Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Secret Masses in the forest 

By LORRAINE V. MURRAY, Commentary | Published May 19, 2022

Father Walter Ciszek, SJ, wrote about his grueling years of imprisonment in Russian camps, where prisoners were forced to work in the freezing cold while wearing the thinnest clothing. Their meals were starvation rations—watery soup and crusts of bread.  

In these desperate circumstances, Mass was like a healing balm for a jagged wound. Religious services were forbidden, but Father Ciszek was determined to offer secret Masses in the forest, where a tree stump was the altar.  

Many men were so broken down they could hardly stand, but they managed to find their way to the secret place, where Father Ciszek and another priest brought Jesus Christ to them. Father Ciszek said, “I would go to any length, suffer any inconvenience, run any risk to make the bread of life available to these men.”  

I often reflect on his words as I get into my car and arrive at church minutes later. How easy it is for me to attend Mass! In the early days following my husband’s death, heading to church each day created a pattern in a life fractured by grief. By offering Holy Communion for my husband’s soul, I nurtured the mystical connection between us, and showed my love for him.  

Over the years, a familiar crowd has inhabited the pews at weekday Masses. Many are older folks, and many are widows and widowers. Others are college students, moms toting infants and folks stopping by on their lunch hour. Some people are in wheelchairs and others on walkers. At Mass, we become a community, where we request prayers, share troubles, and pray for the living and the dead.  

In the creed, God is described as creator of “all things, visible and invisible,” which is a reminder that the world surpasses what we perceive through our senses. Father Joseph Espers wrote, “A wise, elderly priest once celebrated an early morning Mass. Later that day someone asked him, ‘How many attended Mass this morning?’ and he answered, ‘There were thousands there—but I only saw three of them.’” This probably wouldn’t surprise St. John Chrysostom, who wrote, “When Mass is being celebrated, the sanctuary is filled with countless angels.”  

I often feel the veil between the living and the dead is especially thin at Mass. British author and mystic Caryll Houselander wrote that the Catholic Church teaches “death does not separate people, because the soul is never dead, so although with the parting, the millions of tiny physical details of bodily love have gone … the person has not gone and remains alive and close to the living.”  

There is so much happening at Mass, invisible to our eyes, with the great miracle of the Eucharist as centerpiece. As we receive the Body of Christ, let’s remember we’re part of the Communion of Saints, which is the union of the living on earth, the saints in heaven and the souls in purgatory.  

How blessed we are that we needn’t attend secret Masses held in the woods, like the prisoners in the Russian camps. No matter what our circumstances, when we find a way to receive the Bread of Life, we also receive healing balm for our souls and strengthen the connection between the living and the dead. In that forest long ago, where the altar was a tree stump, there were the prisoners, plus the angels and saints in attendance. Together they formed a bond that couldn’t be broken and discovered a love that endured beyond death.  

Artwork (“The Eucharist”) is by Jef Murray ( Lorraine’s email address is