BLESSED JERZY POPIEŁUSZKO
Truth Versus Totalitarianism
By Bernard Brien, in collaboration with Charles Wright
Ignatius Press, 2018
125 pages, $14.95
Next year is the 35th anniversary of the martyrdom of Polish Father Jerzy Popiełuszko, the Solidarity chaplain beaten and drowned by communist secret police after the Jaruzelski regime declared martial law against its own people.
There are a few good books in English about Father Popiełuszko (A Martyr for the Truth, Do You Hear the Bells, Father Jerzy? and To Kill a Priest). Father Michael Wrenn translated his sermons as The Way of My Cross: Masses at Warsaw.
What’s new about Father Bernard Brien’s book is that he is the priest who witnessed the miraculous recovery of a dying man he anointed, whose cure he attributes to Father Popiełuszko’s intercession and may contribute to his canonization. He is also the priest who attributes no small part of his own delayed vocation to Father Popiełuszko, with whom he shares a birthday: Sept. 14, 1947.
Father Brien’s biography traces Father Popiełuszko’s path to the priesthood but puts its primary focus on his ministry to Polish workers during the heyday of Solidarno (1980-81) and its subsequent repression. St. John Paul II’s first pilgrimage to Poland in 1979 brought Poles together in the streets for the first time since communism was imposed on them, an experience that made them aware of their solidarity — “I am not alone in thinking my country should be different.”
That, and the Spirit John Paul invoked to “renew the face of the Earth — this land!” unleashed an unprecedented renewal that led to 1980 strikes when workers demanded better wages and the right to have Mass on radio.
The link between Catholic social teaching and the social transformation of Poland at the time was clear, and that’s where Father Popiełuszko appeared: Workers at the Warsaw steel plant asked for a priest to celebrate Mass with them as they occupied the mill. Father Popiełuszko was that priest.
His encounter with workers became his apostolate, in which he labored until martial law descended on the country in 1981. From 1981 to 1984, Father Popiełuszko turned to prayerful resistance, sustaining hope through his monthly “Masses for the Fatherland.” The liturgies situated the country’s contemporary lot against the historical background of its history, with texts from that history and culture to sustain the people’s identity and hope.
Father Popiełuszko’s resistance embodied Christian identity and nonviolence.
“The word ‘resistance’ automatically evokes images of armed struggle and underground activity. Jerzy belies that notion. ‘My weapon is truth and love,’ he used to say in speaking about his resistance to the regime. … The theater of his dissent was the modest parish of Saint Stanislaus Kostka. Nor was his resistance fomented in a smoke-filled back room: It operated in the daylight, behind the altar of the church where, from February 1982 on, he celebrated his famous ‘Masses for the fatherland.’”
That’s not to say the priest did not rise progressively on the regime’s enemies list. The communists pressured Polish primate Cardinal Józef Glemp to silence or transfer him. They harassed him relentlessly, from trailing and attacking him to planting weapons in his room to frame him.
“Over the course of 1983, Father Popiełuszko would experience countless provocations of this sort, which rubbed his nerves raw. The police decided to engage in nonstop combat in order to make him bend and reduce him to silence. There was no longer any respite for Jerzy. He could not say a word or take a step without being heard, followed and spied upon.” It culminated in his abduction, beating and drowning in October 1984.
Jerzy translates as “George.” Soon after his murder, Father Popiełuszko was depicted as St. George slaying a red dragon. His life remains relevant to a modern world desperately needing to learn what being a real social-justice warrior means: “Justice does not consist solely of liberating people from oppression and giving them a job and the means with which to live a decent life. Of course rights and material goods are necessary, but the human person is worthy of that title only when he can achieve his deeper vocation: to be united to God and to satisfy the desire for the infinite that dwells in his heart.”
John M. Grondelski, Ph.D., writes from Falls Church, Virginia.