If we today, after many years, were to point to a person who embodied ideas of Solidarity in himself the best, it would be Fr. Jerzy Popiełuszko

When in August 1980 a strike was begun by the Solidarity movement in the Warsaw Steelworks, one of the first issues with which workers decided to deal, was to find a priest who would celebrate the Holy Mass for them in the workplace. In this way Fr. Jerzy Popiełuszko appeared there. He mentioned those moments later: ‘That day and that Holy Mass will always be in my memory till the end of my life. I was going there very stressed. The very situation was completely new to me. What will I see? How will I be welcomed? Will there be anywhere to celebrate the Holy Mass? Who will read texts or sing? Today such naïvely sounding questions were bothering me on my way to the factory. And then, at the gate, I experienced my first surprise. A dense row of people – smiling and crying, and applauses. I thought that Somebody Important was following me. But those applauses were to welcome a priest, the first one in history of that workplace, going through the gate. I thought – the applauses for the Church, which had been knocking on the factory door for about thirty years. I needn’t have worried – everything had been prepared: an altar in the middle of the factory square, a cross which was later placed at the entrance and lasted for hard days and today stands being still surrounded by still fresh flowers, and even a makeshift confessional. There were also lectors. It was necessary to hear male voices, which often sounded very simply, but were reading holy texts with solemnly then. And then thousand of mouths sounded like a thunder: ‘Thanks be to God!’. It turned out that they could also sing, and much better than in churches. Before that there was a confession. I was sitting on a chair, leaning back at some iron things, and those big men wearing their overalls, were kneeling on the asphalt rust from grease’.

Our Lady in a shipyard named Lenin

It had been so since the beginning of strikes in August. When a strike broke out in the shipyard in Gdańsk, inhabitants of Western Europe, watching TV reports from Poland, were wiping their eyes from surprise. They had always associated labour unions with the leftist party, and workers were a natural electorate of the socialists. Whereas on the closed gate under the name ‘Shipyard named Lenin’ there were hanging images of Our Lady of Częstochowa and John Paul II. The first people who were called by workers for the strikes in workplaces were priests – they were asked to give confession and celebrate the Holy Mass.

In Western Europe workers being on strike were perceived as a rebellion of proletarians in the name of social benefits. However, it was not different in Poland. Protests which comprised the whole country had a different character. A historian of the idea Marek A. Cichocki writes: ‘From today’s perspective when social safety is becoming the basic notion, around which an electoral card is whirling, it is really necessary to appreciate the fact that humiliated people, trained by various manipulators and ordinary hooligans for years in the name of quite a monotonous and senseless ideology, could overcome their material humiliation at a decisive moment of history, and did something more than only defence of their own particular interests and right for limited consumption a la Janos Kadar’.

In the first points of the program of Solidarity movement from 1980 we read: ‘We also meant justice, democracy, truth and the rule of law, human dignity, freedom of religion, repair of the Polish Republic, not only bread or sausage. All basic values were mistreated too much, in order to believe that without their renewal the man would become better. So, the economic protest had to be a social protest, too; the social protest had to be a moral protest’.

The Holy Mass on the air

Among 21 postulates of the Solidarity movement there was also a demand addressed to the authorities to guarantee ‘freedom of speech, printing, publication, and not repress independent publishing houses but make mass media available to the representatives of all religions’. Thanks to it, on 21 September 1980 there was the first broadcast Holy Mass on radio, which was broadcast every Sunday. Freedom, love, solidarity

One of the slogans of the Solidarity movement was: ‘There is no freedom without solidarity’. John Paul II complemented it with an important statement: ‘There is no love without solidarity’. In the both slogans the word ‘solidarity’ was repeated, which during the Pope’s pontificate became the subject of the universal reflection in the global scale. This notion was perceived in not only social or political categories, but also the theological ones. Its sense was also examined by Fr. Jerzy Popiełuszko, who expressed it in his homily given during the Holy Mass for Homeland in Kraków-Mistrzejowiece on 30 August 1984.

‘Solidarity made it possible to throw off a mask of hypocrisy and, speaking about human dignity and justice, I address one sentence to those who have unappreciated jobs: maintain dignity, as you are a human being, and in every human being there is a sign of God, regardless of what job you would do – you are even a human being. A job is to be for a man, not a man for a job. As the truth demands a man not to be for a system but a system for a man. The Solidarity movement was calling for dignity for the human work more than bread, for the right for such conditions of work so that human strengths would not weaken too quickly, so that a man would not be exhausted too early. For, it is not so important to earn so much in a short time, but to work well for a long time. One cannot make a man a tool of production and a slave of his own work, as it deprives him of his real value. The Solidarity movement was calling for justice more than bread. The source of justice is God, and just man is somebody who follows the truth and love, as the more truth and love are in a man, the more justice is in him. Where there is no love, good, truth – they are replaced by hatred, a lie and violence. Hence injustice is felt so painfully and visibly in the countries where ruling is based not on serving to others or love, but on violence and slavery. It is a duty for everybody to do justice and call for justice, as a famous philosopher said ages ago that these are bad times when justice remains tight-lipped’.

He won evil with good

Fr. Popiełuszko did not only speak about it, but he also testified it with his own life, which he ended with his death as a martyr. He was with workers during strikes as well as with students, for example, in the Medical Academy or the Higher Officers’ Firefighting School in Warsaw. Thanks to him some protesters decided to attend the first confession after years or they were even getting converted into Catholicism.

There is a significant sentence of one of protesters of the fire brigade in the firefighting school: ‘I was very impressed by the Holy Mass which priest Jerzy had celebrated in the aula. I was amazed that such a young man of filigree build, had so much strength and faith, and nearly from the very beginning he aroused our sympathy and respect to him. I think that the words of his sermons did a lot – they were sincere and simple, and also deeply getting into heart. He could give us what we needed the most at hard moments: hope and belief in the righteousness of our matter. After that Holy Mass he always gave us confession for many hours without any break. I went to confession in the late evening. Priest Jerzy was very tired but greeted all of us with a smile and joy. I felt very strange then. The school was surrounded by the militia. A commandant was scaring us with a criminal campaign, army. We were living in constant tension, feeling threatened and somehow separated from the reality – a priest, prayer, God’s word, confession’.

The attitude of workers and students shows a kind of regularity characteristic for the history of Poland. A natural reaction of our country was the fact that when a community was being created, it had to find support in the supernatural reality. In Poland there was no better embodiment of the ideas of solidarity than the person of Fr. Jerzy Popiełuszko, repeating the words of St. Paul during his sermons: ‘Do not let evil overcome you, but overcome evil with good’. (Rom 12.21).


„Niedziela” 38/2017

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: