WŁODZIMIERZ RĘDZIOCH: – Do you remember how Fr. Jerzy was born?
MARIANNA POPIEŁUSZKO: – Certainly, I do. Childbirth started when on 14 September in the evening – it was Sunday of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross – I went to milk cows. however, I managed to return home on time and, luckily, my mum was at home who had arrived in order to deliver the baby. The childbirth was not hard, but after that I had bad headache and I lost eyesight for a few days. Therefore I could not go to church, in order to have my baby baptized.
– In the baptism book of the parish church in Suchowola there is a registration which says that the future priest Jerzy was given name Alfons at the baptism…
– It was me how had chosen him this name. Every time, during my pregnancy, I started looking for a name for my baby so that he would have a good patron. I had already chosen this name in May when we were having the May’s divine service at home and in one of reflections described life of a saint priest Alfons Liguori. Son had been using this name till the first years of a seminary and at home we spoke to him, using his diminutive name – Alek.
– Why did your son, as a cleric, changed his name into Jerzy?
– In Warsaw, where he studied, the name Alfons was badly associated – the word ‘alfons’ was used to define a person who deals with procurement, prostitution. Therefore, with permission of superiors of the seminary, he changed the name into Jerzy. I did not protest either, because he was an adult.
– However, let’s move back to childhood. What boy was Alek like in his youth?
– He was a slim and delicate boy. I did not have any troubles with him, because he was obedient, hard-working and patient. He liked people and he was open-hearted. He preferred reading to working in a field (our children attended school and had to do homework, but they also helped us with housework). He was a good student and brought prizes from school. Once a parish priest said to me: ‘Mother, this boy may grow up to the best or the worst man. Everything depends on your upbringing’. Therefore I was trying to bring him up as best as possible. Besides, the most important thing in life is to give God to children.
– How was vocation for priesthood born in him?
– We are a very religious family. Every morning, after waking up and in the evening, before going to bed, we used to say prayers on knees. Besides, in our house we had a small chapel, where the whole family prayed. On Wednesday we prayed to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, on Friday we prayed to the Heart of Jesus Christ, and on Saturday we prayed to Our Lady of Częstochowa. In May we all used to sing Litany of Loreto, in July we used to sing Litany to the Blessed Blood of Christ, and in October we used to say rosary. Three times a week, on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, I cooked Lent meals, without meat, because the man must know from the childhood that renunciations are necessary in life, that not everything is like one wants. He grew up in this atmosphere but I knew that he also took care of himself, too. He attended a confession and the Holy Communion, and when he was older he prayed by himself. Later he became an altar boy – he got up early to be at sharp seven o’clock in church and everyday he walked home in Suchowola 5 kilometers through a forest. No matter what season it was, whether it was raining or snowing or it was frosty. And it was so from the first years of the primary school and to last year of the secondary school.
– In the communist times such a religious devoutness among children was not well-perceived…
– It is true. Once one of the teachers called me to come to school. I was surprised because son was a good student. And she told me that my son attended the church too often and she would lower a mark of his behavior. But maybe the Holy Spirit inspired me, because I answered that in Poland there is freedom of religion. And that was that.
– Priest Jerzy was characterized by great patriotism. Was he taught to love Homeland in his family home as well?
– At our home children knew the history of family and Poland. They learnt to love Poland from patriotic literature. Apart from that, my brother was a partisan army in the National Army and was killed by the soviets in 1945. Children knew this history and understood what the freedom of Homeland meant.
– When did your son confess to you that he wanted to go to a seminary?
– I will tell you that when I was pregnant with him, I was praying for grace of vocation for him. I was praying to God, so that he would become a priest, if it was to be son, or a nun if it was to be daughter. All in all, I had sacrificed my child to God even before his birth. However, I never told him about it. But he found his way on his own and he discovered his vocation, because he was attracted by books and God. He had not said anybody about it till his secondary school graduation exam. Probably he kept this all in secret, because in the communist times young people, who intended to go to a seminary, were harassed by the Security Services. Not earlier than June 1965, when he returned from a school farewell prom, he said that he was going to a seminary, got on a train and went to Warsaw, where he was accepted to the High Metropolitan Seminary.
– Why did he go to the diocesan seminary and just to Warsaw?
– When he was a little boy, he used to read ‘A Knight of the Immaculate’ at his grandma’s, edited by St. Maximilian Kolbe, therefore he dreamt of joining the Franciscans. However, later he decided to go to a seminary in Warsaw, because his colleagues from Suchowola were studying there, and besides, in Warsaw there was Primate Wyszyński who impressed him a lot.
– Did you experience any emotions when your son had left home?
– Certainly, but nobody has a child for themselves. He had to leave for the world, in order to fulfill God’s will. However, I was worried how he would adapt to living in Warsaw. He was brought up in the countryside and he never travelled far. It was the first time for him to travel by train. Besides, I knew it was not as difficult to make a decision as endure in vocation. Therefore, I prayed a lot for him.
– Was he doing well with studies in the seminary?
– He did not have any difficulties with studies and he passed all exams. After the first year of his studies, he came home on holiday. He helped us on the field a little and attended the Holy Mass regularly. And, first of all, he told about what was happening in the world and in the Church.
– The year 1966 was very important for Poland, because it was the time when the millennial anniversary of the baptism of Poland was celebrated…
– My son told about sermons preached by Primate Wyszyński on this occasion, about millennium celebrations at Jasna Góra, and about the fact that the authorities allowed for the arrival of the Pope in Poland.
– In the communist times, clerics had to undergo a hard, two-year military service, during which they underwent not only indoctrination, but they were also bullied physically and psychically. And this all was in order to force them to reject the seminary. Did you know how much Jerzy suffered in the army?
– Jerzy said nothing to me about it. Only later I found out from his colleagues how he had been bullied in various ways. Among the others, they used to throw him into a swimming pool, although he could not swim, ordered him to stand bare-feet on snow as a punishment that he had been saying rosary, he was chased up and down stairs in full gear. And his health was destroyed so, and after the military service he had to go to hospital.
– Jerzy was ordained a priest on 28 May 1972 in the cathedral in Warsaw. What emotions were you experiencing on that day?
– I was proud that I am mother of a priest. Especially a moment was emotional for me, when ordained priests were lying on floor, especially that the priestly ordain were given by the Primate Wyszyński – it was the first time I had seen him close. The Primate asked for a continuous prayer for sons – priests. And I fulfilled this request, I always supported him in a prayer. After the ceremony, I, my husband and priest Jerzy went to the seminary for dinner.
– And later there were the first Holy Masses celebrated in family villages…
– There is a custom, that after priestly ordain, a priest celebrates the first Holy Mass in his family parish church. It was a great day for a family, all people from the parish and acquaintance priests. At that time, I gave priest Jerzy a bouquet of flowers, which I have had at home till today. After the ceremonies, priest Jerzy left for his first parish in Ząbki. I gave him to the Church and since then we met very rarely, because I had to look after household and he had his duties. He did not even have time during summer holidays because he went on summer camps with altar boys.
– In 1975 it was decided that priest Jerzy would move to the parish of St. Anina, and then to the parish of Infant Jesus in Warsaw…
– I did not go to him, but when he was in these parishes. I visited him, when in 1978 he started working in the academic church of St. Ann.
– Work with students, the future intelligence of the country, must have been very demanding…
– Priest Jerzy did not tell me about it, but one of the priests told me then that if he worked in the academic church, he must have been very clever.
– His former protégés from the academic group reminiscent that priest Jerzy was not only a spiritual leader for them, but also a trustee and a friend…
– He was a good pastor, because he wanted to bring God close to everybody, he was enjoyed giving confessions and he was also opened up to people and he liked giving small gifts to everybody.
– In the same year something improbable happened – cardinal Karol Wojtyła was elected a pope…
– It was difficult for me to believe it, that the Pole had become Pope. Just after that, I went to the church in order to participate in the thanksgiving Holy Mass. It did not come to my mind that one day I would meet him personally and I would talk to him.
– Whereas, in March 1979, you received a sad message: priest Jerzy got bad anemia and got to hospital, to the Institute of Hematology…
– I was very worried then, but I could only pray for him. However, I was glad when, after being released from hospital, he came home on holiday. Then I could enjoy his visit home and feed him better. However, I did not like his departures, tears were filling my eyes, because I never knew when I would see him again.
– In 1979 John Paul II visited Poland for the first time. Was priest Jerzy engaged in preparing for the papal visit?
– He told me that, as a priest of doctors and nurses, was ordered to organize medical help during the pilgrimage.
– The next year was a special year in the history of Poland. Let me quote historical facts, which had in influence on the life of every Pole, including priest Jerzy. On 1 July 1980, the communist authorities raised the prices of food, which caused a wave of strikes. There were strikes among railway men, shipyard workers in Gdańsk and Szczecin, as well as blue-collar workers in Warsaw. Could you tell us about the activity of priest Jerzy in that dramatic period of our history?
– At that time, priest Jerzy was residing at the church of St. Stanisław Kostka on Żoliborz. He was very worried when protests of workers started. When workers of the steelworks Warsaw went on strike, he went to the steelworks in order to celebrate the Holy Mass, which was the beginning of his pastoral work among the strikers. Later he visited other groups of strikers: students of the Medical Academy and the High Fire School, but he did nothing more than fulfilling his duty as a priest. Especially that he did not do anything without informing his parish priest, Fr. TeofilBogucki who was for him like a father.
– At that time the fate of every Pole was inseparably connected with the historical event which was the establishment of the first independent labor union in the communist bloc ‘Solidarność’ on 17 September 1980, and later stifling it after introducing the martial law on 13 December by gen. Jaruzelski. Were you worried about your son?
– I knew that priest Jerzy was not safe in Warsaw, so I prayed more.
– People used to say that on Christmas priest Jerzy gave away Christmas wafer to soldiers who were stationing in front of parsonage and encouraged people to give warm meals to soldiers…
– I taught him how to be good to everybody. He wanted to overcome the evil through the good and he could not behave in a different way.
– Priest Jerzy helped the persecuted and their families a lot. He also went to the court for judicial trials of the activists of ‘Solidarność’…
– He helped as much as he could and whom he could. Every time, when I visited him in his room, there were always a lot of people. I could never talk to him calmly and I was worried about him more and more, but I knew that God had a plan for him and would guard him.
– At the times of the martial law, priest Jerzy became famous for the so-called Holy Masses for Homeland. Did you take part in these Holy Masses?
– Holy Masses for Homeland were initiated by parish priest Bogucki, whereas he started celebrating them on 17 January 1982. They were attended by a lot of people for whom the church was not big enough. Thousands of believers stood outside. I went for such a Holy Mass with my son Józef only once. When priest Jerzy saw me in Warsaw, he got worried because it was a dangerous time, but later he was glad of our visits. I listened to the Holy Mass for Homeland on radio Free Europe. I listened to my son’s words on radio and I was happy. I was happy because I knew that a lot of people experienced conversion during these Holy Masses.
– All people understood his sermons, both blue-collar workers and professors. What kind of sermons were they?
– Priest Jerzy prepared himself for Holy Masses very well. I was given his notes to read, which he had prepared before preaching every sermon. They included a lot of quotations of the Primate Wyszyński and John Paul II.
– Did your son use to come home during the martial law?
– He rarely visited home, but I understood it. Especially that at that time he was being persecuted.
– Did you speak about your problems, about the fact that he was being harassed, that there were attempt to make an assassination on him, that he was constantly being bullied or overheard?
– He did not want to worry me, so he was trying to speak only about what was good.
– On 14 May 1983, militia attacked a 19-year-old Grzegorz Przemyk, son of an opposition poet Barbara Sadowska. Your son was the only one from organizers of his funeral which was attended by 60 thousand people…
– Priest Jerzy told me about this funeral. My heart ached with grief, when I was looking at a photo of my son, who was supporting the murdered boy’s distraught mother. I was really sorry for her.
– Security Services had Your son as their target more and more. In order to accuse and discredit him, they also went for provocation in his relative’s flat left for him in a will….
– We had a cousin in the States who wanted to return to Poland for her old age. However, she could not buy a flat officially, because she had American citizenship. So, priest Jerzy bought the flat and it was under his surname. The authorities entered the flat by force, and left explosive materials and illegal published texts. Later they conducted a search and arrested priest Jerzy.
– Did you wonder why the communist authorities were persecuting your son so much?
– In the Holy Scripture it is written that when a pastor is attacked, his sheep will get dispersed. Communists were fighting against the Church and its pastors. They were persecuting priest Jerzy, because they thought that when they frightened one priest, then others will be scared of them.
– Thanks to the intervention of bishop Bronisław Dąbrowski your son was released from prison after two days…
– I heard about freeing priest Jerzy on radio. Everybody spoke about it. He was also slandered on radio and accused of having a double life, of deceiving people and the Church.
– Did you ask your son, when meeting him, to be sensible in what he was doing?
– He was an adult and knew what he was supposed to do. He entrusted himself to God in prayer all the time and he trusted Him. And, besides, I thought that as God’s priest he had help from the Holy Spirit. So, I think that he was sensible even when his priestly duty ordered him to do what for which he was later persecuted. He was persecuted for Holy Masses for Homeland till the end, but I think that these Holy Masses were necessary, especially for the young generation, in order to remind about the need of love of God and Homeland.
– When did you last see your son?
– It was in September. He arrived home unexpectedly. He did not say anything about himself but I knew that he was still being persecuted. Cars of the Security Services were even seen through a window. But he was brave, although he was physically weak. At that time he brought me his cassock to sew, saying: ‘I will take it back next time; or mum will have it as a remembrance’. And saying farewell to us, he said: ‘In case I was killed, please, do not cry about me’. I was petrified, because he had never spoken so.
– When did you find out that something terrible had happened with your son/
– On 20 October, in the evening, I was watching news, during which a presenter read out a message about kidnapping of priest Jerzy Popiełuszko, which had took place on 19 near Toruń. Nobody knew that my son had not been alive any longer, therefore the ecclesiastical authorities and ordinary people undertook attempts of searching priest Jerzy. Everybody was praying for him everywhere, I was also praying at home.
– On 30 October there was information about the found corpse of priest Jerzy in Vistula…
– I found out about it on TV. My husband was crying and yelling and I was silently sitting motionless. In the early morning my nephew arrived to us priest Gniedziejko and took us to the church of St. Stanisław Kostka in Warsaw, where there was Holy Mass celebrated for my son. Next day we had to go to Białystok, where the autopsy had been done. My son Józef and priests from the Warsaw curia entered a mortuary. I was not present at identifying the body, because my heart would not have endured it. But I knew that, finally, I had to see priest Jerzy. I and my husband entered and started crying – it was my beloved son. I kissed his legs and hands because I felt unworthy of kissing his face. Then I felt the relationship with Mary – she also saw her dead Son and was suffering, but she agreed with God’s will. So did I agree with suffering.
– Did you think that your son, who had become a priest, might die as a martyr?
– Of course, I didn’t. But today I think that if he had decided to become a priest, he must have known that he might become a martyr, because it is inscribed in the priestly vocation.
– Why did you agree to have priest Jerzy buried in Warsaw, far away from family place?
– He had worked in Warsaw, loved people and suffered with them, and people, who loved him were there, therefore he should be with them. I gave him to the Church in Warsaw so that he would serve it, and he belonged to it. My son had to be buried on the graveyard in Powązki, but he was buried at the church where he had served, to the request of many people.
– Do you visit your son’s grave?
– I used to visit it every month and there were always a lot of people, flowers and grave lights there. Now I rarely go there.
– Priest Jerzy was acknowledged as a martyr for faith. Do you perceive him in this way?
– Since his death, my son has been considered as a martyr for faith, for the cross and love to Homeland. In my opinion, the murderers were fighting not against my son, but against God. It was an expression of hatred to faith and the Church, and my son was a victim of this hatred.
– At your son’s grave you started meeting powerful people of this world, prime ministers, presidents…
– That’s true, but the most important thing for me was meeting with John Paul II, when he was arriving in his pilgrimage in 1987. The Pope was praying at my son’s grave for a long time, and later he kissed the plate of the grave. Later he cuddled me and kissed me on head and said: ‘Mother, you gave us a great son’. I answered him that it was God who had given him to the world through me. After that I fell onto knees, kissed the Holy Father and asked him for a prayer for priest Jerzy.
– What did the pope say to you?
– He assured me that he remembered about him. I was moved and glad because the Pope convinced me that my son had chosen a right way in his life. I do not want to judge anybody, as God will judge the murderers by himself. I would be glad the most, if they experienced conversion. I have already forgiven them.
– A child’s death is like a stone in your heart, which remains for the whole life. This is a wound which revives every morning. Only strong faith and trust in God’s plans can keep a man alive.