The Church always stands on the side of people who are victimized. Today, the Church stands on the side of those who have lost their freedom, whose conscience is being broken. … Dedication to freedom is tightly knit with human nature and with mature national awareness. –Blessed Fr. Jerzy Popiełuszko
Blessed Fr. Jerzy Popiełuszko helped keep the Polish people’s spirit alive during the dark age of Communism, before being tortured and assassinated by the secret police. Fr. Popiełuszko was born in 1947 in the village of Okopy in northeastern Poland. In 1965, he enrolled in seminary in Warsaw. The next year the government enrolled him and his fellow seminarians in the army, where two years of harsh conditions would cause him lifelong health problems. In 1972, he was ordained a deacon, and one year later a priest. Between 1972 and 1980, he worked as a vicar. But in 1980, as his health worsened, he was appointed to pastoral work for doctors and other medical professionals. That August, he celebrated a Mass for striking steelworkers in Warsaw, marking the beginning of his pastoral engagement with the Solidarity movement. At the same time, Fr. Popiełuszko engaged in charity work for those in need: the poor, the sick, families of political prisoners, etc.
Beginning in February 1982, once a month he celebrated Masses for the motherland in Saint Stanislaus Kostka Church in the Żoliborz district of Warsaw. In his sermons, Fr. Popiełuszko spoke about true patriotism, liberty, faith, and truth. These services drew ever-growing crowds from the capital and surrounding regions. They also attracted the attention of the Communist security services.
The state power apparatus intensely persecuted the young priest, aiming to intimidate him into changing his sermons. He experienced two burglaries at his apartment; his car was vandalized; he was framed and falsely arrested; and explosives were thrown into his house. He was incessantly surveilled and stalked by government officers. He came under attack from the Communist press. Yet in one of his sermons in 1983, he held out hope for reconciliation based on love and justice.
In 1984, just weeks before his death, Fr. Popiełuszko tied human dignity and freedom of conscience to the freedom to earn a living. “Justice dictates each to be granted the rights they are due – and thus, the right to work in accordance with your profession and not be thrown out of work for your beliefs, ” he said.
On October 13, 1984, the Communists made their first attempt to kill Fr. Popiełuszko. Secret service officers tried to cause a fatal accident by throwing a stone at his car, but he avoided it. One week later, the priest was kidnapped, brutally beaten, and thrown into the Vistula River with a 23-pound bag of stones tied to his feet – while he was still breathing. His neck was tied with a rope so that any movement only tightened the knot. His body surfaced on October 30.
His funeral took place on November 3, 1984, drawing more than 250,000 people in a massive anti-regime demonstration. Fr. Popiełuszko was buried in the front yard of Saint Stanislas Kostka church. Since then, his beloved parish has become a shrine of the Solidarity movement. His murderers never faced justice, but many years later, Cardinal Angelo Amato would say that Father Popiełuszko’s death “was the beginning of a general conversion of hearts to the Gospel.”
Indeed, in less than five years after the martyrdom of Fr. Jerzy Popiełuszko, the Communist regime in Poland collapsed, part of a mutually reinforcing domino effect in other Central and Eastern European countries. No one who observed his life, or his death, could ever question that a divinely inspired love of freedom lay deep inside his heart.