Well, Poland, we have a Blessed!
‘Recently, some journalist asked me why we need Fr Jerzy Popieluszko’s beatification. And whether the Church made a research on how many people wanted that beatification. I was shocked and refused to comment on that – I could not simply find any words… – says Rev. Msgr. Zygmunt Malacki, the parish priest of St Stanislaw Kostka’s Church in Warsaw-Zoliborz. ‘And I should have answered him that we needed that beatification because he was a blessed of our times! Not someone found in the darkness of the past but someone we knew, talked to, saw every day. It means that sanctity becomes a category available for each of us! He is ours, my and yours…
And if he became a saint I can be a saint, too…
Supposedly, if you want to get to know something more about another person you should look at what shaped him, what gave certain traits to his personality, what created the atmosphere of that person. You should talk to those who knew him from his childhood, school, work. Because they remember him as a different person. That’s why I am setting out to the beloved places of Fr Jerzy. I start at the place that became the final point of his activities – the famous church in Zoliborz. However, we know that time deals with great things differently – something that is an end from the human perspective becomes a beginning of a completely different story.
The church in Zoliborz
Above the wall surrounding the church there are tablets with the quotations from the famous sermons of Fr Jerzy. He himself ‘looks’ from the window of his room in the parish building, ‘goes’ in the statue placed on the left side of the square, ‘descends’ from the front of the ‘Amicis’ Pilgrim’s House. He is present everywhere, especially now, just before his beatification. The grave of Fr Jerzy speaks most strongly. The oval shaped lawn and massive stone cross in the middle. Stones connected with a metal chain surround the grave as a rosary. Above two big poplars guard the place – on one poplar there is a statue of crucified Jesus with a red priestly stole on his arms. Beneath there are candles and flowers: elegant roses and lilacs from the local gardens, some lilies of the valley and forget-me-nots. Fr Zygmunt Malacki says that fresh flowers are here even on very frosty days, like it was the last winter.
At the grave – volunteers who have cared for it for 26 years. The parish priest calls them the second phenomenon. They have not left this place for over 25 years. They do not include only Warsaw volunteers – volunteers come from all over Poland. They have counted that over 18 million people have visited the grave of the Blessed.
Several days after the body of Fr Popieluszko had been found people began writing letters to the Primate asking for his beatification. They felt that they had lived with a saint.
‘He was drawn to people. A desire to help others, being with people in their simplest matters, dominated his life. The second place is his life after God was occupied by man’…, recollects Katarzyna Soborak, a notary in the beatification process, who has created the archives of Fr Jerzy for over 25 years.
Fr Malacki was a roommate of Fr Popieluszko for a year in the seminary. ‘He was no different at all. During those days a seminarian who was in the army – and Fr Jerzy served in the army – was regarded as a hero by other seminarians. They took a terrible beating for two years of their army service! Jerzy did not tell any stories from the service. Others did that for him. About standing with bare feet in snow; that the whole company was punished for his refusal to take off his holy medal.’ Today Fr Malacki is showing us the new museum of his fellow brother in priesthood. The museum is impressive. I can imagine that for young people the world shown here is what the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising is for me: distant history. The Secret Security files, black and white pictures from the manifestation of ‘Solidarity’ Trade Union, ration cards for shoes, sugar and exercise-books, VHS tapes with recorded Masses for Homeland – thousands of people in the church and outside the church, plenty of hands and choral singing ‘My Homeland, bathed in blood so many times…’ – ‘Today the author of this song-hymn works near Torun, not far from the place of Fr Jerzy’s kidnapping’, Katarzyna Soborak says.
The most moving place is the wall of martyrdom on which there are the stones and jute sack, which the torturers used to weight Fr Popieluszko’s body. The ropes, twisted sticking plaster used to gag, a massive stick (like the ones used in baseball) which they used to beat him to death, his torn cassock and used shoes, a coat. On the opposite wall there are the photos of the Martyr’s body drawn from the Vistula. The more sensitive people do not want to loot at them. The anatomy of crime.
‘The mentality of people who governed Poland after the war was identical throughout the whole period of communism. In the 1950s Radkiewicz wrote that they saw an enemy in everyone they arrested according to the principle of revolutionary hatred. Cyrankiewicz wrote that everyone that raised his hand against the people’s government, the people’s government would chop this hand. Jaruzelski used to say that the Church was like a hump that cannot be removed by surgery, with which one had to live’, Fr Malacki says and adds that at this place many people find it hard not to cry.
In the museum we are accompanied by the voice of Fr Popieluszko; fragments of his sermons that irritated the communist so much but people needed them like they need air.
‘He spoke gently, slightly monotonously; his voice was barely audible but he spoke things about which others were even afraid of thinking’, Katarzyna Soborak recollects.
‘He could not pass by someone in need. I will tell you something what characterises his personality best. Once a father of a teenager complained that his son had nothing to wear to school because the shoes he had bought using his ration card were too small. Jerzy only asked what size the boy wore and gave him his shoes. When Fr Jerzy died the young boy polished the shoes and put them in a drawer. After several years he brought the shoes to the museum and he told the story how he had received them’, Fr Malacki recollects.
‘Many people ask: where did he come from? From his home, from this land where there are mosques, Orthodox churches and Catholic churches standing next to one another. Where generations fought for the Polish spirit, identity and faith for ages. Where people had fortitude and dignity in their genes. Fr Popieluszko came from the farthest end of the Polish eastern lands: from the region of Bialystok’, explains Edmund Gabrel, a historian and a classmate of Popieluszko.
Land of childhood
From Warsaw we go to the east, taking more and more narrow roads. The landscapes are like those from Chelmonski’s pictures – a lot of green, open space, plenty of light. A land of little chapels and crosses on the crossroads, a land of old forests and swamps, with winding brooks. You can forget yourself in such silence.
Fr Jerzy used to come here to his family, to the small village of Okopy, once a month and even more rarely after he had been involved in pastoral work. You need a very good map to find this village. It is located 5 km from Suchowola, a small town at the E-67 road towards Bialystok. Popieluszko went to elementary school and grammar school here. He was an altar-boy in the local church. Here his priestly vocation was born. Suchowola was known for one reason: it is the geographical centre of Europe and now it boasts of the person of the Priest-Martyr.
‘This is an extremely unusual place with extraordinary people. The alumni of the University of Vilnius taught in the local grammar school. 100 priests are our alumni. Our countrymen come to reunions even from Tasmania. This testifies about something, doesn’t it?’ says a classmate of Fr Jerzy, a retired teacher of Polish Mr. Leszek Huryn. ‘Alek liked to take photos. He became a member of a poetic group where they did not only try to recite poetry but also try to create poems. It would be interesting to know whether some of his poems have been preserved… The figure of Jerzy could be seen in pictures taken by his school friends. Thin, dark eyes, always with his characteristic half-smile.
When he was an altar-boy he had a red cape, which was connected with the honour to carry holy statutes during processions and which his colleagues were jealous of.
Jozef Popieluszko – does not resemble his elder brother at all – has enough of questions how it is to have a blessed in the family. When he looks at the pictures of Alek – this is the name Jerzy was called by his family members – he feels that he is someone else, someone more important… And what was he like when they shared everyday reality?
‘I will neither praise him nor reprimand him’, he smiles under his moustache. ‘We were different. He was interested in books and I was interested in the farm. There was some moments we did all things together: we played, went to work on the farm, frolicked… Like brothers.’
Jozef still remembers their last meeting. It was early autumn of 1984. He was to leave to work in Germany. The elder brother suddenly said, ‘Anything can happen…’ Jozef did not understand what he meant. He understood the words only after his German acquaintances had told him about the kidnapping. His mind boggled. How could anyone kill a priest? For what? Time has not erased this doubt. He still cannot understand it and says, 'It must have been so…’
In Suchowola people have prayed for the beatification of their fellow countryman for 26 years. The previous parish priest Fr Stanislaw Suchowolec began the prayer. He celebrated Masses for Homeland, delivered sermons following the style of Fr Jerzy and cared for the orphaned family. But he began receiving anonymous letters, ‘You will die like Popieluszko.’ It was in the 1980s. He was found dead in the presbytery. Of course, the killers were not found. Today two local priests: Popieluszko and Suchowolec have symbolic graves next to the church. After the tragedy at Smolensk someone put the photos of the victims near the graves.
It takes ca. 5 km to drive from Okopy to Suchowola, mainly through the forest and meadows. As a child Alek walked that way to Mass every day. He got up at 5 a.m. Even his pious mother used to ask him to give up his walk through the dark forest, especially in winter. She was afraid of wolves. On winter mornings they came close to the houses. So she asked him to carry two stones. Wolves were supposedly afraid of the sound of stones. ‘There was some power, some determination in him’, his relatives recollect.
No wonder that in the army nobody could force him to take off his ring-rosary even at the cost of refusal of fulfilling the command.
We reach Okopy – his village. Small, often wooden houses along the narrow road. An ordinary yellow brick house in the middle of the village. Opposite the road, just a few meters away, a white hollow brick chapel hidden in some bushes. Inside the chapel one can see a statue of Jesus and an old statue of the Mother of God before which Fr Jerzy is said to have prayed. Behind the chapel there are swamps and distant forest line.
Marianna, Fr Jerzy’s mother. Weather-beaten face, weary but with a strong voice despite her age – 90. She says, ‘Remember my son’s words, ‘Overcome evil with good’. If everyone in Poland becomes better Poland will be better…
– Do you pray to your son? – someone asks.
– I pray to Lord God – she answers faultlessly.
– Was your son a holy child?
And she sinks her face into her hands and speaks in a low, weary voice:
– His every step was holy...
And then she adds reflecting,
– You must always think well even if bad things happen. Because ‘those who sow in tears will reap in joy’…
The last road
Fr Romuald Biniak, the parish priest of the Church of Polish Martyr Brothers in Bydgoszcz, tells us how the curate Fr Jerzy Osinski met Fr Jerzy at Jasna Gora during the September pilgrimage of workers in 1984 and asked him to celebrate Mass in his church. Fr Biniak has been the parish priest until now, as if a guardian of the place that became the last stop in Fr Popieluszko’s life. The church is located in Wyzyny, in the middle of the new district. Surrounded by blocks of flats and fast roads, opposite there is quite a big hospital. The church can be seen from the road. Its architecture is modern, built with a flourish. The statues of the patrons are on the white front. Soon they will have another Blessed – the parish is to receive Fr Jerzy’s relics. Next to the church there is a hospice, a place for those who die suffering. We are not surprised who it is named after…
I ask the passers-by which way is to the church. ‘The church with Fr. Popieluszko?, they ask. I succeed to reach those who participated in the Mass celebrated over 25 years ago.
‘Here we are living a bit in Fr Popieluszko’s shadow. Our children get to know him very early. Even a walk in the churchyard is a lesson of Poland’s history’, Roman tells us. His windows overlook the church. Then he was standing on the balcony watching the crowds coming to ‘Fr Popieluszko.’ He also remembers that all people talked about this Mass at 6 p.m. Only the first secretary of the communist party did not intend to go there…
‘We did not know that the murderers had already been inside the church, that the murder had been planned’, Fr Biniak says.
‘He was a voice of freedom for us’, says a taxi-driver standing at the hospital. ‘I was in grammar school and was waiting for him several hours. He passed by. People cheered when they saw him. And he – I remember that because it struck me much – was so inconspicuous, not a hero; small, thin, as if confused with those honours, ashamed.’
Fr Biniak remembers the events that happened over 25 years ago as if they happened yesterday. There was such tension in the air that he asked Fr Jerzy not to preach. So the guest reflected on the sorrowful mysteries of the Rosary.
Was there any chance to save him? Yes, it was. But God had another plan. Fr Popieluszko felt badly in the evening, he had a fever and was tired. Fr Biniak asked him to stay overnight. Fr Jerzy did not want to. He put on his cassock, buttoned it carefully and asked his driver to leave. The night was fine, autumn night. They left after 10 p.m.’
We are taking the same road today. Heavy traffic both ways, new smooth asphalt. Forests around, petrol stations and bars for drivers. A different world. But even those who are not interested in the story can see the places of the last events. On the roadside near Gorsko there is a fallen metal cross shaped monument. It is the place where Fr Jerzy was kidnapped. Farther we have Przysiek, the place where Waldemar Chrostowski, the driver of Fr Jerzy, managed to get out of the car. Farther there are a hotel parking and petrol station, the places that were not often frequented and where the torturers stopped to beat and tie the victim. The place of torment. Every time we stop here the details of this crime return.
Finally, we reach the dam in Wloclawek. It is an odd, empty and desolate place, with a view at the Vistula River, which is very wide here. Some anglers are sitting motionless on the bank. ‘Between the fourth and the fifth span of the dam’ Rev. Dr. Tomasz Kaczmarek, the postulator of the beatification process, reads from the documents. ‘Here they threw his body into water’. We look down to the white greyish fierce boil.
Between the spans there is a metal cross and like in Warsaw people always bring flowers and light candles here. A single cross overlooks the Vistula on the peak nearby.
We look at the dam, piling up the Vistula; we look at the pavements, the flat ordinary landscape that will always be associated with the crime and victim. Here the story of Fr Jerzy was to end…
The end becomes a beginning
In the Warsaw district of Zoliborz the first coaches arrive at the church early in the morning. From Lublin, from Rzeszow, from Szczecin. A river of people. You cannot even pass by at noon.
Sometimes Fr Malacki comes and asks why people want to visit this place during their tours of Warsaw. After all, the capital offers many attractions. Recently, he has asked a group of Japanese tourists who were not Christians. He did not dare to ask this question to Prince Charles of Wales who prayed at Fr Jerzy’s grave for a long time.
‘Here great things happen in particular people’s lives. And it began with the kidnapping. No man could have invented that…’ Fr Malacki recollects. ‘Mass after Mass, the priests heard confessions day and night. We have extraordinary, shocking stories recorded in the archives.’
Milena Kindziuk, the author of books about Fr Jerzy Popieluszko, says, ‘Fr Gniedziejko, a cousin of Fr Jerzy, ran to Okopy after the body of Fr Popieluszko had been found. Finding no words of comfort for the petrified mother, he told her, ‘In that case, Auntie, we have a Saint!’ In that case, Poland, we have a Blessed!