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He Fought Evil to the End

by Wlodzimierz Redzioch


This article by Inside the Vatican Eastern Europe Correspondent, Wlodzimierz Redzioch, is about Father Jerzy Popieluszko who was beatified in Warsaw on June 6, 2010. He was a young Polish priest who was beaten to death by Polish secret police only 26 years ago, when the “Iron Curtain” still stood. Also included is an interview with Marianna  Popieluszko, Father Jerzy’s mother, given to Milena Kindziuk and published in the Polish Catholic weekly Niedziela and an interview with Professor Hanna Suchocka Polish ambassador to the Holy See.

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Urbi et Orbi Communications, June/July 2010

On October 19, 1984, Father Jerzy Popieluszko, a young priest from the Warsaw parish of St. Stanislaw Kostka, was invited to a prayer meeting held by the association for the pastoral care of workers of the town of Bydgoszcz. He celebrated Mass first, then commented on the sorrowful mysteries of the rosary. He ended his comment with the following words: “Let’s pray God to set us free from fear and terror, but, first and foremost, from the desire for violence and vengeance.”

At the end of the meeting Father Popieluszko decided to go back home even though it was late. He was traveling in a car driven by a certain Waldemard Chrostowski.

When the car got close to a village called Górsk, it was stopped by officers of the secret service in the disguise of traffic police. After handcuffing the driver, they stunned the priest with a knock on the head, gagged him and threw him into the trunk of the car and drove away.

Chrostowski managed to get off the running car and gave the alarm.

The escape of Popieluszko’s driver did not make the police officers change their criminal plans: they beat the priest to death — the doctor who did the autopsy declared that he had never seen a man with such internal lesions — tied his hands and feet behind his back and threw him into the Vistula river with a bag full of stones tied to one leg.

Twenty-six years have passed since those terrible facts. Now, the workers’ priest martyred by the communist secret service has been beatified in the central square of Warsaw, the city where Father Popieluszko carried out his mission.

It was a moment the Polish people had been awaiting for since Popieluszko died. Some 200,000 people gathered in Poland’s capital city, including Marianna Popieluszko, the Polish martyr’s mother.

The prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, Archbishop Angelo Amato, celebrated the Holy Mass. Cardinals William Levada, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, Adam Maida from Detroit, Kazimierz Swiatek from Byelorussia, Stanislaw Dziwisz, Archbishop of Krakow, and the Polish cardinals Józef Glemp, Henryk Gulbinowicz, Franciszek Macharski, and many Polish bishops, were present.

At the beginning of the ceremony, Warsaw’s archbishop, Kazimierz Nycz, thanked Marianna Popieluszko for her son, a priest and martyr of the Church.

Then, along with the postulators in the process of beatification Father Tomasz Kaczmarek and Father Gabriel Bartoszewski, Nycz requested the Holy Father’s representative to include God’s servant Jerzy Popieluszko amongst the blessed. In reply, Archbishop Amato read the beatification formula in Latin and delivered a sermon.

At the beginning of his homily, Amato mentioned his moving visits to the museum dedicated to the blessed martyr, where one can see the photograph of his face horribly disfigured by his murderers.

“Why was Father Popieluszko massacred this way? Was he a criminal, a murderer, a terrorist?” was the archbishop’s question, to which he replied: “Not at all. He was just a priest who defended his dignity as a minister of Christ and of the Church, and the freedom of all those who were oppressed and humiliated like him. But the Gospel, religion, freedom, human dignity were not in tune with Marxist ideology. That is why he roused the murderous fury of the great liar, God’s enemy and oppressor of mankind, the one who hates truth and spreads falsehood.”

Amato pointed out that Father Popieluszko was not a political agent, but that as a priest he did not accept living surrounded by death and that, with the spiritual weapons of truth, justice and charity alone, he tried to claim his freedom of conscience as a priest and citizen.

At he end of his homily, the prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints highlighted the importance of this event in John Paul II’s home country: “The beatification of Father Popieluszko is a memorable joyous day for your country … It is a great gift to a great nation whose book of saints is enriched with another wonderful page.”

Yet he added that this event goes beyond the frontiers of Poland: “Today the fame of Father Popieluszko’s beatification spreads like the perfume of incense from Poland to the Church and all over the world. Today, at the end of the Year for Priests, the Holy Church proposes not only an exemplary priest, but also a heroic witness to the beauty and truth of Jesus’ Gospel.”

During the ceremony, Benedict XVI’s message from Cyprus was broadcast. The Pope greeted the people gathered in Warsaw on the occasion of Popieluszko’s beatification. It was a very significant gesture which stressed the importance of this beatification for the Church.

At the end of the Mass, Father Popieluszko’s relics were carried in procession to the Church of Divine Providence; this church, still under construction, has become the Pantheon of Poland’s most famous sons and daughters.

“I Offered My Son to God”

The Polish Catholic weekly Niedziela recently published an exclusive interview granted by Marianna  Popieluszko, Father Jerzy’s mother, to Milena Kindziuk. We publish it for our readers by courtesy of Niedziela.

Do you ever pray to your son?

Marianna Popieluszko: I pray to God, because we must pray Him, not men. Yet we can ask certain holy men to intercede for us.

Does Father Popieluszko help you. Is his intercession effective?

Marianna Popieluszko: Shall I tell everyone how he helps me? Should anybody want to know if Father Popieluszko helps men, they should start to pray him to intercede; they will find out themselves.

Have you ever been granted any grace through your son’s intercession?

Marianna Popieluszko: He has helped me more than once. Some time ago I had problems with my legs and I had to be operated on. I prayed on my son’s grave. The pain ended and I was able to dig out potatoes in the fields all week.

I remember that some years ago you said that you wanted to live to see Father Jerzy beatified. This day has finally arrived. Are you happy?

Marianna Popieluszko: I’m always happy. We must always be happy whether things go right or wrong. God knows what’s best for man. If I’ve lived to see my son beatified it means that God wanted me to. The beatification of Father Jerzy is important because those who shed tears will rejoice. I separated from my son in tears, now I will see him again with joy.

What is the most significant of your son’s teachings?

Marianna Popieluszko:  “Defeat evil with good.” If people put these words into practice, they would be better and if people are better, the world too will be better.

You are a saint’s mother. What was most important in the upbringing of your son?

Marianna Popieluszko: I always reminded my children to say: “Jesus be praised.”?Whenever I go to church, my heart rejoices and cries out: “Jesus be praised.” Father Jerzy knew that the Lord is the most important thing in life.

How did Jerzy learn to pray?

Marianna Popieluszko: As a child he used to pray at home with all of  us. We used to pray together. On Wednesdays we used to pray in front of the image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in the kitchen, on Fridays in front of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, on Saturdays in front of the Virgin of Czestochowa. It was always like this.

In other words, my son received at home the first lesson of prayer. But all that was good in him was a gift from God’s grace. Anyway, Jesus Christ was important to him.

As a child he used to build little altars and play with holy pictures and build small chapels to which he used to bring flowers; he even dressed up as a priest. When he became an altar boy, he had a short chasuble, but he wanted a long one! He just lived on these things.

Did he go to church everyday when he was an altar boy?

Marianna Popieluszko: Yes, in all weathers and seasons. He woke up at 5 a.m. everyday to go to church and walk four kilometers through the wood from Okopy to Suchowola. As an altar boy he never missed Mass, not even once. He never complained that he was tired. He never did: he was like that.

By the way, how was Jerzy as a child?

Marianna Popieluszko: He was a good boy. I never had to reproach him. He obeyed me whatever I asked him to do. It was clear from the childhood what he was like.

For example, he loved people, he was attracted to his neighbors. An old woman lived next to us; she pastured her cows on her own everyday. He used to go to her for a chat. Even when, as a seminary student, he returned home, he always paid a visit to this old woman. On the other hand, I repeated to him: “The love of God and our neighbors is what leads us to Heaven.”

In the showcase of the Memory Room dedicated to Father Jerzy at Suchowola there is a book he received as a prize bearing the following dedication: “For your school performance, 9th January 1955.” Did your child always do well at school?

Marianna Popieluszko: I remember in particular the time he was preparing for his first communion; he was a very keen student. He was patient, constant and hard working. The parish priest told me: “Madam, your son is very gifted, he can become very good or very bad, depending on how he is brought up.” I brought him up as best as I could, teaching him not to lie. He knew there was no place for falsehood at home, that he was not supposed to steal, not even a pear picked from a tree on a road.

The teacher one day summoned you, asking you to reproach your son…

Marianna Popieluszko: He wanted to inform me that Jerzy spent too much time saying the rosary at church. It was true that after school he went to church and said the rosary every day, but the teacher intended to intimidate us, threatening to mark him down for conduct. I replied to the teacher that there was freedom of worship in Poland and that everybody could do as they pleased (the Holy Ghost must have inspired me at that moment). In the end, they did not mark him down for conduct, even though he always went to church for the rosary.

Did you feel that your son would become a priest?

Marianna Popieluszko: I had been asking God to grant me this grace. I had been praying to be a priest’s mother. Even when I was expecting him, I offered him to God. I don’t know if he became a priest for this reason. I don’t know if God listened to me or somebody else…

What do you mean you offered your son to God?

Marianna Popieluszko: Soon before he was born, I simply offered him to the Virgin Mary.

Your son’s decision to enter a seminary, did you take it for granted or did it come to you as a surprise?

Marianna Popieluszko: I was surprised. God had granted me that grace. Life is like this: God grants a grace and if one accepts, one will walk in His footsteps.

Do you remember the moment Jerzy told you he wanted to become a priest?

Marianna Popieluszko: Yes, after the ball at the end of the school, he just went to Warsaw’s seminary to hand in his documents. On that occasion he took the train for the first time, but he didn’t get lost.

I think he chose the Warsaw seminary because it was the closest one to Niepokalanów (a town not far from Poland’s capital city, whose name means town of the Immaculate Conception; there Father Maximillian Kolbe established an important Franciscan community). He was strongly attached to this place, maybe because when he was with his grandmother, he had found several issues of the magazine “Rycerz Niepokalanej” (“The Knight of the Immaculate”). He had taken them and always thumbed through them. At the time he desired to go to Niepokalanów.

He talked a lot about Father Kolbe: he regarded him as an example. I remember that when he came home, he brought pictures and slides of Father Maximillian. He showed the slides to all the people of the village, who gathered in our house on that occasion. He told about his life and was moved when he spoke of his arrest, his imprisonment and martyrdom in the concentration camp. He was very sensitive.

I was happy when he became a priest and prayed all the time that he would remain faithful to God, as this is the most important thing in life.

Did he rarely come home while studying at the seminary?

Marianna Popieluszko: He usually came home when he was on holiday. He helped us with the reaping and the building of the granary. Unfortunately, he was sickly, especially when he had been operated on in the thyroid after military service. In the army his health had been undermined. He suffered a great deal of injustice, even though he never told us anything, he never complained. He was like that. After his death his fellow soldiers told us about the abuse he had suffered. One day he was forced to stand barefooted in the snow as he had refused to hand in a rosary.

After finishing his studies he came home even more rarely. One day he said to me: “Mama, you had lots of children and took care of them. I have many more and I’ll have to account to God for their care.”

The last time he came home he left me his soutane saying: “I’ll take it next time. Otherwise you will have a memento of me.” I’ve kept it as such until now.

Were you afraid when he served as a priest in Warsaw?

Marianna Popieluszko: Yes, I was, like any mother. But what could I do? He knew what to do, we didn’t. On the other hand, if I had given my son to the Church, I couldn’t take him back. If God had called him to serve the Church, he couldn’t serve his family.

Father Jerzy did not say what he did in Warsaw. But I knew the secret police followed him, even when he returned home to us. He didn’t want to be photographed (“Why all this fuss about me?” he would say).

He was courageous, otherwise he wouldn’t have taken that way and run so many risks. He was strong, though physically weak. He realized he had chosen to serve God and that he would be faithful to Him till the end.

After your son’s funeral you declared that those who had killed him did not fight against him, but against God…

Marianna Popieluszko: Yes, I did, because they did not aim at Popieluszko, but at the Church. His death will lie heavy on me as long as I live. It’s a great pain. It is a wound which will never heal; it is something impossible to forget. But I don’t condemn anyone. God will judge those people one day. But I would be happy if they were converted.


An interview with Professor Hanna Suchocka, Polish ambassador to the Holy See

The new film Popieluszko: Hope Will Never Die, by Polish director Rafael Wieczyfski, recently premiered at Vatican Radio in connection with the beatification of Father Jerzy Popieluszko. It is an extraordinary film on the life of a hero unknown to most people, a martyr of the Polish people, who defeated the Communist dictatorship with the weapons of love and the Christian message. Polish Ambassador Professor Hanna Suchocka was at the premiere. I caught up with her for Inside the Vatican.

What impression did the film on Father Popieluszko make on you?

AMBASSADOR HANNA SUCHOKA: The final years of Father Popieluszko's life, 1981-1984, coincided with a very difficult period for Poland, i.e. the period of the state of siege. Rafael Wieczyfski's film renders the atmosphere of those days perfectly and at the same time shows Father Popieluszko's spiritual figure wonderfully, his struggle with himself, with others and even with God, whose grace had given him the power to cope with the challenges he was confronted with.

How do you feel about the beatification of a contemporary martyr of the Communist regime?

We are accustomed to beatification ceremonies. In these years we have seen men and women in the Church who follow Christ to the end. Yet Father Popieluszko's figure stands out for several reasons; hence the particular relevance of his beatification. Unlike others who have been either beatified or canonized over the last years, Father Popieluszko is a contemporary figure. If he were alive today, he would only be 63, a priest at the height of his powers, actively involved in his mission. Unfortunately, his life was brutally taken by officers of the Communist secret service. He was responsible for teaching what St. Paul said, i.e. that "we must defeat evil with good," for visiting the sick, comforting prisoners and walking in Jesus' footsteps.

Who was Father Popieluszko?

He was, above all, someone who bore witness to Christ. Not only did he fight for a better world, following the teaching of Jesus; he remained, first of all, a priest working and living for his neighbors.

Now that the Year for Priests is drawing to a close, it is worth remembering Jerzy Popieluszko as the spiritual example of somebody living in a large parish of a metropolis in the second half of the century, of somebody who, in spite of his poor health, remained a great figure in his acceptance of God's grace.

There is another element in the figure of Father Popieluszko, which is reflected in the original title of the film, Freedom Is Within Us. He was someone free inside, who followed the voice of faith and of his conscience. He always preserved a great inner freedom despite the pressure placed on him by the authorities, by his own milieu and cooperators. It was probably his inner freedom which most disturbed his murderers. Yet his freedom bore great fruit.

What fruit?

Five years after Father Jerzy's tragic death, Poland took the way of democratic transformation. His sacrifice was not in vain and is still alive in the hearts and memory of the Polish people, who come in droves to his grave, thus showing the value of his witness and death.

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