Martyr of a Modern Era
Clare Anderson explores the life and heroism of Jerzy Popieluzko
In Czestochowa, the Marian shrine that is Poland’s spiritual heart, is an oversized statue of a priest who at irst glance seems to have no arms. One has to walk around it to realise that his hands are tied tightly behind his back. At the foot are the simple words ‘Bl. Jerzy Popieluszko, 1947-1984’. For Poles, this needs no more explanation. The tens of thousands of pilgrims who come to this place know exactly who he was and why he died.
There is a monument in Suchowola, a small village in north- eastern Poland, which marks it as the geographical heart of Europe. A mile or so away is the hamlet of Okopy, where Alfons Popieluszko was born in the year that the Soviet Union imposed Communism on Poland. His parents were subsistence farmers who, like others, had been forced by their new masters to give some of their land to the state so while they were never hungry, they lived extremely simply.
From the start, it was clear that young Alfons would never be a farmer; sickly from birth, he was baptised swiftly as his chances of life were not hopeful. During her pregnancy, Marianna Popieluszko had prayed that the baby would have a religious vocation, invoking the intercession of St Alphonsus Liguori, after whom she named her child.
Like many Poles, the Popieluszkos were intensely Catholic and patriotic. The children were expected to help in the ields and do their share of the chores. Twice a day the family prayed together, and there were extra devotions for the time of year.
In this remote location the education system was not yet fully controlled by the atheistic government. So young Alfons was taught largely by believers, and the classroom reinforced what he had learned at home. Each day he walked, whatever the weather, to serve the 7am Mass before school. From all accounts Marianna was a very strong woman whose life was entirely permeated by her faith. Shortly before leaving school, Alfons told his parents that he wished to train as a priest.
His parish priest suggested the nearby seminary, but Alfons wanted go to Warsaw. His application letter, preserved in the museum dedicated to his life, is signiicant. He wishes to be accepted for the seminary because he has “great respect for the profession”. The Polish is written in a naive and uneducated style, revealing a lot about the prospective priest at this stage in his life. In Warsaw he seemed very much the country bumpkin. To sophisticated city people his surname had a rustic, almost comical sound, rather as it does to English ears, and his forename, Alfons, which he had never really liked, was in Warsaw a slang word for a pimp. It would have to go. So Alfons became Jerzy, after Saint George.
Jerzy had been an average student at school but worked hard. He had appeared something of a loner in the village. Now in the seminary, he opened up more, making friends who would remain close for the rest of his short life.
Army life and then ordination
Life had never been easy for Jerzy – born sickly into a peasant family where hard physical labour was part of daily life, he had done his chores uncomplainingly. Now he was to be tested to the limits of his limited strength. Despite a government promise that seminarians would be exempt, Jerzy was required to serve two years military service.
Seminarians were bullied, attempts made to crush them and force them to abandon their vocation. Punished for refusing the destroy his rosary, Jerzy was beaten and made to stand barefoot for hours in the snow. Yet this harsh treatment only served to make him stronger, to overcome fear.
Ordained priest in May 1972 by Cardinal Wyszinski, he was sent to a Warsaw parish and quickly became popular with young people. His own frail health helped him to empathise with the sick and he was a familiar sight at the local hospital. He established a rosary youth group who prayed and collected gifts for the poor.
Polish clergy were moved several times at the outset of their ministry, giving them experience before running parishes of their own. In 1979, in his third placement, Fr Jerzy fainted at Mass and was taken to hospital. Treated for pernicious anaemia, it seemed that this young priest lacked the physical stamina for parish work.
Thus, Fr Jerzy became a chaplain to medical students. This was especially congenial to him as he was already saying a weekly Mass for nurses, attendance growing from a handful to a thriving group which also met in his rooms to discuss ethical problems. Fr Jerzy was active in prolife work and although he promoted it tirelessly, he still remained under the radar of the authorities.
Pope John Paul II’s first visit to Poland changed everything. The authorities had tried to downplay the thrilling news of his election, but it had proved impossible to deny him the right to visit his own country. Everywhere he was greeted with elation, people falling to their knees weeping as he passed.
For a few days in 1979 Warsaw became the focus of the Catholic world. A great cross was erected in Victory Square under which Pope John Paul II said Mass. The crowds were huge. It was the feast of Pentecost and during his sermon the Pope called on the Holy Spirit to fall again “on this land! This land!”
If there was a pivotal moment in the history of the late 20th century, this was surely it. A tipping point had been reached, although no one would yet know it. Emboldened by the support of the Polish Pope and inspired anew by the Spirit, people sensed that change was possible. It wasn’t that the Holy Father preached this: he didn’t need to. He spoke of human rights, and of the dignity of work and workers. His words touched the hearts of a tired people, filling them with vigour and hope.
This was especially true for the priests. John Paul inspired them to emulate him, and to study his writings. For Fr Jerzy, shaped by the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, the papal visit conirmed his commitment to serving ordinary Polish workers. Unfortunately his health was weaker than his spirit and again he was exhausting himself. It was decided to move him again. In May 1980 he was sent as assistant priest to the parish of St Stanislaw Kostka in the district of Zoliborz. It was a post normally given to priests on the cusp of retirement.
Such was Fr Jerzy’s popularity that many of the medical workers and students came with him as did artists and actors. The papal visit had inspired artists and film makers to rediscover their faith and many started coming to Mass alongside the factory workers. But Poland as a nation was still in the grip of Marxism. The authorities, facing economic problems, decided to raise the price of meat. The workers’ response was swift; they went on strike, demanding a rise in wages. By August, the Solidarity movement was born.
Trade unions were supposed to be unnecessary in a socialist state and none existed outside communist control. The workers at the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk had listed twenty-one demands, including the right to strike, freedom of speech and a guaranteed pension. What had begun as a local trade union began to attract people from all walks of life until about ten million people, a quarter of Polish adults, had joined. The government was forced to accept the ‘Gdansk Agreement’. But it was to be a false dawn. At the end of 1981, the government of General Jaruzelski declared martial law, banning trade unions and jailing leaders including Lech Walesa.
In the summer of 1980 striking workers occupying the Warsaw steel plant requested a priest to celebrate Sunday Mass for them and Fr Jerzy volunteered. The frail and shy young priest nervously approached the steel plant gates. He wrote: “I went there jittering . . . how would the workers receive me? And then at the gates I began to feel astonished. The crowds of people were smiling and crying at the same time, and clapping. At irst I thought that there was someone important right behind me. But they were applauding me.” Fr Jerzy found that everything had been perfectly prepared for Mass. He stayed a day and a night, hearing confessions, speaking with the men. Many were mentally and physically exhausted from the strain of the strike.
Freedom for the workers
When the strike was over, the workers requested a chaplaincy and were assigned the parish of Stanislaw Kostka. If this was to be one step towards freedom for the workers, it was transformative for Fr Jerzy. He had found his true work in life, and from then until his death, he would dedicate all to this. According to one friend, he was like a man in love.
Popieluszko’s own reputation began to grow. His contact with leading socials in Solidarity gave him an image of one in the know. When he began to say the Masses for the Homeland during the martial law period, people came to hear what he had to say, and perhaps to learn what was going on. From a shy country lad with, apparently, no preaching ability beyond the average, he was suddenly a leading igure. Huge crowds gathered at the church for the Homeland Masses, people streaming out into the churchyard and the streets around. Radio Free Europe broadcast his sermons making him a figurehead for the resistance, and bringing him to the attention of the secret services.
With public protests banned, people of all beliefs came to the Masses, including Jewish people and atheists. Witnesses afterwards spoke of a special atmosphere, a profound sense of God’s presence. Fr Jerzy’s sermons were inspirational, “I base my sermons on the teaching of Pope John Paul II and of the late Cardinal Wyszynski. My strategy is founded on the fight against hatred, for the dignity of human labour. My weapons are truth and love” he explained.
Always he was insistent on the need for peaceful protest, citing John Paul’s quotation from the Scriptures not to repay evil with evil but with good. “Let us ofer a sign of peace and not be led by a feeling of hatred” he might say during Mass.
“Whose side will you take?” he challenged his listeners both present and via the radio: “The side of good or the side of evil? Truth or falsehood? Love or hatred?”
When in May 1983 a young student was beaten to death by the security police, Fr Jerzy spoke out about recent outrages, which included a raid on a convent. “This was too little for Satan. 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 . . . 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.” This prophecy would come true, but only after much more sufering.
As well as the monthly Masses for the Homeland, Fr Jerzy was organising relief for the families of striking workers – clothes, money and food. Lorries full of donated clothing
Christ was a worker, and Christ sufered. Poland understood this at its deepest level.
began to arrive from as far as Britain, and the drivers were always ofered food and a bed for the night. Government soldiers posted outside the presbytery were, at Fr Jerzy’s request, given hot food and a drink. Forgotten was his ill- health; he could not aford to be unwell. He slept and ate
very little, his shoes did not it him as he had given his own away and was using a random pair from an aid package. But his was not a secular ministry. The Papal visit had energised and revitalised the church in Poland and people were coming back to it. Christ was a worker, and Christ sufered. Poland understood this at its deepest level.
Among hundreds of letters which Fr Jerzy received, came a few that were not so friendly. He started to get threats. His car was vandalised and he was constantly followed. Thugs threw a bomb into his apartment intending to kill him. Union members swiftly provided him with a bodyguard and a driver. Taking a tattered
“A priest is taken from the people and ordained for the people in order to serve them.
So the duty of a priest is to be always with the people in both good and bad times”.
cassock home to his mother for repair, Fr Jerzy told her to keep it, in case anything happened to him. She would have something to remember him by.
For a man who was not by nature physically brave, Fr Jerzy’s actions are remarkable. He seemed to set aside all thoughts of himself and his likely fate. He was the only priest to accompany strikers and their families to the courtroom. During a temporary imprisonment he ministered to the criminals, spending a night counselling a murderer and eventually hearing his confession. As he said: “A priest is taken from
the people and ordained for the people in order to serve them. So the duty of a priest is to be always with the people in both good and bad times.”
By 1984 the Polish secret service was desperate to put an end to the problem of Fr Popieluszko. He was reputedly the most hated of all the people they were following; because of him many of them had to give up their weekends and free time. A car accident was staged, but failed, thanks to the skill of Fr Jerzy’s driver.
Then, on 19th October, on returning from saying a night Mass in Bydgoszcz, Fr Jerzy’s car was ambushed and he was kidnapped. His driver managed to escape and desperately tried to raise the alarm, but was dismissed as a drunk.
Fr Jerzy was never seen alive again. People across Poland began to meet and pray for his safe release. Vigils were organised and newspapers as far as the USA carried news of his disappearance. Until the last minute people trusted that their beloved Fr Popieluszko would be found. Then eleven days later his bound and gagged body was discovered. His clothing weighted with stones, he had been dumped into a reservoir on the Vistula river.
The entire country went into deep mourning. About a quarter of a million people came to his funeral in the church in Zoliborz, including Lech Wałesa and the dead priest’s grieving parents. There was no violence from the vast crowds. Nationally, there were demands that the guilty should be identified and punished. This was not a murder that could be conveniently “forgotten” by the authorities.
Three secret service agents were subsequently tried and imprisoned for the murder, claiming to have acted independently of orders. We will never know for certain what happened during those eleven days. It was alleged that Fr Jerzy was beaten to death after a failed
Fr Jerzy’s frail body was like one giant bruise, with severe trauma to his internal organs. attempt at escape from the boot of a car. Fr Jerzy’s frail body was like one giant bruise, with severe trauma to his internal organs. Some believe he was tortured for a prolonged period and may not have been dead when his body was thrown into the water.
He was beatified in June 2010 by Pope Benedict, in the presence of Marianna, Fr Jerzy’s widowed mother.
Clare Anderson is co-author of a book on the life and spirituality of St John Paul II