Blessed Jerzy Popiełuszko, a Martyr of Our Times

Blessed Jerzy Popiełuszko was killed Oct. 19, 1984.

Andrzej Iwański
Andrzej Iwański (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Oct. 19 marks the 35th anniversary of the kidnapping of Bl. Jerzy Popiełuszko (1947-1984). The young priest, chaplain of the Polish “Solidarity” trade union, was taken by Communist secret police while returning to Warsaw from a prayer service in Bydgoszcz. He and his driver were seized, although the driver managed to get away. Popiełuszko was thrown into the trunk. His attempts to escape resulted in his being beaten to unconsciousness. Eventually, he was revived, tortured and executed by being tied in such a way that his movements tightened the noose on his neck. Bound and with rocks attached to him, he was thrown over a dam on the Vistula River to drown. His body was recovered Oct. 30.

It was not the first attack on Popiełuszko. There had been an attempt to kill him just days earlier, when a rock was hurled at his windshield. Earlier, weapons had been planted in his rectory room to paint him an enemy of the state. He had already been “interviewed” by the prosecutor.

Popiełuszko’s “crimes” were to stand up for his people’s unalienable rights: their right to associate, their right to form free labor unions, their right to their culture. He was adamant about the non-violent nature of his resistance: the young priest took St. Paul’s motto, “Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).

Solidarity was a threat to the socialist regime in Poland, both from the viewpoints of its citizens (exposing the hypocrisy of a self-described regime of “workers and peasants” whom the workers rejected) as well as of the Soviet Union (from which the Warsaw Communists feared “fraternal assistance” on the lines of 1956 in Hungary or 1968 in Czechoslovakia). The Warsaw Communists had hoped they extinguished Solidarity when General Wojciech Jaruzelski declared war on his own country, imposing martial law Dec. 13, 1981. Solidarity activists were jailed; the union was made illegal; and its name was to be unspoken.

Fr. Popiełuszko didn’t get that memo.

While active with Solidarity during its legality (August 1980-December 1981), he also became active when it was banned. His chosen weapon: prayer.

Fr. Popiełuszko became the primary celebrant of a monthly “Mass for the Homeland” at St. Stanisław Church in Warsaw. The Mass was offered for the intention of the interned and killed as well as for Poland, its people, and even its oppressors. His monthly homilies focused on basic human rights, reminding people that at least some of their rights preexist and do not depend on any government. These include the right to associate with others.

The popularity of Fr. Popiełuszko’s efforts and his preaching spread like wildfire across Poland, with growing crowds at the monthly Mass for the Homeland. Far from consigning Solidarity to historical oblivion, the frail priest had in fact kept the movement on center stage. Neither persuasion nor intimidation could divert him.

From the perspective of the West and the downed Iron Curtain, we might instinctively align ourselves with Popiełuszko’s work. But it’s always easy to be a Monday morning quarterback.

In October 1984, few people would have expected that, five years later, Poland would be emerging from its 45-year-long nightmare of communism. In October 1984, septuagenarian Konstantin Chernenko had recently succeeded KGB boss Yuri Andropov as head of the Soviet Union. Iron hands (even if a bit sclerotic) seemed to be the pattern of the day.

From the legal viewpoint, Popiełuszko was the focus of prosecutorial interest. The December 1983 launch of a prosecutorial investigation focused on his “abuse of freedom of conscience and religion by... [saying in his sermons] that the government makes use of falsehoods, hypocrisy, and lies and by antidemocratic legislation destroys human dignity…”

Caesar has always found freedom of conscience to be problematic. Acknowledging, as Vatican II does, that “conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God…” (Gaudium et spes, # 16) means recognizing that man has other allegiances besides Caesar, and that Caesar’s claim upon him is relativized. Scripture may command giving Caesar what is Caesar’s and God what is God’s, but God always remains God and always remains over Caesar. Indeed, just as Caesar’s lawmaking is inherently circumscribed, so is man’s himself: “In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience” (Gaudium et spes, ibid). Conscience is sacred, but human dignity comes from God.

The American Founding recognized this in admitting that people are “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” which, when Caesar violates them, forfeits his claim of obedience. Caesar, however, is prone to apotheosis: arrogating sovereignty to himself, he insists that he will adjudicate when conscience has a claim and when it does not.

To this, Jerzy Popiełuszko answered: no. Fr. Popiełuszko was not detached from reality: he knew quite well the geopolitical realities in which he and his country found themselves. But he also recognized, as Václav Havel would later put it, that man need not “live in the lie.” Caesar might still be there, but he should not be confused with God, much less flattered as a beneficent deity.

Popiełuszko did not call for violence; indeed, he explicitly called for countering evil with good. He did not call for violence, but he was a revolutionary: he called for a revolution of conscience that refused to “live in the lie.” He called for a revolution of conscience that recognized human rights as the gift of God, not government. He called for a revolution of the spirit that recognized that human dignity came from being made in the image and likeness of God.

Today, rights of conscience are increasingly becoming a controversial topic in the West itself, as Caesar seeks to impose his own values as the price of citizenship. Perhaps we are not called to the same witness as Fr. Popiełuszko, but his example for the rights of conscience should inspire us. He saw in man more than just matter: he saw in man the image of Him to whom he owed his supreme allegiance, and which he served faithfully unto death.

Would we be ready to stand up for those rights when Caesar denies them, indeed, is ready to penalize those who defy him?

Fr. Popiełuszko’s feast coincides with the feast of the North American Martyrs, French Jesuits martyred for the faith in the 17th century. In many ways, the deaths of Isaac Jogues, Jean de Brébeuf et al. were as sadistic as Popiełuszko’s. The North American Martyrs also bore witness to God by recognizing the noble calling of those with whom they lived and among whom they died. The priest-martyr remains a particular treasure of the Church.

All views contained herein are exclusively those of the author.