Polish example for priests
Fr Miroslaw Kawczynski
He did not draw thousands of believers to himself but to Christ. He managed to form their characters in the spirit of the Gospel. He prayed for their freedom and respect for human rights – perhaps this was the secret of the priestly ministry of Fr Jerzy Popieluszko.
He was born on 14 September 1947 in Okopy in the region of Bialystok. Okopy was 5 km away from the parish church in Suchowola. Undoubtedly, the prayerful atmosphere of his home contributed to his spiritual formation.
God directed his life
All family members gathered to pray at their little altar. The family became the first spiritual seminary of the little boy and then an altar-boy who liked to put small crosses, candles and pictures on the table.
In 1965 Jerzy finished secondary school and entered the Archdiocesan major Seminary in Warsaw. There he became friends with the spiritual father Czeslaw Mietek who used to explain the seminarians after each of his teachings that holiness began when they faithfully performed their daily duties. In the years 1966-68 Fr Jerzy served in the army unit in Bartoszyce. He had many hard experiences there, about which we could learn from the correspondence he maintained with his spiritual father.
In one of his letters he wrote, ‘In front of the whole platoon the commander ordered me to take off the rosary ring from my finger. I refused to do it, so I did not fulfil the order. The commander threatened me with the prosecutor. He sneered, «Here is a faith fighter». But I was not afraid. At 17.45 I came to the non-commissioned officer being fully uniformed. Then the test lasted till 20.00, with a break for dinner. At 20.00 I was brought to the platoon commander. And the affair began. Firstly, he wrote my personal data. Then he ordered me to take off my shoes, laces and wraps. So I was standing with bare feet. Of course, I was standing at attention. I was standing as a criminal. He began taking it out on me. He used various methods. He tried to mock me. He tried to humiliate me before my colleagues. Then he tried to surprise me by speaking about leaves and passes. I stood with bare feet for an hour. My feet were freezing, blue with cold, so he told me to put on my shoes at 21.00. He left the room for a moment and went to the guys (my colleagues from the platoon). He came with comforting news, «There, in the hall, they are praying for you». Indeed, my colleagues were reciting the rosary.’ After the service Jerzy came back to the seminary.
‘Your will be done’
Deacon Popieluszko was ordained priest on 28 May 1972 by Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski. On 20 May 1980, after several year parish ministry, Fr Jerzy Popieluszko was sent to the parish of St. Stanislaw Kostka in Warsaw-Zoliborz.
His meeting with the striking workers of the Steel Plant in Warsaw had a special meaning for him. Fr Jerzy was moved by his pastoral experiences among the workers afflicted by the totalitarian system. After years he remembered that very well and recollected, ‘I will not forget this day and this Mass till the end of my life. I went with jitters. The situation itself was completely new to me. What am I going to see? How will they welcome me? Will there be a place to celebrate Mass? Who will do the readings? Who will sing? Such questions, quite naive today, niggled at the back of my mind on my way to the factory. And then at the entrance I was astonished for the first time. A row filled with people, smiling and crying at the same time. And clapping. I thought someone important had followed me. But those were their cheers for the first priest who had ever entered this factory. I was thinking – applaud for the Church that had knocked with endurance at the factory gates.’ After the imposition of the marshal law numerous people were arrested and there were repressions and trials in court. Fr Popieluszko spent much time in the court, which was an expression of his solidarity with the defendants’ families. When the accusation was read Fr Jerzy was the first to look at the internees’ eyes, supporting them spiritually and praying for them.
The next chapter
In October 1980, Rev. Msgr. Teofil Bogucki celebrated the first Mass for Homeland in the Church of St Stanislaw Kostka in Zoliborz. Then he asked Fr Jerzy to continue this ministry because he had an excellent charisma to work with workers. On 17 January 1982, Fr Popieluszko celebrated his first Mass for Poland and Polish people. Countless crowds, representing the whole Homeland, gathered to express their bonds with the persecuted workers, their disapproval of the communist regime and their unity with the Church that was the only institution to defend man’s dignity.
Fr Jerzy almost always referred to the words of St Paul from the Letter to Romans, which became the motto of his life and priesthood. ‘Do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good’ (12:21). Fr Jerzy was not afraid of speaking the truth, because only the truth could set free, and he preached it with endurance and faithfulness although many people found the truth uncomfortable and hard to accept. He warned people, ‘you should fear only one thing – betraying Christ for several silver coins to have futile peace.’
His sermons did not contain any political accents although such were the official accusations of the communist authorities. Fr Jerzy was a man of deep reconciliation. He never called to violence or riots.
From 1980 Fr Popieluszko became the target of strong attacks of the communist authorities. He was watched, eavesdropped and blackmailed. In December 1982 someone threw a brick with some explosive material into his room. The prosecutor’s office found an occasion to falsely accused the Servant of God that he overused the right to freedom of conscience and religion and that he defamed the state authorities with political speeches. The government arranged or invented provocations to compromise the Catholic priest.
19 October 1984 Fr Jerzy Popieluszko went to the Church of Polish Brothers-Martyrs in Bydgoszcz. He celebrated Mass and conducted a service there. He finished the service with the meaningful words, ‘Let us pray to be free from fear, intimidation but first of all from the desire to take revenge and use violence.’
The car in which Fr Jerzy was going back from Bydgoszcz to Warsaw was stopped by some security officers, wearing the uniforms of the road militia. They chained the driver Waldemar Chrostowski. On the way he managed to get out of the car. Fr Jerzy was tied and closed in the car boot and then he was beaten and thrown into the Vistula River from the dam near Wloclawek. The information about the disappearance and kidnapping of Fr Jerzy was very quickly spread. The authorities confirmed the information in the evening. Believers began gathering in the Church of St Stanislaw Kostka to pray for his safe return. Only on 30 October, at about 20.00 it was announced that the body of Fr Popieluszko was found. The funeral was held on 3 November 1984 and it became a great occasion for people to manifest their faith and solidarity.
The day of Fr Jerzy Popieluszko’s beatification is a great gift of Lord God for the Church in our Homeland and in the world. The fact that the Chaplain of Solidarity was raised to the altars, which happened during the Year for Priests, like the canonisation of Zygmunt Szczesny Felinski and many other countrymen, is an expression of the big contribution of the Church in Poland into the history of the universal Church.
I was inspired to write this article by the fact that I had been present at the exhumation of the body of the Servant of God Fr Jerzy Popieluszko on 7 April 2010. It began a spiritual friendship with Fr Jerzy, which has yielded fruit. Writing this text I used the album ‘Zwyczajna niezwyczajna parafia u grobu ks. Jerzego Popieluszki’ [Ordinary Extraordinary Parish at the Grave of Fr Jerzy Popieluszko] by Fr Zygmunt Malacki, Ewa Zajac, Grzegorz Pfeifer, Magdalena Jelinska amd Milena Kindziuk, published by the Bonum Foundation in Warsaw in 2007, being a testimony of the zeal of Fr Popieluszko.