Remembering a Young Martyr, Blessed Jerzy Popiełuszko

COMMENTARY: The young priest’s contribution to the peaceful demolition of the Iron Curtain was critical.

Blessed Jerzy Popiełuszko celebrates Mass in the 1980s; below, his grave is a place of pilgrimage.
Blessed Jerzy Popiełuszko celebrates Mass in the 1980s; below, his grave is a place of pilgrimage. (photo: Public domain/Wikimedia)
It’s hard to imagine that, had Father Jerzy Popiełuszko lived, he’d be 72. Death fixes our memories of people outside time, and so we remember the gaunt face of Father Popiełuszko, chaplain and patron of the Solidarity movement, as the 37-year-old Polish priest brutally murdered by the communist secret police. That was 35 years ago: Kidnapped Oct. 19, his body was fished out of a Vistula River reservoir Oct. 30, 1984. He was beatified in 2010.

Father Popiełuszko was returning to his home parish in Warsaw when his car was flagged down by secret police, who seized the priest and threw him into the trunk of their car. The priest’s driver escaped to tell the story of the abduction to the world. Father Popiełuszko was later beaten and tortured, then bound in such a way that however he moved would help strangle him. Weighed down with rocks, he was thrust into a reservoir to drown.

This was not the first attempt on his life. A week earlier, a rock had been thrown into his windshield. Weapons were planted in his rectory apartment.


Workers’ Priest

The young priest earned the ire of Poland’s communist dictatorship because of his defense of worker’s rights. The free trade union Solidarity was born in the summer of 1980, a year after St. John Paul II’s historic first visit to his homeland.

Many attribute Solidarity’s birth to the experience of that pilgrimage. Poland’s communists had done everything they could to divide and atomize Polish society, to make Poles afraid.

In 1979, for the first time since World War II, Poles stood together across their country — this time to welcome their native son, Pope John Paul II. People in Poland realized that they were not alone, that many of their neighbors had the same hopes and thoughts they did. Together, in Solidarity, they could change some things.

When Polish workers went on strike in the summer of 1980, they occupied their workplaces in various places across Poland. The most famous occupation was of the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, but a strike in place also occurred at the Warsaw steel mill.

The religious aspect of Solidarity was obvious from the start. Among its famous strike demands to which Poland’s communists eventually gave in was agreeing to broadcast Sunday Mass on state radio.

Father Popiełuszko got involved with Solidarity when the Warsaw steel mill strikers asked for a priest to come to hear confessions and say Mass for them. Poles still remembered the bloody repression of the December 1970 strikes on the Baltic Coast, and workers wanted to be prepared should events repeat themselves. Thus began the young priest’s involvement with workers.


Solidarity and Resistance

Solidarity continued for 16 more months, until Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law on Poland, Dec. 13, 1981. The union was banned, its leaders and many of its members interned. Thus began the second phase of Father Popiełuszko’s ministry.

The Solidarity chaplain began organizing charitable assistance for families whose members were jailed. His most lasting work — and the one that likely led to his eventual martyrdom — was his “Masses for the Homeland.”

Starting in January 1982, Father Popiełuszko began celebrating a monthly “Mass for the Homeland” at St. Stanislaus Kostka Church in Warsaw. The Masses were an opportunity to pray for those who had been killed or were still in prison under martial law. It was also a chance to support their families and for ordinary Poles to demonstrate their convictions in a peaceful, nonviolent and apolitical manner.

Father Popiełuszko would celebrate the Masses through September 1984; Father Teofil Bogucki, his pastor, continued them after the young priest’s death.

The Masses themselves are masterful combinations of the liturgy with Polish culture, perfect examples of inculturation in the name of social justice. Traditional hymns and other texts, drawn from the riches of Polish literature, combined with the liturgy to affirm themes that the Church has always emphasized: liberty, freedom of conscience, justice and workers’ rights. (The homilies were translated by New York priest Msgr. Michael Wrenn in The Way of My Cross: Masses at Warsaw (Chicago: Regnery, 1986). Father Popiełuszko took as his motto St. Paul’s injunction: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).


The Red Dragon Slayed

The popularity of the Masses grew from month to month, as did the Communist Party’s discontent with the young priest. Pressure was brought on the Archdiocese of Warsaw to silence him. State repression also followed, as agents attended Mass to make notes of the content of his homilies and observe who came.

Already in 1983, prosecutors brought charges against the young priest for his “anti-state” remarks and the “abuse of the function of a priest.”

After his murder, Father Popiełuszko’s tortured body was buried at St. Stanislaus, where his grave remains a point of pilgrimage even today. Very quickly, the motif of St. George (“Jerzy” in Polish means George) — the slaying of the Red (communist) dragon — became associated with the martyred priest.

Blessed Jerzy Popiełuszko was perhaps the most famous, but not the only, Polish priest to perish during the 1980s for his advocacy of workers’ rights. Nor should we forget, 30 years after the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and subsequent fall of the Berlin Wall, that clergy played important roles in the peaceful revolution of 1989.

From the support of Solidarity by the Catholic Church in Poland generally to the work of priests like Father Józef Tischner; from the pastors who organized Monday night demonstrations against the East German regime at Leipzig’s Lutheran churches to the resistance of Reformed pastor László Tokés against Romania’s communists; from the underground work of Slovak priests like the future Cardinal Ján Korec to the role of Czech Father Tomáš Halík in the Velvet Revolution, the clergy’s role in the peaceful demolition of the Iron Curtain was critical.

But the whole process harks back 35 years to a young, gaunt Polish priest, beaten, tortured and drowned for workers’ rights.

His process for canonization is underway in Poland and France (where a miraculous healing is attributed to his intercession); his liturgical celebration is on Oct. 19 — coinciding in this country with the North American Martyrs.

Read more about Blessed Jerzy here.

John M. Grondelski writes

from Falls Church, Virginia.

All views expressed herein are exclusively the author’s.