Friday, November 15, 2013

Jerzy Popieluszko: A 20th Century Martyr

What were you doing in 1984? Were you using your new Apple personal computer which had just been put on sale in the US? Or were you watching The Space Shuttle Discovery take off on its maiden voyage? Perhaps you watched the winter Olympics in Sarajevo or the summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

While we were doing these rather mundane tasks, Polish workers were standing up to the Communist government in their country in what was called ‘the Solidarity Movement’. Some were imprisoned and others were killed for doing so. We occasionally heard news about Lech Walesa, and even about the visit of the new Polish Pope, John Paul II, to his country. But have you ever heard of Father Jerzy Popieluszko? Probably not. Most of the world did not hear all the events that took place in Poland at that time.

First let’s go back in history a bit further in order to better understand the events of 1984 -1989 in Eastern Europe.

World War II And After
In September 1939 Hitler’s Germany and Russia both invaded Poland and divided Poland between them. Germany later broke the agreement and invaded the Soviet territory causing Russia to join the Allies against Hitler.
During this terrible war three million Polish Jews died in the Holocaust and three million Polish non-Jews died in battle, in concentration camps and by execution.
But Poland’s suffering did not end when World War II ended. Poland, and other countries, were handed over to the Soviet Union by the Allied leaders who met at Yalta (1945). During the next 44 years of Russian occupation the Catholic Church in Poland was persecuted by propaganda campaigns and constant spying by secret police. Poles, even those who were not particularly religious before, looked to the Church as the center of their struggle for justice. Because of the strength of the Polish Church, the Soviets had to allow a certain amount of freedom to it which they did not in the other European countries they occupied. When Karol Wojtyla, the young Bishop of Krakow, was elected Pope in 1978, Poles celebrated with joy as they realized God had not forgotten them. But Communist leaders were very worried about the outcome. They feared that the Polish Church could become a huge problem.

Popieluszko’s Early Life
On Sept 14, 1947 a farmer and his wife in the small village of Okopy, welcomed their fifth child whom they named Alfons. A few years earlier, his mother had prayed that one of her sons would become a priest.
From the time he was seven the boy served as an altar boy in his parish church and, although he was not a brilliant student, he worked hard at his studies. His hero was Maximillian Kolbe, the priest who had sacrificed his life for another prisoner while in the Auschwitz concentration camp. At seventeen Jerzy Popieluscko (who by this time had changed his first name) applied to a seminary in Warsaw. Popieluszko was ordained in 1972 and served as a parish priest in the Diocese of Warsaw. Because he had a number of health problems; hyperthyroidism, anaemia and Addison’s Disease, he was frequently hospitalized but he still managed to fulfil his duties as a parish priest.

The Solidarity Movement
In 1980 he was asked to say Mass for striking steelworkers in Warsaw and he became the first priest to enter the front gates at the steel plant. Father Jerzy later told of this experience, “I was quaking. How would the workers receive me? Would there be a place appropriate for saying Mass? ... And then as I approached the gate, I was astonished. The crowds were smiling and crying and clapping. At first I thought there was somebody important behind me. But they were clapping for me - the first priest in the history of this plant to enter through the main gate. But it seemed to me that this applause was for the Church, which has been knocking at the gates of industrial plants over the past thirty years.” (from Companion booklet produced by Focus Producers and Ignatius Press and distributed with the DVD, Popieluszko).
As the chaplain of the Solidarity movement he not only said Masses but heard confessions, arranged for a regular pilgrimage for workers, travelled to Gdansk, led the public praying of the Rosary and organized relief effort and financial assistance for families of imprisoned workers. More than that, he became their friend.

Persecution and Martyrdom
The Polish government began to take notice of this young priest and had spies follow him everywhere. His sermons were taped and photos were taken during the Masses. Father Jerzy named his little dog, Snitch, in mockery of the secret police who constantly watched his apartment. False stories about Fr. Jerzy, which suggested scandal, were printed in newspapers and his apartment was bombed. In 1983 anti-government pamphlets and other material were planted in his apartment and ‘found’ during a search. He was promptly arrested and put into prison but Church officials were able to get him freed.
After an attempt to kill him in a car accident failed, Father Jerzy was kidnapped on October 13, 1984. Ten days later his badly beaten body was found in the Vistula River. A vigil of prayers for him had been kept by the people for those ten days and Masses had been said for him every hour. The grief of the people was kept under control by the public praying of the words, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. The gatherings remained peaceful.

The Funeral
Father Jerzy’s funeral was the largest gathering of people in Poland since the Papal Masses during John Paul II’s visits. The leader of the Solidarity Movement, Lech Walesa, was permitted to speak in public to the 400,000 mourners. He said, “Solidarity is alive because you have given your life for it.”

The Struggle Ends
The non-violent struggle for freedom continued until 1989. Through the efforts of Pope John Paul II and other leaders in the free world, Communism in Eastern Europe finally ended. Poland was the first country to gain freedom.
Father Jerzy Popieluszko was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI on June 6, 2010. His grave is near the parish church, St. Stanislaw Kostka, in Warsaw where he served as a priest.


Ignatius Press and Focus Producers DVD Popieluszko: Freedom is Within Us. Directed by Rafal Wieczynski and starring Adam Woronowicz as Jerzy Popieluszcko. and Collector’s Companion Booklet. 2013
Museum website
Personal Travel notes.
Photos by L. Shelstad ©2013.