En route to Krakow to celebrate the 31st World Youth Day this week, thousands of young pilgrims and their leaders have spent time in Warsaw these past days and have visited the grave and museum of the young Polish parish priest, Jerzy Popieluszko (1947-1984) who was proclaimed a martyr in 2010 in Warsaw. I share with you Fr. Jerzy’s very moving story.
Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko:
Sacrament of Nonviolence at the heart of Martyred Polish Priest’s Life
The Eucharist sums up all the teaching, passion and death of Jesus. The Eucharist, is truly the sacrament of nonviolence. The way of Jesus to conquer evil and violence must be the Christian way: the way of nonviolence, of love and forgiveness. The nonviolent way of Jesus is historically at the heart of his teaching, and at the same time at the heart of his passion and death.
This Eucharistic reality was lived out in the life of a young Polish priest, Fr Jerzy Popieluszko (1947-1984) who was beatified as a martyr on the feast of Corpus Christi, June 6, 2010, in Warsaw's Pilsudski Square. Jerzy Popieluszko was born on September 14, 1947 in the village of Okopy in Eastern Poland. He was from a strong Roman Catholic family. After secondary school, Jerzy entered the seminary in Warsaw, rather than the local seminary in Bialystok. His training was interrupted by two years of military service, during which he was beaten several times for living his Christian faith.
After ordination, the young priest, who never really enjoyed good health, held several appointments before his final appointment to the parish of St. Stanislas Kostka in Warsaw. He worked part-time in the parish, which enabled him to work as well with medical personnel. As a result of his close work with health care personnel, he was asked to organize the medical teams during two of Pope John Paul II's nine visits to Poland in 1979 and Warsaw in 1983.
August 1980 saw the beginning of the Solidarity trade union in Poland. Workers from the Warsaw steel plant, who were on strike in support of the shipyards on the Baltic Sea, requested a priest to say Mass for them. The lot fell to Fr Jerzy. He stayed with the workers night and day. Solidarity represented for him a vision that he had first learnt from St Maximilian Kolbe: that of spiritual freedom amidst physical enslavement. It was this vision of the truth about the vocation of every man and woman, which Fr Jerzy promoted amongst the workers by his presence.
On December 13, 1981, the communist authorities imposed martial law, arresting many Solidarity activists and launching a program of harassment and retaliation against others. Many who had been on strike lost their jobs, and so their ability to support their families; others were beaten up on the streets and left for dead. Fr. Popieluszko became an important focus in a welfare program to support families affected by martial law.
He regularly attended the trials of Solidarity activists, sitting prominently in court with their families so that the prisoners could see that they were not forgotten. It was in the courtroom that he had the idea for a monthly Mass for the Country, to be celebrated for all the imprisoned and their families. It was not a political demonstration — Fr. Popieluszko specifically asked his congregation not to display banners or chant slogans. His Masses for the Fatherland became well known not only in Warsaw but throughout Poland, often attracting 15,000 to 20,000 people. Fr. Jerzy insisted that change should be brought about peacefully; the sign of peace was one of the most poignant moments of each Mass for the Country.
Excerpts from Fr. Popieluszko’s homilies:
“The position of the Church will always be the same as the position of the people…and when the people are persecuted then the Church shares in their suffering.”
“Solidarity is a constant concern for our country, upholding its internal freedom even in conditions of enslavement. It means that we must overcome fear, upholding our dignity as children of God and courageously bearing witness to what we believe, what we hold in our hearts.”
Fr. Popieluszko was neither a social nor a political activist, but a Catholic priest faithful to the Gospel. He wasn't a forceful speaker, but someone of deep conviction and integrity. His sanctity lay in fundamental righteousness that gave people hope even in horrendous situations. He knew that all totalitarian systems are based on terror and intimidation. The Communists saw him as an enemy because he freed people from fear of the system. He exposed the hypocrisy of the Communist regime and he taught believers how to confront totalitarianism. How often Jerzy made St. Paul's words his own in his preaching: "Fight evil with good".
His message was not just for Poland but for all time: when any government tries to impose untruths, when it distorts history, when it crushes attempts to live by ordinary moral values, then we must speak out. We must conquer hatred with love, lies with truth, anger and fear with courage and hope. This applied in Poland under Communism, but it applies anywhere, at any time. And this applies when such untruths are imposed on children in schools, or public figures are bullied into silence on the subject, or if the Church is so bullied.
Fr. Jerzy never suggested that “freedom” in the abstract is an absolute. What matters most is truth. We are not free to kill, maim, or steal. Any civilization or culture worthy of the name imposes all sorts of restraints on its citizens. But truth is absolute and does not need to be imposed, because it imposes itself. A government that tries to impose an untruth finds that it needs, with increasing pressure, to keep finding ways to prevent the truth from emerging, from pouring out through the cracks in the blocks it keeps trying to push into place.
On October 19, 1984, the young priest was kidnapped by security agents on his way back to Warsaw after a visit to a parish in the neighboring town of Bydgoszcz. He was savagely beaten until he lost consciousness, and his body was tied up in such a way that he would strangle himself by moving. His weighted body was then thrown into a deep reservoir. His killers carried out their task with unprecedented brutality, which shows their hatred of the faith that the priest embodied. Jerzy's driver, who managed to escape, told what had happened to the press. On October 30, Popieluszko's bound and gagged body was found in the freezing waters of a reservoir near Wloclawek. Fr Jerzy's brutal murder was widely believed to have hastened the collapse of communist rule in Poland.
Fr. Jerzy's funeral was a massive public demonstration with over 500,000 people in attendance. Some say the number was as high as one million people. Official delegations of Solidarity appeared from throughout the whole country for the first time since the imposition of martial law. He was buried in the front yard of his parish church of St. Stanislaw Kostka, and since that day, 20 million people have visited his tomb.
A legacy of courage and faith
Over the past 30 years, I have been privileged to pray several times at his grave in the Warsaw working suburb, and to witness the extraordinary effect that this young priest has had on so many young people. He promoted respect for human rights, for the rights of workers and the dignity of persons, all in the light of the Gospel. He practiced, for Poland and for the whole world, the virtues of courage, of fidelity to God, to the Cross of Christ and the Gospel, love of God and of the homeland. He represented patriotism in the Christian sense, as a cultural and social virtue. He was deeply devoted to the Eucharist. More than 80 streets and squares in Poland have been named after Fr Jerzy. Hundreds of statues and memorial plaques have been unveiled to him; some 18,000 schools, charities, youth groups and discussion clubs have been named after him.
This martyr’s life was broken and shared with the multitudes. The blood of his martyrdom has become the seed of faith for his homeland and for the Church. At a time when the priesthood and the Church have suffered much because of the past "sins of the fathers", the life and death of Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko remind us what the priesthood and the Church are all about. Jerzy’s death serves as testimony to the struggle for freedom, basic rights, and human dignity. In one of the earliest addresses after his election to the See of Rome, Pope John Paul II said: The truth we owe to man is, first and foremost, a truth about man. As witnesses of Jesus Christ we are heralds, spokesmen and servants of this truth… We cannot forget it or betray it.
Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko was a gentle priest who always spoke about forgiveness and love, never violence, never anger. He was the hero of an oppressed nation, and is today the authentic vision of priesthood for a new generation of Poles. He is also, and this is what challenged me, a hero to all of us in the West who thought that truth and freedom were easy things to cherish, and now need to draw on his courage and example. Fr. Jerzy provides a model for us, calling us to strive that what we say and do outwardly should always agree with our inward conscience.
Fr. Jerzy’s Litany to Our Lady of Czestochowa – May 1982
Mother of those who place their hope in Solidarity, pray for us.
Mother of those who are deceived, pray for us.
Mother of those who are betrayed, pray for us.
Mother of those who are arrested in the night, pray for us.
Mother of those who are imprisoned, pray for us.
Mother of those who suffer from the cold, pray for us.
Mother of those who have been frightened, pray for us.
Mother of those who were subjected to interrogations, pray for us.
Mother of those innocents who have been condemned, pray for us.
Mother of those who speak the truth, pray for us.
Mother of those who cannot be corrupted, pray for us.
Mother of those who resist, pray for us.
Mother of orphans, pray for us.
Mother of those who have been molested because they wore your image, pray for us.
Mother of those who are forced to sign declarations
contrary to their conscience, pray for us.
Mother of mothers who weep, pray for us.
Mother of fathers who have been so deeply saddened, pray for us.
Mother of suffering Poland, pray for us.
Mother of always faithful Poland, pray for us.
We beg you, O mother in whom resides the hope of millions of people, grant us to live in liberty and in truth, in fidelity to you and to your Son. Amen.
The attached photo is of the stained glass window of Fr. Jerzy Polpieluszko in the Chapel of the Newman Centre at the University of Toronto (Canada). Courtesy of Salt and Light Television archives.