Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko was born on September 14, 1947, in the village of Okopy in Eastern Poland. He was from a staunch Roman Catholic family and after secondary school, he decided to study for the priesthood, entering the seminary in Warsaw. Jerzy's training was interrupted by two years of military service, during which he was beaten on at least one occasion for living his Christian faith.
After ordination, the young priest held several appointments before his final appointment to the parish of St. Stanislaw Kostka in a working-class neighborhood of the Polish capital. Due to poor health, he resided at St. Stanislas Church and worked part-time in the parish, which enabled him to work as well with medical personnel. Thousands flocked to hear his Sunday sermons. Fr. Jerzy was tireless in speaking out against abortion.
August 1980 saw the beginning of the Solidarity trade union in Poland. Striking shipyard workers from the Warsaw steel plant approached Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski to ask for a priest to say Mass for them. The Cardinal found Fr. Jerzy at St. Stanislaw Kostka Church. Solidarity represented for Fr. Jerzy a vision that he had first learned from St Maximilian Kolbe: that of spiritual freedom amidst physical enslavement. Fr. Jerzy promoted this vision of the truth about the vocation of every man and woman among the workers who gathered around him.
On December 13, 1981, the communist authorities imposed martial law on Poland, arresting many Solidarity activists and commencing a programme of harassment and retaliation against others. Fr. Popieluszko became an important focus in a welfare programme to support families affected by martial law, winning new friends amongst foreign visitors bringing in relief supplies. 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. Fr. Popieluszko insisted that change should be brought about peacefully; the sign of peace was one of the most poignant moments of each monthly Mass for the Country.
On October 19, 1984, Fr. Popieluszko was kidnapped by security agents on his way back to Warsaw after a visit to a parish in the neighboring town of Bydgoszcz. Fr. Jerzy’s driver was told to get out of his car and get into the police car where he was cuffed and gagged. Fr. Jerzy was then 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 reservoir. The 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.
The priest’s funeral was a massive public demonstration drawing together more than half a million people in the working class section of Warsaw. Official delegations of Solidarity appeared from throughout the whole country for the first time since the imposition of martial law. Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko was buried in the front yard of his parish church of Saint Stanislas Kostka. Since then this church has become a shrine of the Solidarity Movement. Fr. Jerzy’s brutal murder was widely believed to have hastened the collapse of communist rule in Poland.
Father Popieluszko'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.
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. His life also reminds us of the price that we may be called upon to pay as "witnesses to the truth about man and woman".
May Fr. Jerzy intercede for each of us as we try our best to give witness to the truth and dignity of the human person.
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.
- In my sermons I talk about what people are thinking and what they are talking about... because often they have not either the courage or the opportunity of being able to express themselves out loud.
- 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. 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.