More than a century ago, in his collection of lectures titled Life and Destiny, professor and ethicist Felix Adler reflected on what the lives of the deceased can teach the living:
Let us live truly while we live, live for what is true and good and lasting. And let the memory of our dead help us to do this. For they are not wholly separated from us, if we remain loyal to them. In spirit they are with us. And we may think of them as silent and invisible, but real presences in our households.
All across Poland, more than 30 years since his murder by the secret police of the communist dictatorship that then ruled the country, the life and words of Father Jerzy Popieluszko still resonate strongly in millions of households, as it does thousands of miles away in mine.
Readers may wonder if Poles are a little overrepresented in this series on heroes. I’ve written about Stanislaw Lem and Witold Pilecki. Elsewhere on FEE.org, I’ve written of my time with the Polish anti-communist underground in 1986, and of my appreciation of the crucial role that Poles played in the unraveling of the Soviet empire. I admit that I’ve had a 30-year love affair with the Polish people, especially with the seemingly endless roster of courageous opponents of tyranny they have produced.
I first visited Father Popieluszko’s St. Stanislaus Kostka Church in Warsaw on a chilly Sunday in November 1986, just two years after his death. It was an oasis amid a desert of communist oppression, a place where Poles renewed their strength by recalling the man who had led them not so long before. The walls of the church were adorned with pictures of him — offering communion, boating with his dog, encouraging steelworkers, comforting children. Though I am not Catholic, the memory of those few awesome hours evokes powerful emotions to this day.
Jerzy Popieluszko, born in the small village of Okopy in northeastern Poland in September 1947, seemed a very unlikely hero in his early years. He was short, frail, sickly, introverted, and of average intellect. At 17, he traveled to Warsaw intent upon studying for a quiet life in the priesthood. He would only live another 20 years, but before he died, he was seen by the regime as the most dangerous man in Poland. To millions of other Poles, he had become a beacon of hope; his only weapons were the truth and his courage.
After one year at seminary, Popieluszko’s studies were interrupted by compulsory military service, a two-year requirement of all young men at the time. It wasn’t pretty. The communist regime segregated seminary students within the military to diminish their influence. They were routinely mistreated and subjected to humiliating ridicule.
Popieluszko demonstrated a remarkable resilience and a steely defiance that surprised even those who knew him best. Prayer and Bible study were strictly prohibited, but that made little difference to Popieluszko, who openly disdained the army’s coercive atheistic indoctrination. Obedient he was — but not to communist authorities.
For refusing to relinquish the cross he wore around his neck, he was ordered to stand all night at attention, barefoot in the snow. From such frequent cruelty, he emerged with his health permanently damaged, but his spirits higher than ever. The experience reinforced his life’s mission: to serve God by resisting evil, to comfort and encourage victims of oppression, and ultimately to free his country. He returned to the seminary, and in May 1972, at the age of 24, he was ordained.
In the 1970s, the Soviet Union seemed to be winning its battle with a demoralized West. Its Eastern European empire, though occasionally restive, was cowed by the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. At the close of the decade, the Soviet army rolled into Afghanistan. Reeling from the Watergate scandal, the Vietnam fiasco, and the crippling effects of stagflation, American leadership wilted as the Soviets boasted that communism represented the world’s future.
Then, in 1978, the first non-Italian ascended to the Papacy. Cardinal Karol Józef Wojtyła of Wadowice, Poland, became Pope John Paul II. The news merely surprised the world, but it electrified Poland.
Before the end of his first year in Rome, the Pope returned triumphant to his native land. Communist authorities were at first hesitant to allow the visit. They relented in the mistaken belief that they could limit its effects and turn them to the state’s advantage. For men who arrogantly believed themselves capable of “planning” society, it was a profound miscalculation.
Poles turned out by the millions to welcome John Paul. They heard him declare, “Be not afraid!” and they knew what his message was. Father Jerzy, who assisted in the planning for the visit, took it personally. He resolved to step up his public opposition to the regime, declaring one Sunday, “Justice and the right to know the truth require us from this pulpit to repeatedly demand a limit on the tyranny of censorship!”
The Pope’s historic visit led directly to the legalization of the Solidarity organization, which Popieluszko endorsed and assisted — publicly and privately, legally and illegally. The visit proved to be the galvanizing moment when Poles by the millions began to lose their fear of the regime and contemplate the real possibility of freedom from their oppressors.
Poles had put up with communism since the Soviets imposed it on them after World War II. The tyranny of a one-party political monopoly was compounded by the stifling effects of socialist central planning — environmental destruction, stagnant living standards, inflation, long lines for simple foodstuffs and toiletries. It was a dreary, claustrophobic existence, producing cabin fever on a national scale. In clever and sometimes subtle language, John Paul II told them they could and should resist.
In the months that followed, Poles ventured into dangerous, open opposition. Workers increasingly went on strike with demands that pertained not simply to wages or working conditions, but to political, economic, and social freedoms as well. The world watched as rumors grew that the Soviets might put an end to it all with an invasion, just as they had done to Czechoslovakia a decade before.
In 1980, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski was the revered Primate of Poland, the highest-ranking Catholic in the country, with a long history of antagonism toward the communists. When striking steel workers begged him to send a priest into the huge Huta Warszawa steel mill, he chose 33-year-old Jerzy Popieluszko.
It was a daring move, the first time a priest even entered a state-owned enterprise of such size, let alone one who so openly denounced the government. From that moment until his death, he was known as the favorite priest of both Solidarity in Poland and John Paul II in Rome. Perhaps he already knew it, but his life was on the line. In The Priest and the Policemen, biographers John Moody and Roger Boyes write,
He was stalked like a game animal in the last years of his life, hunted by agents… who knew that the priest had to be silenced. Murder was not the only solution. It would have been enough to persuade the Church to transfer him to an obscure rural parish, or bring him to Rome.
It would have sufficed to put him on trial and sentence him to prison for his political preaching, or to strain his delicate health … to the breaking point, so that his death could be passed off, in the words of one agent (of the secret police), as “a beautiful accident.” The police tried all these methods but found it was impossible to silence the priest, who declared modestly, “I am only saying aloud what people are thinking privately.”
All through 1981, Poles pushed the envelope, forcing the dictatorship to grant basic liberties and daring the state to take them back. The world watched the unfolding events with mixed emotions — hopeful for freedom in Poland but fearful of a backlash. Then, on December 13, Moscow’s puppets in Warsaw removed the threat of a Soviet invasion by doing the dirty work themselves.
In a massive crackdown, martial law was imposed. Thousands of dissidents were rounded up and jailed. Solidarity and other pro-freedom groups, like the one that organized my visit, Freedom and Peace, were officially banned. Poland descended into a long, dark, eight years of renewed persecution.
Father Jerzy didn’t fold or retreat. He summoned every ounce of energy his ailing body would allow. He denounced martial law and aided the underground resistance. His sermons were routinely broadcast by Radio Free Europe, making him famous throughout the East bloc for his uncompromising stance against the communists.
The secret police planted weapons in his apartment, then staged a raid for the television cameras to “prove” on national television that he was a subversive revolutionary. He was arrested several times, but pressure from the clergy helped each time to secure his release. Without skipping a beat, he would then renew his pleas for freedom.
St. Stanislaus Kostka Church was routinely jammed as people traveled from all over the country to hear him speak every Sunday; they even packed into the nearby streets by the thousands to hear his words broadcast over loudspeakers. He was granted permission to leave Poland to visit a beloved aunt in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and then went right back home to resume the struggle.
“It is not enough for a Christian to condemn evil, cowardice, lies, and use of force, hatred, and oppression,” he once declared. “He must at all times be a witness to and defender of justice, goodness, truth, freedom, and love. He must never tire of claiming these values as a right both for himself and others.”
A visiting Western journalist asked Father Jerzy in 1984 how he could continue to speak so boldly without fear of retaliation. His reply was, “They will kill me. They will kill me.” But, he went on, he could not remain silent as members of his own congregation remained jailed, tortured, and were even killed for nothing more than wanting to be free. “We must conquer the bad through the good,” he often implored.
In 1984, the communist secret police contrived a scheme to take out the young priest in what would look like a car accident, but the plot failed. Less than a week later, while riding with his driver back to Warsaw from priestly duties in Bydgoszcz, Father Jerzy was ambushed. He endured torture so fierce that one of the secret police agents would later remark, “I never knew a man could withstand such a beating.”
Tied to a heavy stone, the mangled and lifeless body of Father Jerzy was tossed unceremoniously into the Vistula River, where it was recovered 11 days later. Poles were heartbroken, and copious tears were shed, but in keeping with the spirit of the martyred priest, the fight for Polish freedom only gathered steam.
In early 1989, the communist regime announced to the world that “Poland had become ungovernable.” Hardly anyone paid much attention any more to its edicts and decrees. Even many of the government’s own employees were thwarting their bosses and joining the underground. Free elections were scheduled for June, for the first time in all the decades of communist rule. The communists lost every seat, bringing to fruition a prophecy of Father Jerzy of a few years before: “An idea which needs rifles to survive dies of its own accord.”
I returned to a free Poland in November 1989, just as the rest of the East bloc was unraveling. At St. Stanislaw Kostka Church, where Father Jerzy’s grave is marked with a massive stone cross, I stood with the parishioners, lit a candle, and cried with them — not so much because he was gone and in a better place, but because of that for which he gave his life.
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