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Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko’s Long Road

The life and times of the young Polish priest martyred by the Communists regime in 1984

Hello from Krakow. I spent my last morning in Warsaw visiting the grave of the Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko, and the small museum next to it celebrating his life and death. The museum is connected to the Warsaw parish, St. Stanislaus Kostka, where Father Jerzy was serving at the time of his 1984 murder by the Communist secret police. He was 37 years old.

I was in high school when Father Jerzy’s assassination made international headlines. All I remembered about him was that he had been killed by the secret police because they considered him a threat to the regime, that he is revered as a martyr of Communism, and that his name sounded strange to the ears of English speakers (it’s pronounced “pop-eh-WOOSH-ko”).

As I would learn this morning, Father Jerzy – soon to be St. Jerzy Popieluszko, as the Catholic Church has documented proof of a miracle it attributes to his intercession – is one of the keys to this book I’m working on. Let me explain.

Father Jerzy is buried under a large stone cross laid on the lawn outside the parish. It is surrounded by boulders. It took me a couple of minutes to realize that they symbolize rosary beads, and that the cross stands for the rosary’s crucifix. The gravesite’s design emphasizes that Father Jerzy died in unity with Christ. Additionally, the layout of the rosary “beads” forms the shape of Poland.

In the museum’s lobby, my interpreter Lukasz and I waited for Pawel Keska, the manager for the development of the museum, and of documentation of the life of Father Jerzy. As we waited, I met a couple of American nuns from the Sisters Of Life, a pro-life order started by New York’s Cardinal John O’Connor. The sisters were accompanying a group of young American women from Focus, the Catholic college ministry, on a Polish pilgrimage. When Pawel arrived, he led us to a table in the museum cafeteria, and our interview began.

“I’ve been working here for two years. I’m a journalist and a theologian. And I have been thinking for two years why this person is important,” Pawel said. “And I see how important he is. Since Father Popieluszko’s death, his grave has been visited by 23 million people. Why? It’s still a mystery to me that I try to solve.”

(Note: in Polish, they use the term “Priest Popieluzsko,” which is how Pawel referred to him in conversation. In English, that sounds cold and harsh — which is not how it sounds to Polish ears. I have mostly rendered it “Father Jerzy” below, because that better conveys the spirit in which my interlocutor spoke about the priest.)

The first witness to the priest’s life that Pawel met told him a story that a million Poles turned out for the murdered cleric’s funeral there at St. Stanislaus Kostka parish. (Official estimates are 250,000, but many Poles say that’s an official number released by the Communist regime, which vastly underestimated the number for political reasons; the museum maintains that the number is between 250,000 and one million.) The Communist regime sent soldiers to Warsaw to ensure that the funeral wouldn’t turn into a revolutionary insurrection. Cardinal Jozef Glemp, the nation’s primate, said the funeral mass, and Solidarity trade union leader Lech Walesa was one of the eulogists.

“The witness told me in that massive crowd he saw a police car,” said Pawel. “People were slamming their hands down on the car, shouting, ‘We forgive! We forgive!’” In that is an answer for the situation that our world is in now.”

Pawel had a second story for me. In a big city like Warsaw, a big city of big crowds and big historical events, it’s easy to forget the potential significance of tiny places, far off the beaten track. Two weeks ago, he accompanied a group of young pilgrims to the small rural village in eastern Poland where Father Jerzy was born. The district is so poor that when the priest, who was born just after the Second World War, had to study by candlelight, because there was no electricity. Pawel’s group met Father Jerzy’s brother, who still lives there, and is now an elderly man reluctant to receive pilgrims.

“The village is very ordinary – there’s nothing spiritual there,” said Pawel. “In the home where Father Jerzy lived, there’s one room that has been set apart as a kind of museum, but all the items there are under a thick veil of dust. By the wall is a small table, covered with a kind of plastic sheet. There was a small piece of paper with handwriting on it, written by Father Jerzy’s brother. It said, Every day near the table we were praying with our mother. There was a photo of that mother as an old, tired woman. On the other side of that piece of paper was a reliquary with Father Jerzy’s relics.”

“And that’s the answer,” Pawel concluded, speaking of both stories. “The whole strength of that man, and what we need today for our identity.”

What he meant was that Father Jerzy became a figure of enormous historical significance for the Polish nation and the Catholic Church – and indeed will soon be canonized – but it all started there in a dull village in the middle of nowhere, with a faithful family that prayed every day together.

Pawel said that when he leads tour groups of students through the museum, in the room devoted to Father Jerzy’s youth, he emphasizes that the future saint and national hero was a hard-working student, but did not achieve high marks.

“When he was studying at seminary, he barely passed his exams. He was trying to learn a lot, but he simply wasn’t an intellectual,” said the researcher. “Students start to be interested in the man because he was like many of them. Intellect is not what it’s all about.”

“The answer to our problems in modernity is not in the intellect,” Pawel continued. “The answer is somewhere deeper, more profound. Father Jerzy’s strength was perfection in human relations. He loved life. He loved people. It was really hard during the Communist period to cultivate such simple values as honesty, and being kind with others. That was an exam he passed with flying colors. He was constantly challenged, but he constantly upheld his values, till the very end of his life.”

It has been 35 years since Father Jerzy’s murder, and two decades since Communism fell. Pawel sees a change in the mentality of the museum’s visitors – a widening chasm between the generations of Poles who come here.

Fewer and fewer people remember Communism. For those who do, it’s [the priest’s] martyrdom that’s the most important aspect of his story. It’s also a story of Polish nationalism. For them, there’s no distinction between Polish national identity and the Catholic faith. For younger people, though, it’s not so simple. We are trying to find a new way to tell the story of the priest Popieluszko to them. We are developing a narrative based on the most fundamental values, things like faith, identity, and responsibility. The young people who don’t remember Communism, they are coming for something else. They are looking for a guide in their life.”

European pilgrims who visit Father Jerzy’s grave and his museum live in a highly secular world. They are typically looking for a guide to teach them how to be faithful in a godless society. The Americans who come are often more devoted, but they’re also searching, Pawel said.

“Everybody comes for something different here, but the best thing is that they find it.”

On the fence separating Father Jerzy’s gravesite from the street hang banners from Solidarity chapters around Poland. Though he was not a member of the trade union, the priest’s life and death is inseparable from Solidarity’s own.

“Father Jerzy lived in a time when everything was politicized,” Pawel said. “The Church in Poland in that time didn’t declare publicly its involvement with Solidarity. It wanted to underline that they were separate things. Father Jerzy stood up in defense of the people of Solidarity, of which he was an honorary member. He was considered to be Solidarity’s chaplain.

The young priest faced harsh accusations about his political associations both from within the Communist regime and the Catholic Church. Once Cardinal Glemp questioned him critically about his labors in the public sphere. Though Father Jerzy never openly criticized the Church hierarchy, he confided to his diary that this experience was even more difficult to endure than his interrogation by the secret police.

The point is not that Father Jerzy was not political. He certainly was. But he did not set out to be political, and didn’t operate like a political person. Still, he had a political effect.

“When we look at the photos of his masses, and search the crowd, we see the faces of people who later became the most important politicians in Poland,” Pawel said. “But Father Jerzy never tried to create political networks.”

Fr. Jerzy officiates at a funeral mass held for a teenager who had been killed by the state police

Once when laborers at the Warsaw iron works went on strike, they invited Father Jerzy to say mass for them. Said Pawel: “He was a simple man, they were simple men, so they understand each other well.

“It wasn’t long after that that martial law was imposed, and a lot of the men who participated in that strike were sent to prison. Father Popieluszko supported them. He sent them packages in prison. He defended them in his sermons. He went to their court hearings, so he could look the judges right in the eye. These weren’t political activities; this was just human relations.”

The young priest quickly gained a reputation for being a man one could turn to for help. Perhaps more importantly, he inspired those he helped to respond to the crisis within Polish society by helping others. After the 1981 imposition of martial law, he began celebrating what came to be called “masses for the Fatherland” – that is, liturgies intended to ask God’s help for the suffering Polish nation. These outdoor masses drew crowds in the tens of thousands. His sermons

“A kind of community started to develop, of people who knew each other from these masses,” said Pawel. “During his sermons, Father Jerzy said very simple things about freedom, about solidarity as a value, the importance of human dignity — you know, really the most basic things. And that’s why he was murdered: because a movement that couldn’t be controlled by anyone was too dangerous for the communists. To be honest, the Church even regarded him as hard to control.”

Here is a fragment from a 1983 sermon he gave:

Our Fatherland and respect of human dignity must be the common objective for reconciliation. You must unite in reconciliation in the spirit of love, but also in the spirit of justice. As the Holy Father said five years ago, no love exists without justice. Love is greater than justice and at the same time finds reassurance in justice.

And for you, brothers, who carry in your hearts paid-for hatred, let it be a time of reflection that violence is not victorious, though it may triumph for a while. We have a proof of that standing underneath the Cross. There too was violence and hatred for truth. But the violence and hatred were defeated by the active love of Christ.

Pawel again emphasized that Father Jerzy was not brilliant, but he had simple faith, deep decency, and a gift for talking about the problems real people faced every day, in language they could understand.

“When he was a kid, every day before school he went to church. The closest church was four kilometers [about 2.5 miles] away from home. In winter, it was still dark, and he would strike one stone against another to drive away the wolves. If we think about that story when we look at photographs of him celebrating mass for tens of thousands of people, it is the same man: he’s simply brave, and he’s simply devoted to the most rudimentary values. He believed them, and practiced them to the very end.”

The country road Jerzy Popieluszko walked to mass as a boy, knocking stones to scare off wolves

As the priest rose in prominence and influence, the state began harassing him. He received anonymous death threats. A brick with explosive materials attached was thrown through his apartment window. The secret police bugged his flat, and stationed officers outside his building, around the clock, for two years. They sabotaged his car’s steering mechanism, hoping to cause him to die in an automobile crash. For a time he struggled to sleep amid a barrage of phone calls in the middle of the night, often carrying obscene messages.

The regime opened an official investigation, and interrogated Father Jerzy many times. The government-controlled media blasted him over his masses for the Fatherland. “During one of sermons, he said please pray for me, because for the thirtieth time, I’m going to be interrogated by the police,” said Pawel.

Eventually state prosecutors filed charges against him. Father Jerzy stood accused of harming the socialist nation through his religious work. Prosecutors said that he thus exceeded the freedom of conscience guaranteed under law. The priest refused this preposterous charge, and defended his faith.

Pawel said that today, if we protect the gifts of faith, “they have enormous energy. He received them at home. Today we have a big problem with that. Maybe that’s why people come here – they are looking for the kind of education they should have received from home, but didn’t.”

Father Jerzy was often weak and suffering from ill health. Near the end of his life, he was particularly exhausted. Cardinal Glemp asked him if he would like to go to Rome to study – this as a way of getting him to a place of rest and safety. Even though he believed that his murder was fast approaching, Father Jerzy declined the offer of exit.

“He was suffering terribly, but said that he simply could not abandon the people who trusted him,” said Pawel. “He was not loyal to abstract ideals. He was loyal to the people in his life. Pain is not a value, but fidelity itself sometimes causes pain.”

Here is the last known photograph of Father Jerzy Popieluszko:

Death came for him on the night of October 19, 1984. Three secret police agents kidnapped him, beat him severely, bound his hands and feet, tied a rock to his feet, and dumped him into a reservoir. His body was discovered on October 30.  Here’s what he looked like:

See what they did to Father Jerzy

Eventually the trio was jailed for killing Father Jerzy, but later released as part of an amnesty.

Pawel told me that in his work at the museum, he’s looking for new language to pass the experience of Father Jerzy’s life to the post-communist generations. He finds that the different generations today speak “totally different languages in a totally different way.” A chasm is opening between Christians and the world, he said (“And within the churches too,” I added).

Under Communism, it was easier to talk because you knew where you stood, Pawel said. The oppression was so harsh that it helped Christians form strong identities. He went on:

In my work, I’m trying to find new language to pass that experience to the next generation. To start a dialogue, we have to have a common anthropological base. Today we have a really big problem with that, because we are speaking totally different languages in a totally different way. We have no common base. There’s a profound break between Christians and the world. The biggest problem is that under communism, such a dialogue was far simpler. The oppression was so obvious that it helped to form a strong identity.

But today? This is a much more difficult question.

Father Jerzy’s life offers us another way to see things, Pawel suggested. Consider that the priest knew that his entire society was infiltrated by the Communist Party.

“The priest who was his neighbor was a Communist informer,” Pawel said. “The priest who announced his death right here in the church was an informer. It’s quite easy to understand why Cardinal Glemp was so negative towards priest Popieluszko;  the information he got about Father Jerzy came from priests who were secretly communist collaborators.”

All Poles had to live with this reality. In the face of it, Father Jerzy taught (in Pawel’s paraphrase):  “You can’t worry about who’s an agent and who’s not an agent. If you do, you will tear yourself apart as a community.”

Said Pawel:

There was one man who came to to bring [Father Jerzy] a package. After that meeting, he stayed with Father Jerzy for three years, until his death. He was an atheist, but he started to be interested in church affairs, and he asked Father Jerzy something about the Bible. Father Jerzy told him to buy the Bible, but now, in this moment, to tell him how things are going in his family. When it comes to survival, maybe what’s most important is simple fidelity: not by evangelizing people directly, but by developing honest relations with one another – not looking for whether one is good or bad, or judging them by their ideology. Father Jerzy was constantly monitored by the secret police, who parked right in front of his home. During the severely cold winters, he would bring them hot tea to warm them up. Because they were people. That’s how he was.

I told Pawel that these stories — in particular, contrasting Father Jerzy’s lack of intellectual sophistication with his heroic goodness — teaches us something important. A lot of us Christians think that the way to convert others is to make better arguments. Good arguments are important, certainly, but when you see radical virtue made incarnate in a figure like Jerzy Popieluszko, it’s a more powerful witness to the truth of the faith.

Pawel began to talk about “realism.” Before he came to work at the museum, he was the spokesman for the Polish branch of Caritas, the international Catholic aid organization. He said:

In Poland, we had a really big ideological mess about migrants from the East. Working with Caritas, I met these people. And I was in Nepal doing work after the earthquake there, and in Ukraine doing war relief. I have also been in a lot of centers helping the homeless, and in the homes of single mothers and others.

Doing these things solidified my convictions. We can think different things about life and death, but what one needs to do is to visit a man just before his death, and talk to him. In my office, we were visiting homeless people, people in a really poor situation, to help them out. We had to know them. They’re people, not numbers.

Under Communism, people were forced to confront reality. Today, it’s far more difficult. We can think a lot, we can look up to important figures, but never live it out, never be slapped across the face by life. You cannot deceive a man who has fallen, because if he ever stands up, it’s because of real values — that is, values that survive the contact with reality. Let’s say that we teach people about good examples, but these example are merely theoretical — well, others will propose alternative examples, and the people will not be able to make up their minds.

Father Jerzy wasn’t a monk living isolated from the world. His biggest talent was that he was constantly with people. He didn’t isolate himself. He wrote in his diary, “I would like to go somewhere for a walk, but I have to stay here in the flat, because someone might come by for help.”

I would say that the test field when the truths we proclaim are verified is human dignity, where the discussion and theory ends, and real life starts. If we merely talk about dignity, and don’t live it, it’s simply a lie. It’s not true. These days, man now starts to become very theoretical. Our task is to convince people to establish real contacts with other people, to meet people face to face. Go to other people, like Father Jerzy Popieluszsko.

At the end of the museum tour, here is the exit door, featuring a command Father Jerzy gave to his followers, taken from a line of St. Paul’s:

“This is the part of the tour where I ask students what they think about what they’ve just seen,” said Pawel. “So, what do you think?”

I didn’t take notes of how I responded, of course. But this is what I said, or to be more precise, what I wish I had said:

Father Jerzy became a great leader of his nation, and is about to be canonized, because of the courage with which he loved. He was not a clever political strategist, but a simple priest whose understanding of what it meant to love God and his fellow man. What his life tells me is that we don’t have to have it all sorted out in terms of a political strategy in order to successfully confront the problems of our time. It is enough to speak and to live the truth in love, without fear.

There isn’t necessarily a clear-cut political program for us to follow. Father Jerzy had only the Gospel, and his formation as a Catholic, from childhood. This taught him what it meant to be human, and it taught him never to deny the image of God in every human person he met — even the secret policemen. You can build a politics on that. In fact, the only politics worth having is one that has defending human dignity at its center.

This doesn’t tell you, for example, if you should open your borders to migrants or not. But it does tell you that migrants are fellow human beings, and must be responded to with dignity and compassion.

Standing at the end of the story of his life, my thoughts went back to Father Jerzy’s childhood, and the image of that little Polish boy walking to mass through the morning darkness, knocking stones together to keep the wolves away. He went to mass because his mother and father, in their humble village home, taught him that Jesus Christ was everything. And they taught him that not just as an intellectual matter, but through regular prayer. In his path through life towards unity with Christ, Jerzy Popieluszko walked through the valley of the shadow of death, with only the steady rock of faith to keep the wolves at bay. Eventually the wolves found him, beat him to death, and delivered his battered corpse to the waters, tied to a rock.

And now, Jerzy Popieluszko is about to be raised to the altar as a saint. All over Poland, there are squares and other places bearing his name. Who are these men who killed him? Where are the Communist wolves who tormented Poland? Most are dead, and if they are remembered at all, it is with infamy. Upon the rock of his confession of faith, Father Jerzy built his life, found his courage — especially the courage to love those who persecuted him — and eventually, because of that confession, died at the hands of wicked men who despised him for his faith, and effectively stoned him.

There is a great mystery here.

I thought about how much I have struggled to convince people that my Benedict Option idea is not about running to the woods to hide, but about taking on spiritual disciplines and fellowship that give us the eyes to see clearly what Christ calls us to do in this present darkness, and the strength to bear witness to that calling in the public square, come what may. Father Jerzy is an extraordinary example of this. If he had not been formed as a Christian from childhood praying with his family around the table, and if his courage in faith had not been built into his heart by those long walks to mass in the face of his fear of wolves, would Jerzy Popieluszko have had the vision and the bravery to stand up to Communist tyranny — and to do so without losing his conviction that even his Communist tormentors weren’t wolves, deep down, but fellow human beings? And to inspire so many others to live the same way?

Put another way: if Jerzy Popieluszko had retreated into a purely private life as a Catholic, nobody would have faulted him. Life was hard under Communism. As Pawel pointed out, it was difficult to develop real virtue in a society that had been corrupted by a false and evil ideology. But Jerzy Popieluzsko didn’t do that. He became a martyr, and is now going to be a canonized saint. Here’s the thing: if it had not been for that early formation, and if it had not been for his spiritual discipline as a priest, he would not have been able to have accomplished any of that. He would have lived and died as an ordinary man — maybe a priest, but an ordinary one. There’s no shame in that. It’s how most of us will live and die. But there’s no glory either, in this life or the next.

Every country is full of politicians and others living out their convictions in the public square. But there aren’t many Jerzy Popieluzskos. If the Christian churches are going to produce saints and heroes like that in a society filled with corruption and confusion — more confusion, it must be said, than existed under Communism (“It was easier to see the evil back then,” an old Pole told me), then we will have to be far more intentional and countercultural in our habits of formation within our families, our churches, and our Christian institutions.

Later, at lunch, my friend and interpreter Lukasz, who is a practicing Catholic, marveled over what we had just heard. He was born in 1997, and had grown up with the story of Father Jerzy Popieluzsko as a stock narrative in his education. But Father Jerzy only really came alive to him that morning. Reflecting on how it was that until yesterday morning, Father Jerzy had been nothing more than a historical figure to him, rather than someone who can teach him how to live faithfully right here, right now.

“They only taught me about how he died,” said Lukasz. “They never taught me about how he lived.”



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