I’ve been a pastor for many years, but Jerzy Popiełuszko continues to challenge me. He was a pastor who found himself caught up in a historic, nonviolent, freedom movement. The Polish struggle for freedom was remarkable because so few people died—yet Popiełuszko was among the very few martyrs in that revolution. He died because he stood in the front, ferociously defending his sheep against the wolves of oppression. To this day, he makes me wonder how far my love as a pastor would go.
Catholic Priest & Solidarity Movement Firebrand
If we must die suddenly, it is surely better to meet death defending a worthwhile cause than sitting back and letting injustice win.
More than 250,000 people attended the funeral of Polish Catholic priest Father Jerzy Popiełuszko in November 1984. His body had been found in a reservoir on the Vistula River, bound with ropes and badly beaten. For his relentless role as a firebrand in the banned Solidarity movement, police had kidnapped him eleven days earlier. He and his driver were stopped by three men while returning from a preaching engagement. The driver later escaped and reported the incident, igniting the search that found the priest’s body 45 miles from where the kidnapping took place.
When news of Popiełuszko’s death spread, Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa said,
The worst has happened. Someone wanted to kill, and he killed not only a man, not only a Pole, not only a priest. Someone wanted to kill the hope that it is possible to avoid violence in Polish political life. At the funeral, the first time in three years that Wałęsa was allowed to speak to a large crowd, the union leader said,
Solidarity lives because Popiełuszko shed his blood for it. There were still years of struggle before Solidarity and democracy were to triumph in Poland, but Popiełuszko’s death was a major focal point for clarifying the nature of the struggle and the commitment to freedom for the Polish people. He was only 37 years old.
Background & Context
Jerzy Popiełuszko attended seminary at a time when the conflict between the Communist regime and the Catholic Church was at one of its most intense moments. He and fellow seminarians witnessed the brutality of the government first-hand as they tended students who were beaten by police in anti-government riots in 1968. Popiełuszko eventually became the priest of the St. Stanislaw Kostka Church in Warsaw.
Formation of the Solidarity Union
Polish history was changed in August 1980 when strikes erupted at the shipyards in Gdańsk under the leadership of Lech Wałęsa. The Solidarity Union was formed, and labor unrest spread rapidly throughout Poland. The workers at the massive Huta Warszawa steel plant joined the strikes and asked for Mass to be celebrated inside the occupied plant. Popiełuszko was selected by the archbishop and the strikers, and led 10,000 strikers in worship. He was chosen as the chaplain for the steel workers, and St. Stanislaw’s became their official parish in Warsaw.
Repression of Solidarity & Nonviolent Resistance
In December 1981 martial law was proclaimed in Poland. Solidarity was banned, and thousands of union leaders were arrested. The Catholic Church became the main place where people could still gather and voice their resistance. Popiełuszko attended some of the political trials and decided to hold a special worship service for the people in prison and their families. These rites became a new form of national Mass and incorporated Polish poetry and national songs. Popiełuszko’s sermons attacked abuses of human rights and encouraged freedom of conscience. He compared the sufferings of Poland to Jesus on the cross.
The trial of Jesus goes on forever, he preached.
It continues through his brothers. Only their names, their faces, their dates and their birth places change. In his mind the church could not be neutral in the face of injustice, but must join as a defender of the oppressed.
On one hand, Popiełuszko said that the authorities should serve the people they govern. He proclaimed that God gives freedom to humans and that therefore any enslavement of freedom is a work against God. On the other hand, he spoke out against any form of violent revenge. He said Christians must pray not only for the oppressed but also for the oppressor. Poles were called to a
patriotic struggle to reinstate human dignity. Violence would undermine the very nature of their cause.
Murder & Legacy
The machinery of repression quickly turned against this outspoken priest. His parish house was vandalized. He was repeatedly detained and interrogated for
abusing religion for political purposes. At one point he was given amnesty provided that he stayed away from his political activism for two and a half years. But days later he preached at a Mass for prisoners and called for the ban on Solidarity to be lifted, for allowing freedom of expression, for releasing detained leaders and for allowing crucifixes to be displayed in public places. Popiełuszko faced new threats, but felt that witnessing to the truth was how people overcame fear. He said,
If truth becomes for us a value, worthy of suffering and risk, then we shall overcome fear—the direct reason for our enslavement.
Less than two months later Popiełuszko was murdered. Knowing he was a target, he said,
If we must die suddenly, it is surely better to meet death defending a worthwhile cause than sitting back and letting injustice win. Though the government feared an outbreak of violence following his death—or perhaps even hoped for such an outbreak to justify another crackdown—the Solidarity activists maintained their nonviolent discipline. The struggle continued with Popiełuszko’s murder as a rallying cry. When the Communist system finally fell and the once-imprisoned union leader Lech Wałęsa was elected president, the fallen priest’s hopes were fulfilled. His monuments in stone, and tributes through music, film and poetry show that he lives on in the grateful hearts of the Polish people.