Faith, Freedom, Nonviolence & Truth

In my previous column, I started sharing the story of Father Jerzy Popieluszko, a priest in Poland who began a nonviolent revolution against his country’s oppressive communist government during the 1980s. His story is told in the Christopher Award-winning documentary “Jerzy Popieluszko: Messenger of the Truth.”
Father Jerzy’s Masses at St. Stanislaus Kostka Church in Warsaw began attracting thousands of people yearning for freedom. His homilies included messages like, “Justice and the right to know the truth require us, from this pulpit, to repeatedly demand a limit on the tyranny of censorship.” The priest’s commitment to nonviolence also held strong, so he told the congregation, “Let’s ask [God] to make us free from revenge and hatred, to give us freedom, which is the fruit of His love.”
Father Jerzy’s appeal went beyond politics, though. During an interview, the film’s writer/producer Paul Hensler told me, “He was everything that a priest should be. He was the simple son of a potato farmer and his wife, who grew up in the fields and had no pretenses. When he wrote a sermon, he would give it to a cab driver, and say, ‘Could you read this and tell me what you think?’ The cab driver would read it and say, ‘I understand it.’ Father Jerzy said, ‘Then it’s good.’ If the simplest person said, ‘I don’t understand what you’re talking about,’ he would have rewritten it.”
Word about Father Jerzy’s influence spread to Moscow. Hensler said, “Izvestia newspaper wrote, ‘Why can’t you shut this man up? His sermons sound more like propaganda than Catholic preaching.’ That was the end of him. All of the government in Poland said, ‘We either fix this or we’re finished.’”
Polish Cardinal Jozef Glemp saw trouble coming, so he encouraged Father Jerzy to request a transfer to Rome to study and deal with his ongoing health problems. But Father Jerzy refused. Four days later, he was dead.
Hensler said, “He knew it was going to happen. They had thrown a rock at his car. They had thrown half a stick of dynamite in his room when he was asleep. Three policemen pulled him out of a car one night, only one man killed him. One actually had an emotional breakdown, the third man started to cry because he was so put off by the violence. A single man killed him, beat him to death.”
When news of Father Jerzy’s murder spread, the Polish people underwent a real test: would they react violently or peacefully? Hensler revealed, “John Moody (co-author of a book about Father Jerzy) said that when they murdered him and found his body, a million people came to Warsaw and shut the city down for two days. The police and militia disappeared. Thousands attended the funeral. They didn’t fight back, they didn’t start fires and turn over cars. They heard his message: if you have to do it by violence, it’s wrong. Violence is not the answer.”
Father Jerzy may have died in 1984, but his legacy did not. He is credited with playing a major role in the downfall of communism; tourists still come to visit and pray by his tomb; 350,000 people attended his beatification in 2010; and he may move to sainthood within the next few years.
So what can people who watch this powerful documentary take away from this vital piece of history? Hensler said, “From this movie, I think people will see this is a great hero of human rights who never threw a rock.”
For a free copy of the Christopher News Note, GIFTS OF THE SPIRIT, write: The Christophers, 5 Hanover Square, New York, NY 10004; or e-mail: mail@christophers.org  
 

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