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Thursday, October 18, 2007

Remembering Father Jerzy Popieluszko on the Anniversary of His Death


On October 19, 1984, a frail, young priest was savagely beaten and drowned by government security agents in the woods of rural Poland. The brutal death of this holy priest, carried out in the dark of night, captured the attention of the world, and his martyrdom is increasingly seen as a sacrifice leading not only to the resurrection of his own country as a free and independent nation of Christian people, but a bloody sacrifice redeeming all enslaved European peoples from the Baltic to the Urals.

Father Jerzy Popieluszko was born in 1947 on the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross, in the village of Okopy near Suchowola. His parents were farmers, and Popieluszko, like most young Poles, grew up with a profound love for the Church and a mystical love for a country whose history, culture, music and poetry are one with the Church. But it was also a time when the Church’s very existence in Poland was challenged; first with naked terror in the fifties, and then unrelenting administrative pressure in the 1960’s. As a high school student, Popieluszko kept secret his intention to become a priest for fear that the results of his examinations would be altered if his secret were known.

In 1965 Poland was celebrating its 1000 years of Christianity. In response to the festivities, the government pressured priests to form a schismatic National Catholic Church; they banned religious instruction in schools, taxed churches and seminaries, and severely restricted foreign travel for clergy. It was in that year also, that Jerzy Popieluszko entered the seminary. However, as part of the government’s campaign against the Church, he and his entire class were conscripted into the Army. Serving in an indoctrination unit in Bartoszyce, Popieluszko came to know in his own body the evil of a godless state. When it was discovered that he was carrying a Rosary, he was ordered to throw it to the ground and stamp on it. He refused, was badly beaten, and spent a month in a punishment cell. On another occasion he was ordered to remove a medal of Our Lady that he had worn since receiving it as a gift for his First Communion. Again he refused and was ordered to stand in the rain, barefoot, for many hours. These repeated punishments were endured quietly and bravely, but had a long-term effect on his health.

Finally resuming his seminary studies, he was seen as ordinary, frail, and “not spectacular,” but was ordained by Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski on May 28, 1972. By 1978 his Army punishments were taking a toll and he collapsed while saying Mass. To assist his recovery, Popieluszko was assigned to a parish attached to a university where he served as chaplain to medical students, and eventually became the chaplain to the nurses and doctors of Warsaw. In this role, Father Popieluszko’s courage again came to the attention of the authorities during a Papal Mass said by John Paul II during his first visit to Poland after becoming Pope. According to Father Peter Groody, “A letter was being taken to the Pope by three young girls during the Offertory procession. The letter was taken from them by the Secret Police. Father Jerzy saw this and jumped a barrier, retrieved the letter and gave it back to the girls.”

When he was transferred to St. Stanislaus Kostka Church in May 1978, the students, nurses and doctors moved with him. While serving at that parish, Father Popieluszko was asked to become chaplain to the steel works in Warsaw at about the time of the first Solidarity strikes. Father Jerzy stayed with the workers night and day, heard confessions, offered Mass, and became the spiritual director to Lech Walesa who would ultimately lead the Solidarity Union and serve as President of a free Poland. It was during these years when the “not so spectacular seminary student” found his voice, acquired a new eloquence and charisma, and became the spiritual foundation for a peaceful revolution that would eventually change the world. In uniting himself totally with the persecuted, suffering, faithful people of Poland, Popieluszko united himself with the suffering of Christ that continues through His Mystical Body. His priesthood took on new meaning and he became, as never before, an alter Christus in the eyes of the people he served.

After the imposition of martial law, Father Jerzy began a monthly “Mass for the Fatherland” that was attended by tens of thousands of Poles who packed the seats inside and surrounded the church outside listening to the young priest over loudspeakers. His message echoed that of the great Polish Pope in Rome: “Vanquish evil with good,” he implored. He also made clear that people of faith have a moral duty to resist evil, asking, “Whose side will you take? The side of good or the side of evil? Truth or falsehood? Love or hatred?

Father Popieluszko asked the people “to include God in the difficult and powerful problems of the country” and he rebuked “the abuse of human rights and freedom of conscience."

Like so many of Poland’s great freedom fighters, he compared the sufferings of Poland to those of Christ: “The trial of Jesus goes on forever. It continues through his brothers. Only their names, their faces, their dates, and their birth places change.” Like the Pope he loved, Popieluszko knew that fear lay at the root of his country’s enslavement. He said, “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 May 1983 a student, Grzegorz Przemyk, was brutally murdered by the Security Police, Father Popieluszko spoke boldly about the outrages being carried out against the people of Poland. Referring to the use of water cannons and a raid on a Franciscan Convent, he said “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.” He concluded 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.”

For his May 1982 Mass for the Fatherland, Father Popieluszko composed a new Litany to Our Lady of Czestochowa:
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
Michael Kaufman, the New York Times’ Warsaw Bureau Chief recognized the courage, audacity and importance of Popieluszko’s message when he wrote: “Nowhere else from East Berlin to Vladivostok 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.”

Among the tens of thousands of Poles listening to the voice of the brave, young priest were government agents who recognized that their position and privilege were threatened by the truth being powerfully proclaimed.

In 1983 the persecution of Father Popieluszko became routine. He was frequently called to police headquarters for interrogations, spent many nights in prison, his car was vandalized, his apartment was broken into, and the authorities even planted subversive literature and bomb making materials in his apartment.

During these trials, the Holy Father asked aides why the Church in Poland was not providing greater support and protection for the priest. To show his own solidarity, the Pope sent Father Popieluszko his own Rosary.

On October 13, 1984 there was an unsuccessful attempt on his life. Father Jerzy and his driver were traveling the Gdansk-Warsaw road when something was thrown at his car that would have caused it to crash. The driver swerved the car and avoided what could have been a fatal “accident”.

Despite warnings that there could be “serious consequences” if he preached in the northern town of Bydgoszcz a week later on October 19, 1984, he celebrated Mass and instead of preaching led the people in 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."
Government security agents who are believed to have been in that congregation followed the priest and his driver for about an hour on the return journey to Warsaw. On a lonely stretch of road they stopped the car, arrested, gagged and bound the driver and put him in the unmarked police car. Father Popieluszko asked, “Gentlemen, what are you doing?”

According to Father Groody:

“The ‘police’ beat him senseless with clubs and their fists and threw him into the boot of their car and drove off. Father Jerzy recovered consciousness and began to shout and bang on the boot of the car. They stopped to gag him but Father Jerzy managed to escape. He was recaptured and again beaten with clubs. A second time he regained consciousness and this time the officers tied him with ropes around his neck and ankles in such a way that if he moved his feet, the rope would tighten around his neck. They also stuffed his mouth with material and secured it with sticking plaster, which also covered his nose thus restricting his breathing even more. The senior officer ordered that stones should be tied to his feet and returned him to the car boot. They then drove to a dam on the Wisia River where they removed Father Jerzy from the boot and threw him into the water. Forensic experts later stated that at this point he may have still been alive.

The body of Father Popieluszko was retrieved ten days later from the Wloclawek Reservoir. 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. One of the doctors who performed the post mortem said that he had never seen such violent injuries. There was blood in his lungs and his kidneys and
intestines were reduced to pulp.”

The funeral of Father Popieluszko was attended by nearly a half million people. Pope John Paul II and leaders from throughout the world have prayed at his grave, and on February 8, 1997 his cause for beatification was introduced.

On the twenty-first anniversary of Father Popieluszko’s murder, U.S. Ambassador to Poland Victor Ashe stated:

“It is right and just to commemorate the death of Father Jerzy Popieluszko. Father Popieluszko was a true, modern-day, Polish hero and martyr, who died in the struggle for freedom in his beloved Poland. His courageous support for Solidarity in the face of oppression is an inspiration to all freedom loving people around the world. It is a consolation to all of us in Poland today, especially to Father Popieluszko’s church, parishioners, family and friends, that his sacrifice will be remembered forever and that his flame will burn brightly in the pantheon of Polish heroes.”

Born on the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross, Father Popieluszko wholeheartedly took up the heavy cross set before him, and in so doing, his life became a sermon and sacrifice that has freed nations and inspired all men who love truth and freedom.


Father Popieluszko, your “death has opened our eyes, the eyes of our hearts, our minds and our faith.” Pray for us, O Holy Servant of God!

5 comments:

Ezekiel Amann said...

WOW!!! Glory to God the Father!

Anonymous said...

I am so blessed to have read of this. What an example he is of faith in action. Thanks be to God.

Anonymous said...

God bless Father Jerzy!

Anonymous said...

After 25 years after His death his murders are still free... Not judged, not punished...

Anonymous said...

his beautification is this June :)