Faith, Freedom, Nonviolence, and Truth: The Legacy of Polish Martyr Father Jerzy Popieluszko

No praying out loud, no Mass, no rosaries, no group prayers.

Those were the Polish Army’s rules under the communist regime in the 1970s when a young Catholic seminarian named Jerzy Popieluszko was forced to complete his military service. Though the government tried to break the spirits of these future priests so they would give up their vocations and even their faith, the atheist indoctrination didn’t work on Father Jerzy.

When his sergeant ordered him to stop praying the rosary while doing calisthenics, he refused and was punished by being made to stand outside in the rain and snow, sometimes barefoot, thereby damaging his health for the rest of his life.

“They couldn’t dent his faith. That’s the most remarkable thing about him,” said filmmaker Paul Hensler, who wrote and produced the new Christopher Award-winning documentary about the Polish human rights hero, called “Jerzy Popieluszko: Messenger of the Truth.”

During an interview on “Christopher Closeup,” Hensler explained, “This is the story of a young priest – 37 years old – who was murdered in 1984. His murder was the beginning of the end of communism. People told me [that] the end of communism happened in Berlin, but it is now stated in history that the end of communism began in a little church in Warsaw with a nonviolent revolution of people.”

The Suppression of Freedom

People who’ve lived in a free country all their lives may not understand the oppressive nature of communism, but it took a large toll on those subjected to it. Hensler said, “Communism is complete control: mind, body, spirit. Everything you do – when you wake up, when you go to work, what you get paid, how much meat costs – it’s complete control of the being. The government says, ‘No faith necessary; trust us, we’ll take care of you.’”

The film’s narration by Martin Sheen explains how those ideals worked their way into daily life: “Under Stalin, the communists controlled everything in eastern Europe. The media was run by the state, wages and food prices were manipulated, and dissension was quickly and brutally crushed by the secret police…Nuns and priests were routinely tried and executed.”

However, when Poland’s John Paul II was elected pope in 1978, it had an enervating effect on his homeland which was 98 percent Catholic. The Pope asked to visit Poland for three days in May 1979, but the government rejected the request because they were afraid he would derail their May Day celebrations of communist power. Instead they offered him nine days in June, which he gladly accepted. Over 10 million people came to see the pontiff and there was nothing the government could do to stop them.

In Warsaw, Pope John Paul II prayed to God, “Let Your Holy Spirit descend and renew the face of the earth and this land.” Those in the audience, including Father Jerzy, took that message to mean that it was time for the people of Poland to stand up for themselves, that the pope and the Holy Spirit would guide them.

A Nonviolent Revolution

In the ensuing months and years, thousands of workers in steel mills and shipyards went on strike demanding more freedom and better treatment. The cardinal assigned Father Jerzy to be the chaplain of what came to be called the Solidarity movement. He even entered the steel mill, which had been considered a “communist fortress,” and celebrated Mass for the striking workers. Eventually, the Polish government relented and gave its citizens what they wanted.

Father Jerzy’s Masses at St. Stanislaus Kostka Church in Warsaw began attracting thousands of people yearning for freedom. His homilies included messages like, “Justice and the right to know the truth require us, from this pulpit, to repeatedly demand a limit on the tyranny of censorship.”

The priest’s commitment to nonviolence also held strong, so he delivered the message, “Let’s ask [God] to make us free from revenge and hatred, to give us freedom, which is the fruit of His love.”

Though Poland’s many Catholics absorbed these ideals, they crossed denominational boundaries as well. Atheist poet Janusz Katanski, who was interviewed for the documentary, attended one of Father Jerzy’s Masses to see what all the fuss was about. Hensler explained, “He went and saw atheists, agnostics, unknowns, Catholics and Protestants. They weren’t going there to hear Catholicism; they were going because they were standing shoulder-to-shoulder with their brothers and sisters. Eventually the byline became, ‘If we stand here long enough, something will happen. They can’t kill all of us and they can’t arrest all of us.’”

Father Jerzy’s appeal went beyond politics, though. Hensler said, “He was everything that a priest should be. He started marrying the steelworkers. They loved him because he was just like them. He was the simple son of a potato farmer and his wife. He grew up in the fields and he had no pretenses. He loved people. When he wrote a sermon, he would go out of his room to all the people waiting for him, and he’d look around and there’d be six or seven people. He’d give his sermon to a cab driver, and say, ‘Could you read this and tell me what you think?’ The cab driver would go away, read it, come back and say, ‘I understand it.’ He said, ‘Then it’s good.’ If the simplest person said, ‘I don’t understand what you’re talking about,’ he would have rewritten it.”

The End and the Beginning

Word about Father Jerzy’s influence spread to Moscow. Hensler said, “Izvestia newspaper wrote, ‘Why can’t you shut this man up? His sermons sound more like propaganda than Catholic preaching.’ That was the end of him. Because all of the government in Poland said, ‘We either fix this or we’re finished.’”

Polish Cardinal Jozef Glemp saw what was coming and didn’t want Father Jerzy to get hurt. He encouraged him to request a transfer to Rome where he could go to study and deal with his ongoing health problems. But Father Jerzy refused. Four days later, he was dead.

Hensler said, “He actually knew it was going to happen. They had thrown a rock at his car. They had thrown half a stick of dynamite in his room when he was asleep. They were warning him that they were getting sick of him. Three policemen pulled him out of a car one night, only one man killed him. One actually had an emotional breakdown, the third man started to cry because he was so put off by the violence. A single man killed him, beat him to death.”

When news of Father Jerzy’s murder spread, the Polish people underwent a real test: would they react violently or peacefully? Hensler revealed, “John Moody (co-author of a book about Father Jerzy) said that when they murdered him and found his body, a million people came to Warsaw and shut the city down for two days. The authorities disappeared. The police and militia disappeared. People were standing on roofs all around the funeral. And John Moody said they didn’t fight back, they didn’t start fires and turn over cars. They heard his message: if you have to do it by violence, it’s wrong. Violence is not the answer.”

Father Jerzy may have died in 1984, but his legacy did not. He is still credited with playing a major role in the downfall of communism. Tourists come to visit and pray by his tomb, a sacred place the locals have guarded since 1984. 350,000 people came to his beatification in 2010, and he may move to sainthood within the next few years.

What can people who watch this powerful documentary in today’s world take away from this vital piece of history? Hensler said, “From this movie, I think people will see this is a great hero of human rights who never threw a rock…[People] believe that his light will eventually get out and change North Korea, change the Crimea. Right now you’ve got a leader who’s looking at the borders that were moved in 1989 and never liked it. Suddenly he’s saying, ‘I think communism needs to take it back.’ What [does communism] want? They want to control the people. In 1989, Father Jerzy gave them freedom: freedom of heart, mind and spirit. That will never be taken away from the Polish people.”

(“Jerzy Popieluszko: Messenger of the Truth” will air on PBS stations nationally over the next several months. Check http://www.messengerofthetruth.com/ to see when it will air in your area – or to order a DVD. To listen to my full interview with Paul Hensler, click on the podcast link:)

Christopher Closeup podcast – Guest: Paul Hensler

About Tony Rossi

After graduating from St. John's University in New York with degrees in Communications and English, Tony Rossi found a job at the Catholic media organization, The Christophers, that allowed him to indulge his interest in religion, media, and pop culture. He served as The Christophers' TV producer for 11 years, and is currently the host and producer of the organization's radio show/podcast Christopher Closeup, writer and editor of their syndicated Light One Candle column, and producer/scriptwriter of the annual Christopher Awards ceremony.


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