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Remembering a Victim of the Communist Regime

by Wlodzimierz Redzioch


Wlodzimierz Redzioch interviews Fr. Tomasz Kaczmarek, postulator of the beatification cause of Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko, a young priest from St. Stanislaus Kostka parish in Warsaw, Poland, who was murdered by the Communist totalitarian regime in October 1984.

Larger Work

Inside the Vatican


22 – 25

Publisher & Date

Urbi et Orbi Communications, New Hope, KY, December 2008

On October 19, 1984, Father Jerzy Popieluszko, a young priest from the parish of Saint Stanislaus Kostka Warsaw, was invited to a prayer meeting held by the clergy entrusted with the pastoral care of workers in the town of Bydgoszcz. After celebrating Mass, he commented on the sorrowful mysteries of the Rosary. He ended with these words: "Let's pray God to set us free from our fears, but, above all, from our desire for violent revenge." At the end of the meeting, Father Popieluszko decided to return to his parish, even though it was late. He was travelling in a car driven by a certain Waldemard Chrostowski. Not far from a village called Gorsk, the car was stopped by traffic police (the false policemen were actually secret agents). After handcuffing the driver, the agents stunned Father Jerzy with a blow on the head, gagged him, locked him in the trunk, and left immediately. Chrostowski managed to escape from the moving car and soon denounced the kidnapping. The escape of Father Popieluszko's driver did not change the secret services' plan: the agents murdered the priest. First they tied him in a such a way that any move he made tightened the rope around his neck. Eventually, they threw him into the Vistula River with a bag of stones tied to one leg (the doctor who did the autopsy on Popieluszko's corpse declared that he had never seen a man with such badly damaged internal organs).

The priest's kidnapping was briefly announced on the evening newscast of October 24. A Mass was immediately celebrated for father Popieluszko in the Church of Saint Stanislaus Kostka, and a perpetual vigil was held: thousands of people prayed for Father Jerzy's life. Unfortunately, news of the discovery of Popieluszko's corpse came out on October 30, and on November 3, the funeral of the murdered priest was held in Warsaw. More than half a million people attended in complete silence to pay their respects to Father Popieluszko, who became for the Polish people the symbol of the fight for truth and of the non-violent struggle of good against evil, represented by the Communist totalitarian regime.

On the 24th anniversary of Father Popieluszko's death, I interviewed the postulator for his beatification cause, Father Tomasz Kaczmarek.

Q: What do we know about the Servant of God, Father Jerzy Popieluszko?

Father Tomasz Kacmarek: Jerzy Popieluszko was born in the village of Okopy, near Bialystok, in northeastern Poland, on September 14, 1947, into a deeply religious family. From his childhood he was affected by the spiritual atmosphere created by his parents Marianna and Wladyslaw. This helped to develop his vocation. After leaving school, he entered the Major Seminary of Warsaw, where he attended theology and philosophy classes.

Q: The 1960's were difficult years for the Church in a Communist regime like Poland. How were seminarians treated?

Kacmarek: The Communist authorities tried to impede the training of seminarians by persuading them to give up their theological studies. First of all, they enlisted them for two years in special military units created expressly for them. For this reason, Popieluszko was enlisted at the beginning of his second year of theological studies and did his national service between 1968 and 1969. This so-called national service consisted of useless exercises: conscripts had to dig trenches and fill them with earth soon afterwards, and crawl on the ground, preferably in the mud; but first and foremost they were obliged to attend continuous political classes aimed at their indoctrination.

Some were crushed by this oppressive system and gave up the idea of becoming priests; however, this was not the case with Popieluszko. Jerzy had no problems showing his religious faith (he set up a prayer group; they prayed and said the Rosary at night). In this difficult situation, he became a sort of spiritual leader. But he paid for his courage. He was punished: he was often forced to stand up, barefooted, for hours, even in winter, holding his equipment, which weighed up to 70 pounds. Another humiliating punishment he had to face involved washing the toilets of the barracks with a toothbrush. Two years of such persecutions did not weaken Popieluszko psychologically, but undermined his health. When he returned to the seminary, he was found to have problems with his thyroid likely to cause his death, and had to be operated on (the other seminarians decided to spend whole days praying for his health).

Q: What can you say about Popieluszko as a seminarian?

Kacmarek: He was always very scrupulous about his vocational training and life of prayer, even though he was not a very brilliant student, as proved by his marks; only in his last two years did he improve remarkably, especially in dogmatics and biblical studies.

Q: When was he ordained a priest?

Kacmarek: In 1972. He then began his priestly ministry near Warsaw. Between 1979 and 1980 he was entrusted with the pastoral charge of students in the university Church of Saint Anne. Unfortunately, his health was always in a precarious state, and in 1980 he was accepted as a resident in the Warsaw parish of Saint Stanislaus Kostka by Father Bogucki, a dynamic and well-known priest. That was a time of great social and political change, the time of Solidarity. As the parish was close to the big steel mills, the bishop entrusted Father Popieluszko with the pastoral care of the workers. This was for him an unprecedented experience: he was initially a bit perplexed, being unfamiliar with the working class and its conditions. Nevertheless the workers welcomed this little sickly priest who spoke with a feeble voice: he heard confessions, celebrated Mass and baptized those who converted. When martial law came into force in Poland on December 13, 1981, Father Popieluszko began Eucharistic celebrations called "Masses for the Fatherland."

Q: How would you define these "Masses for the Fatherland"?

Kacmarek: Some years before, Father Bogucki had started the tradition of celebrating the evening Mass of the last Sunday of each month for the intentions of the Fatherland. Father Popieluszko continued this tradition even under martial law.

These Masses were attended by thousands of people: this priest was able to pull in the crowds thanks to his goodness, his attitude to his neighbors, the way he spoke and celebrated Mass. His Masses for the Fatherland became well known not only in Warsaw, but throughout Poland (sometimes they were attended by 15,000 to 20,000 people). Father Jerzy thus became well known to the common people and therefore hated by the Communist authorities, who were upset and disoriented.

Q: Why did the Communist regime see Father Popieluszko as an "enemy of the system"?

Kacmarek: There is a point I would like to make clear first of all: Father Popieluszko was neither a social nor a political activist, but a Catholic priest faithful to the Gospel. Whatever he said, he drew upon the Church's social doctrine, the teachings of John Paul II and of the late primate of Poland, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski. All totalitarian systems are based on terror and intimidation; Father Jerzy, on the contrary, released people from their fear of the system; that's why the Communists saw him as a mortal enemy. All tyrants rule through terror, but their power begins to vacillate once their subjects are set free from this terror. On the one hand, Father Popieluszko exposed the hypocrisy of the Communist regime; on the other hand, he taught believers how to confront totalitarianism. He repeated Saint Paul's words: "Fight evil with good."

The Communists were taken aback by this kind of reaction. In addition, the Communist regime aimed at the introduction of an anthropological vision which involved the elimination of religion from human life. In Poland, this implied the fight against and destruction of the Catholic Church.

Since this could not be achieved overnight, the Communists, pragmatic as they were, chose to proceed step by step in the weakening of the Church and the undermining of her prestige and influence on the Polish people, even though they never abandoned their hostility to religious faith.

Q: Did this hostility to faith go so far as to involve the murder of priests and believers?

Kacmarek: Yes, it did; the murder of Father Popieluszko is just a case in point. On September 24, 1984, the Polish secret services, maybe at the KGB's request or only with their consent, decided to get rid of Popieluszko once and for all. Their plan included several alternatives: the first attempt, made when Father Jerzy was on his way from Gdansk to Warsaw, did not succeed; the second one, made on October 19, did: Father Popieluszko was kidnapped, tortured, tied and thrown into the Vistula.

Q: What exactly do we know about the kidnapping and murder of Father Popieluszko?

Kacmarek: The autopsy of Father Jerzy's corpse and the trial of the murderers revealed details of the murder. The killers, Piotrowski, Chmielewski, Pekala, were members of the special units of the Interior Ministry. These units, made up of people with a strong ideological motivation and convinced that they were acting for the good of the country and of the Communist regime, were entrusted with particularly risky and dirty work. They therefore regarded the murder of a priest, i.e. of an ideological enemy, as perfectly normal or rather as laudable. They carried out their task with unprecedented brutality, which shows their hatred of the faith that the priest stood for.

Q: Rumor had it, some years ago, that Father Jerzy had not been murdered the night he was kidnapped, but later on, after being tortured . . .

Kacmarek: His corpse was subject to a very accurate and detailed autopsy at the well-known Institute of Forensic Medicine of Bialystok. The autopsy proved that the priest had died the night he was kidnapped, strangled by the rope he had been tied with. Other conjectures on his death are unfounded.

Q: When was the decision made to open the beatification case of Father Popieluszko?

Kacmarek: Father Jerzy has been regarded as a martyr since the discovery of his corpse; also, the fame of his saintliness has increased over the years. Several miracles were ascribed to his intercession, which led to the request for the opening of the beatification cause. The cause was opened by Cardinal Jozef Glemp, primate of Poland and archbishop of Warsaw, on February 8, 1997. The diocesan phase lasted exactly four years, after which all documents were translated into Italian and sent to the Vatican; there they were opened in the presence of Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints on May 3, 2001.

After that, a so-called Positio super martyrio was drawn up, i.e., a summary of all the documentary evidence concerning Father Popieluszko's martyrdom to be discussed by the cardinals and theologians who make up the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. In October, Warsaw's Archbishop Kazimierz Nycz handed a copy of the Positio to the Pope, along with a written request from the entire Polish episcopate.

Q: What is the content of this letter?

Kacmarek: It is a confidential letter. All I can say is that the bishops are trying to draw the Holy Father's attention to the importance of Popieluszko's beatification for the Church and for Poland. Needless to say, this letter may only result in the Congregation's examining Father Jerzy's cause before others without affecting the final verdict.

Q: Have you verified any miracles performed through Father Jerzy's intercession?

Kacmarek: A point must be made in this connection: in a martyr's beatification cause, the formal verification of a miracle is not necessary, even though in this case many have been reported. In theological terms, martyrdom itself is a miracle when faced with a Christian spirit.

Q: Let's hope that the cause will end soon and that all those who face totalitarian regimes with a Christian attitude will have Blessed Popieluszko as their protector . . .

Kacmarek: Let's hope so.

Known for Holiness

Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, presented the instruction Sanctorum Mater in February this year. This instruction is intended to provide new complete and clear guidelines for the diocesan phase of beatification causes. The document does not introduce great changes, but prescribes the scrupulous observance of present rules and the rigorous ascertainment of a widespread reputation for holiness among believers and of miracles ascribed to the intercession of the prospective saint. Throughout the history of the Church, a reputation for holiness has been an indispensable requirement for beatification and canonization. In the case of Father Popieluszko, this fame is widely ascertained: his grave, close to the parish church of Saint Stanislaus Kostka in the district of Zoliborz, has become a place of uninterrupted pilgrimage (it is reckoned that about 15 million people visited his grave between 1985 and 2005). In addition, prayers at his grave are reported to have brought about conversions or spiritual change.

Father Popieluszko's grave was visited by John Paul II on June 14, 1987, and by a great many well-known personalities, both Churchmen like Cardinals Ratzinger, Hume, Sin, Lustiger, Backis, Schonborn, and Vlk, and politicians like George Bush, Margaret Thatcher, Edward Kennedy and Vaclav Havel.

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