The Legacy of Polish Martyr Father Jerzy Popielusko

No praying out loud, no Mass, no rosaries, no group prayers. Those were the Polish Army’s rules under the communist regime in the 1970s when a young Catholic seminarian named Jerzy Popieluszko was forced to complete his military service. Though the government tried to break the spirits of future priests so they would give up their vocations and even their faith, the atheist indoctrination didn’t work on Father Jerzy.
When his sergeant ordered him to stop praying the rosary while doing calisthenics, he refused and was punished by being made to stand outside in the rain and snow, sometimes barefoot, thereby damaging his health for the rest of his life. “They couldn’t dent his faith. That’s the most remarkable thing about him,” said filmmaker Paul Hensler, who wrote and produced the new Christopher Award-winning documentary about the Polish human rights hero, called “Jerzy Popieluszko: Messenger of the Truth.”
During an interview on “Christopher Closeup,” Hensler explained, “This is the story of a young priest—37 years old—who was murdered in 1984. His murder was the beginning of the end of communism. People told me [that] the end of communism happened in Berlin, but it is now stated in history that the end of communism began in a little church in Warsaw with a nonviolent revolution of people.”
People today may not understand the oppressive nature of communism, but it took a large toll on those subjected to it. Hensler said, “Communism is complete control: mind, body, spirit. Everything you do—when you wake up, when you go to work, what you get paid, how much meat costs—it’s complete control of the being. The government says, ‘No faith necessary; trust us, we’ll take care of you.’”
The film’s narration by Martin Sheen explains how those ideals worked their way into daily life: “Under Stalin, the communists controlled everything in Eastern Europe. The media was run by the state, wages and food prices were manipulated, and dissension was quickly and brutally crushed by the secret police…Nuns and priests were routinely tried and executed.”
However, when Poland’s John Paul II was elected pope in 1978, it had an enervating effect on his homeland, which was 98 percent Catholic. The Pope asked to visit Poland for three days in May 1979, but the government rejected the request because they were afraid he would derail their May Day celebrations of communist power. Instead they offered him nine days in June, which he gladly accepted. Over 10 million people came to see the pontiff and there was nothing the government could do to stop them.
In Warsaw, Pope John Paul II prayed to God, “Let Your Holy Spirit descend and renew the face of the earth and this land.” Those in the audience, including Father Jerzy, took that message to mean that it was time for the people of Poland to stand up for themselves, that the pope and the Holy Spirit would guide them.
In the ensuing months and years, thousands of workers in steel mills and shipyards went on strike demanding more freedom and better treatment. The cardinal assigned Father Jerzy to be the chaplain of what came to be called the Solidarity movement. He even entered the steel mill, which had been considered a “communist fortress,” and celebrated Mass for the striking workers. Eventually, the Polish government relented and gave its citizens what they wanted. Father Jerzy had made inroads toward freedom, but he would soon pay the ultimate price for his activism. The rest of the story will be in my next column.
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:

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