I was excited to discover this summer, that in April of 2013, a Polish group released a documentary, Popieluszko: Freedom is Within Us, on this wonderful priest. Unfortunately, the movie is in Polish, but there is the option of viewing it with either English or Spanish subtitles. I viewed this movie in Spanish during my time in Bogota, and it a great deal. Prior to seeing the movie, I was familiar with Fr Jerzy, and I learned a great deal more from the movie, and was left absolutely inspired by his simple faith, and his courage in the face of danger.
In many ways, the story of Bl. Jerzy Popieluszko parallels the stories of Monsignor Oscar Romero and numerous other martyrs of totalitarian regimes of the 20th Century. However, unlike Monsignor Oscar Romero, Blessed Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko is not a household name in the US. Fr. Jerzy (YEH-zheh) Popieluzsko (Poh-pyeh-WOOH-koh) lived from 14 September 1947 – 19 October 1984, was a diocesan priest of the Warsaw Diocese.
My excitement in discovering a bio-flick on Bl. Jerzy is due to the fact that I had studied his story in college. I first discovered this simple priest in a chapter of George Weigel’s Letters to a Young Catholic. At the time, I was a college junior who was fascinated by the interplay between the Cold War and the Catholic Church. I researched Fr. Jerzy (now Blessed Jerzy) a great deal in my junior seminar course in preparation to write a thesis, however, in the end I decided to focus instead on Pope St. John Paul II.
Summary of Movie
The movie opens with a scene featuring young Jerzy walking in the woods with his father, while looking for mushrooms. While cutting mushrooms, they witness Soviet soldiers executing a Polish man. This was a scarring experience for Jerzy and set the tone of the strict and oppressive environment of Cold War era Poland.
From this scene, the movie fast forwards to the seminarian Jerzy in the Polish military. The Polish government forced all seminarians to serve in a special unit in the Polish army, in order to abuse, insult, and humiliate them in an effort to force them to recant their faith and leave the seminary. The movie does a good job of showing the abuse that Blessed Jerzy underwent, things such as: difficult labor, near drownings, and brutal beatings, all because he (along with several other seminarians) refused to stop praying, refused to destroy their rosaries, and refused to remove religious medallions or scapulars from around their necks.
Towards the end of him time in the army, Blessed Jerzy and his fellow seminarians are sent off to Czechoslovakia to aid the Russians in putting down the 1968 rebellion. Not long after this, Fr. Jerzy was released from the army, and underwent several major surgeries to repair the severe damage to his heart, kidneys, thyroid and other internal organs as a result of the many beatings he received during his two years in the Polish army.
The movie then shows Blessed Jerzy as an ordained priest in 1979 (he was ordained in 1972). His health continued to be a problem and he was sent by his bishop to live in Warsaw, where he could have better access to health care than in the smaller villages, where he initially worked. Blessed Jerzy initially assisted in the parish of St. Stanislaw Kostka, but was quickly given the assignment to serve as chaplain to the striking men of the nearby steel plant in Warsaw.
This assignment as a chaplain came to be when workers at the steel plant in Warsaw began a sympathy strike in support of the workers at the Lenin Shipyards in the coastal town of Gdansk. The workers in Gdansk had gone on strike for better conditions and the ability to unionize. One of the first demands the striking Warsaw workers made after locking themselves in the shipyard, was for a chaplain to be brought in to serve their sacramental needs. Blessed Jerzy was able to enter the locked gates and to regularly celebrate mass for the men, hear their confessions, and aid many of the men in returning to the faith. He was also able to reach the men through stirring homilies about keeping their faith, living by the Beatitudes, and keeping Christ as the center of their lives. He also encouraged the men to ask for the intercession of the Virgin Mary for the nation of Poland. This strike soon ended with the demands for a recognition of the Solidarity labor union. (This was the strike that gained Lech Walesa international fame).
Following the strike and the recognition of Solidarity in the summer of 1980, the Pastor at St Stanislaw Kotska began to offer a monthly mass for the nation of Poland. In 1982, Fr. Jerzy took over these masses and gain prominence for his stirring homilies on the need for peace and to follow the teachings of the Gospel. These masses soon began to attract very large crowds and gained the attention of the nervous regime. He soon began to be followed by government officials, who sought to gather evidence in order to put an end to his preaching, his Masses and his ministry to the Polish people. Fr. Jerzy responded by greeting his “guardian angels” courteously, bringing them coffee or treats and trying to engage them in conversation. This is not to say that he never tried to ditch his “angels” in order to leave town or attend meetings. The movie shows several humorous episodes in which his dressed in disguise and was able to drop his “angels” through some skilled driving maneuvers.
The government’s efforts quickly escalate from just following him and recording his homilies to efforts at intimidation, including throwing an explosive into his apartment to send a clear message that he must cease his work or prepare to die. Later in 1983, he was arrested and booked into one of the toughest cells in one of the largest jails. Following his being placed in this cell, Fr. Jerzy immediately tried to strike up a conversation with his cell mates; murderers, thieves and other dangerous men awaiting trial. The movie depicts Fr. Jerzy as not seeming intimidated by these men. Eventually these men begin to tell him their stories and Jerzy went on to hear one of the men's confession. Fr. Jerzy would later describe this night as one of the most fruitful of his priestly of his priestly life. The next day, the government officials were very surprised to see that this small, frail Jerzy survived his time in jail. Succumbing to the pressure placed upon them by Cardinal Glemp and other Polish Church officials, the officials release Fr. Jerzy and continue the program of following, harassing and periodically arresting and interrogating him.
After witnessing the increasing stress that the acts of intimidation, including many death threats, place upon Fr. Jerzy, the Archbishop of Warsaw and many of Jerzy’s friends encourage him to consider leaving Poland for a while. Jerzy grudgingly considers an offer to go to Rome to study for a while, however, it is clear he has no plans of leaving. Before his alleged departure, Fr. Jerzy decides to plan one last rally for the nation of Poland at the Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa in Jasna Gora, Poland for the early fall of 1984. In planning this pilgrimage and rally, he knows that he is almost guaranteeing his death, as he was threatened with death if he did not cancel the pilgrimage.
Fr. Jerzy indeed goes through with the pilgrimage which attracts thousands of pilgrims and heroically challenges the government of Poland to recognize the human rights of its citizens.
Following the pilgrimage, an assassination attempt is made with a fake car crash, which Fr. Jerzy’s driver recognizes and is able to flee the scene. A week later, their car is stopped, and Fr. Jerzy’s driver is pulled out of the car and stuffed into a police car, while Fr. Jerzy is locked in the trunk of the police car. However, Fr Jerzy manages to escape the trunk, while his driver escapes the car. The driver flees to the nearby town and alerts the priest there, while Fr. Jerzy flees to the woods on the side of the road, but is quickly captured and beaten to death before being tied up and thrown in the Vistula River with rocks attached to him. He is found 10 days later, but is barely recognizable due to the severity of the beating he received prior to being thrown in the river.
In February of 1997, a cause for Fr. Jerzy was opened, which ran through 2001. At the end of this investigation, he was declared a Servant of God. On December 19, 2009, Pope Benedict recognized the martyrdom of Blessed Jerzy Popieluzko, and on June 6, 2010, in the presence of his mother, who was nearly 100 years old, Fr. Jerzy was solemnly beatified.
So what can we learn from Blessed (and hopefully Saint before long) Jerzy Popieluszko? He is an example of the courage and zeal we all should have in living our Christian lives. Are we willing to do the mundane things? For it is through doing these things that we ultimately serve God and truly live out our faith.
In the case of Fr. Jerzy, the small thing was to celebrate a mass for some striking workers. He then continued to visit them to offer his prayers and celebrate the sacraments. Fr. Jerzy had no intention of being a revolutionary. He simply decided it was important to stand up for the workers who were being treated unfairly and to pray regularly for the intervention of the Virgin Mary and Her Son for the people of Poland. It was through leading his people to prayer, instead of violence that he gained the attention of the government. And it was for being a man of faith who called on the leaders of Poland to examine their consciences, that he was ultimately martyred.
Below is an example of one of his prayers.
For his May 1982 Mass for the Fatherland, Father Popieluszko composed a new Litany to Our Lady of Czestochowa:
Mother of those who place their hope in Solidarity, pray for us.
Mother of those who are deceived, pray for us;
Mother of those who are betrayed, pray for us.
Mother of those who are arrested in the night, pray for us.
Mother of those who are imprisoned, pray for us.
Mother of those who suffer from the cold, pray for us.
Mother of those who have been frightened, pray for us.
Mother of those who were subjected to interrogations, pray for us.
Mother of those innocents who have been condemned, pray for us.
Mother of those who speak the truth, pray for us.
Mother of those who cannot be corrupted, pray for us.
Mother of those who resist, pray for us.
Mother of orphans, pray for us.
Mother of those who have been molested because they wore your image, pray for us.
Mother of those who are forced to sign declarations contrary to their conscience, pray for us.
Mother of mothers who weep, pray for us.
Mother of fathers who have been so deeply saddened, pray for us.
Mother of suffering Poland, pray for us.
Mother of always faithful Poland, pray for us.
We beg you, O mother in whom resides the hope of millions of people, grant us to live in liberty and in truth, in fidelity to you and to your son. Amen