down on those who don’t have certain prayers memorized. For some people it is a great struggle, whether due to injury (I have had so many concussions I lost count. My head breaking my windshield recently didn’t help the situation), or health issues, etc. I’m tired of people judging the degree of piety of someone based on what they have memorized.

  17. Ellen says:

    We memorized a lot when I was in grade school in the 1950s. Now – not so much. I have tons of prayers memorized. Memory is a funny thing. When my grandmother was slipping into dementia, she didn’t know her family (or even herself) but she could pray the rosary in German which she had done as a child.

  18. robtbrown says:

    APX says,

    My head breaking my windshield recently didn’t help the situation), or health issues, etc. 

    Seat belt?

  19. Mary Jane says:

    APX, I hope you recover soon.

    When I was growing up my parents took time every day to review the prayers and basic catechism points one should know prior to receiving the sacrament of Confirmation…we did this after the family rosary. It added an extra 10-15 minutes to the Rosary…which I found annoying…but looking back on it, that was a smart move by my parents. We kids knew our prayers by heart…and I still remember them now, even though I don’t say each of the prayers daily.

  20. Patti Day says:

    My husband has Parkinson’s and dementia, and his speech is getting to where I can’t understand much of what little he says, but when we pray the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be each night, his speech is as loud and clear as a bell.

  21. Liz says:

    Patti Day, my mom was like that. She could hardly talk and could not be understood, but in the rosary suddenly I could understand her clearly. It’s so interesting and so comforting. God bless you and your husband!

  22. cwillia1 says:

    APX, people who can’t memorize can always do the Jesus Prayer or some other very short prayer. You can use a prayer rope or just set a timer and do it. This also works for people who are losing their cognitive facilities for one reason or another, medication, dementia, pain or other distractions. All you have to do is put yourself in God’s presence and beg for his mercy because you are a sinner. It is simple but it is not easy. True prayer is difficult for almost all of us.

  23. I have often wondered if I have enough things committed to memory in case I should be imprisoned some day. I know that a collection of Monty Python sketches and Star Trek scenes will help maintain morale, but I wish I had memorized more Scripture. The Rosary would help too though. I know enough to say that I know a minimum, but would I be able to recite enough Scripture to have my captors threaten to cut out my tongue?

    Memorization is not the end, but it sure is a great beginning. You have to walk before you can run.

  24. KAS says:

    It is particularly essential for parents to teach their children to memorize prayers, scriptures, stories, and hymns. One of the WORST things about every parish I have gone to is the total lack of understanding that the theology in the songs MATTERS. Children can learn and song, one where the words are still beyond their comprehension, and as they grow up and learn their catechism, the lyrics will become understood– but the memorization given to them as children is harder to lose.

    Perhaps this is the biggest problem with the technology. Parents do not teach their children to sing songs like “This is my Father’s World” with lines like “though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet” THIS will go deep, and they will never lose their foundations if these are taught to them as children– especially in song.

    Even such simple songs as “Jesus loves the little children” can serve to place a tiny bit of truth deep into their little psyches where the world cannot fully root it out.

    If the infant and child is not taught– by the parents– the foundations are not properly laid.

    Sometimes I feel I have failed my children. But I keep limping along, trying to get them to learn by memory those things they must know to survive the constant brainwashing of today’s culture.

  25. WYMiriam says:

    And then there are other funny things that can happen while reciting something from memory. . . . I once had the “Our Father” memorized in French. One day some years later I was walking along, praying the rosary in French, and my mind went wandering somewhere out in the beautiful countyside instead of paying attention, and all of a sudden I was heard myself saying “et ne nos inducas in tentationem, sed libera nos a malo”! I’d forgotten the French for the end of the Pater, but had unconsciously swung smoothly into the Latin!

    I so agree with teaching children to memorize — to be mindful, or to “know things by heart” (i.e., to keep them in our heart) — is critical to so many areas of life skills. I wish that I had had much, much more drilling in that as a child. My mother, God bless her!, sometimes has a single line of a poem pop into her head, from something she memorized 85 or more years ago, in grade school! When she can’t pull up the title of the poem, one of us (usually me; I’m the laziest) goes to the computer and “Googles” it. I am certain that she’s forgotten more things than I’ve ever learned.

  26. AMDeiG says:

    P & C (Post & Comments)….

    I read Fr. Cizek’s works about 10 years ago. With God in Russia is a real page turner. I have seen the dear priests in my life in a completely new way ever since and pray for the ongoing protection of gratitude for their vocations. Amazing read.

  27. Gerhard says:

    As every soldier says when explaining away his heroism later: the training took over; I did it for the lads; any one of them would have done – and has done – the same for me. What exactly do seminarians learn in their 6+ years in formation? And why do they learn nothing? Well, Bishop your Excellency?

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