Jerzy (George) Popieluszko was born on September 14, 1947, in the village of Okopy near Suchowola in Poland. His parents were farmers. During his youth, while attending school, he kept a desire for the priesthood secret lest he be singled out by the Communists and victimized socially and academically. By the 1950s the Church in Poland was undergoing a vicious persecution. In 1953 the Cardinal Primate, Stefan Wyszynski, was arrested along with his auxiliary bishop and other immediate associates. Seven bishops were imprisoned, more than two thousand Polish priests were imprisoned, deported, or made to flee into exile, and thirty-seven of those priests were put to death. Nearly half the religious houses in Poland were closed, and more than seventy percent of the Catholic schools.
The persecution continued into the 1960s, however, realizing that they could not destroy the Church by blood and labor camps, the Reds employed other techniques against the clergy, such as monitoring sermons for “political” content, excessive taxation, and late-night arrests and interrogations. Then, in 1965, a schismatic National Catholic Church was established that would be subordinate to the atheistic government. It was a total failure. This was the year that eighteen-year-old Jerzy entered one of the seminaries that had not been forced to close. That freedom didn’t last long; his entire class was conscripted into the army. Many times the seminarian had to suffer for his Faith in this compulsory service. One time, an officer discovered his rosary and ordered him to grind it into the ground. Jerzey refused and was brutally beaten. There were other physical punishments that he suffered on account of his Catholic Faith, all of which contributed to serious health problems, which left him very thin and frail. When his period of military duty was over he returned to the seminary where he received “passing” grades, nothing to get high-headed about, but enough to qualify him to receive what he so greatly desired holy orders.
The Young Priest
On May 28, 1972, Jerzy Popieluszko was ordained by Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski. While serving as a parish priest, however, Father Popieluszko’s health grew worse. During one Mass, he collapsed and had to be hospitalized. To help his recovery he was assigned to a university parish in Warsaw and served as chaplain to a medical school. One incident, which occurred during Pope John Paul II’s first visit to Poland, exemplifies the kind of man Father Jerzey was. One of three girls who were bringing the Offertory gifts to the altar at the outdoor Mass (I am only reporting here, not supporting the innovation) had a letter for the Pope. The secret police, assuming that it was from the Solidarity Union, interrupted the procession and seized the letter. Seeing this, Father Popieluszko jumped over a barrier, grabbed the letter from the police and returned it in time to the girls. Fearing the crowds the police let him go; but, he would now be high on their “public enemy” list.
A New Challenge: Warsaw
After this incident, the young priest was re-assigned to Saint Stanislaus Kostka Church in Warsaw. Among his parishioners and extended flock were the steelworkers who were, at this time, conducting strikes as members of the Solidarity Union. Something happened to Father Jerzey during this chaplaincy to the steelworkers. Although he was beloved for his humility and zeal by the students, doctors, and nurses in his previous pastorate, now he seemed to be totally consumed, on fire for his people, for their sanctity, for their families, for their social rights as workingmen. He spent every spare minute he had with the factory workers, saying Mass, preaching, hearing confessions, and encouraging them in their pursuit of a just wage and humane working conditions. He was the confessor of Lech Walesa, who headed the Solidarity Union.
The transformation from a frail and sickly priest to a thundering and eloquent preacher, and ardent antagonist to the Communist regime, was astonishing. His sermons would draw tens of thousands, and they were aired regularly on Radio Free Europe. When the country fell under martial law, his monthly “Mass for the Homeland” gave the whole country a voice that kept hope alive. More than “inconvenient,” he had become the man the Communists feared most. He was setting Poland on fire. He had to be stopped.
To Suffer for, with, and in Christ
Father Popieluszko’s strong faith was the fruit of a lifetime of prayer. It was Christ whom he saw in the suffering of the Polish people: “The trial of Jesus goes on forever,” he bellowed in a sermon, “It continues through his brothers. Only their names, their faces, their dates, and their birthplaces change. If truth becomes for us a value, worthy of suffering and risk, then we shall overcome fear – the direct reason for our enslavement.” When, in 1983, a Franciscan convent was raided by the secret police and a young student murdered by Red thugs, it was Father Jerzey whose angry voice echoed that of a nation in captivity: “this was too little for Satan [the raid on the convent]. So he went further and committed a crime so terrible that the whole of Warsaw was struck dumb with shock. He cut short an innocent life. In bestial fashion he took away a mother’s only son.” He ended by saying “This nation is not forced to its knees by any satanic power. This nation has proved that it bends the knee only to God. And for that reason we believe that God will stand up for it.”
Popieluszko’s voice was heard far beyond Poland. Michael Kaufman, the New York Times’ Warsaw Bureau Chief took noted: “Nowhere else from East Berlin to Vladivostok,” he wrote, “could anyone stand before ten or fifteen thousand people and use a microphone to condemn the errors of state and party. Nowhere, in that vast stretch encompassing some four hundred million people, was anyone else openly telling a crowd that defiance of authority was an obligation of the heart, of religion, manhood, and nationhood.”
By this time the authorities had stepped up their persecution of the “meddlesome priest.” Interrogations became routine, many nights were spent in prison, and authorities even planted subversive literature and bomb-making materials in his apartment in order to inculpate him in a charge of violent insurrection.
The Pope, hearing of the persecution, called upon the Polish hierarchy to provide more protection for Father Popieluszko. He even sent him his own Rosary as a sign of support.
On October 13, 1984, the feast of the miracle of the sun at Fatima, Father Jerzy and his driver were traveling the Gdansk-Warsaw road when someone threw something at his car that would have caused a fatal “accident” had not the driver reacted quickly to avoid a crash.
A week later on October 19, 1984, despite warnings of “serious consequences” if he did so, Father Popieluszko celebrated Mass in the northern town of Bydgoszcz. Instead of preaching a sermon, he delivered a meditation on the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Holy Rosary. His conclusion to the reflections were his last public words:
“In order to defeat evil with good, in order to preserve the dignity of man, one must not use violence. It is the person who has failed to win on the strength of his heart and his reason who tries to win by force… Let us pray that we may be free from fear and intimidation, but above all from lust for revenge and violence.”
On the return trip to Warsaw Father Jerzey’s car was blocked on a lonely road and intercepted by government security agents. His driver managed at some point to escape un-pursued; it was the priest they wanted. According to the driver’s testimony, Popieluszko was cuffed, beaten with clubs, gagged, and thrown into the trunk of one of the police cars that had cut him off. When he kept banging at the hood they opened the trunk and tied a rope around his neck and feet in such a way that if he moved his body he would choke to death. His body, which could have still been alive at the time, was thrown into the Vistula River. Ten days passed before it was found floating in the Wloclawek Reservoir. According to one priest, Father Groody, who must have questioned or read the testimony of witnesses: “The body was covered with deep wounds. His face was unrecognizable, his jaw, nose, mouth and skull were smashed. He was identified by his brother from a birthmark to the side of his chest.” The mortician who performed the post mortem said that he had never seen internal organs so damaged. “There was blood in his lungs and his kidneys and [his] intestines were reduced to pulp.”
Father Jerzey Popieluszko’s funeral was one of the largest in the history of Poland. An estimated half-million faithful attended it. His immediate killers, four policemen, were brought to trial, found guilty, and sentenced to a certain number of years in prison. The real executors, leading party members, like General Wojciech Jaruzelski, were, naturally, not implicated.
Prayer to Our Lady by Bl Jerzy Popieluszko
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 our suffering country _____, pray for us.
Mother of our faithful country _____, 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.
-from the writings of Bl Jerzy Popieluszko
“Evil can be conquered only by the one who himself is rich in good, takes care of self-development, and adorning themselves with such values that constitute the human dignity of a child of God. Multiplying good and conquering evil means looking after the dignity of a child of God, after one’s own human dignity.
Retaining dignity in order to multiply good and conquer evil means remaining internally free, even in the atmosphere of external slavery, remaining yourself in any situation. As sons of God we cannot be slaves. Our sonship carries with it the heritage of freedom. Freedom is given to man as a dimension of our greatness.
Keeping dignity in order to multiply good and conquer evil means being guided by justice in life. Justice flows from truth and love. The more truth and love there are in man, the more justice they have. Justice must coincide with love because without love one cannot be fully just. If there is a shortage of love and good, it is replaced with hate and violence.
Conquering evil with good means staying faithful to the truth. The truth is a very subtle feature of our minds. Striving for the truth was implanted in man by God Himself, therefore man is naturally oriented at the truth and reluctant to lie. The truth, just like justice, is related to love, and love costs a lot. Real love is sacrificial, therefore the truth must cost a lot as well. The truth always unites and binds people. A Christian’s duty is to stand by the truth, even if it were to cost a lot. The truth must be paid for; only chaff is free. The wheat of truth must at times be paid for.
In order to conquer evil with good, the virtue of fortitude must be taken care of. Fortitude consists in overcoming human weakness, especially fear and fright. A Christian must bear in mind that what they only ought to be fear is betraying Christ for a few pieces of silver of insipid peace. A Christian cannot be satisfied only with condemning evil, lies, cowardice, enslavement, hate, violence, but they must also be a real witness and defender of justice, goodness, truth, freedom, and love.
In order to conquer evil with good and retain human dignity, one cannot fight using violence. Who has not been able to win with heart and mind tries to win with violence. Each manifestation of violence proves moral inferiority. The most excellent and durable battles humankind and history have known are the battles of human thought. Let us pray so that we may be free from fear, intimidation, but above all from the desire to retaliate and be violent.”
Love, pray for me,