The Touching Story of Blessed Father Jerzy Popieluszko

This beloved and unassuming young priest of Poland was a true hero of that tortured land during the Soviet Communist occupation. Now a Blessed, Father Jerzy (pronounced YEH-Zhe) was beloved by everyone in his homeland, believers and non-believers alike, because of his bravery in the face of extreme hatred on the part of the Communist officials. His story should be much more widely known than it is.

Never in good health, the strongest part of Father Jerzy were his hands. His most beloved possessions were the crucifix and Rosary sent to him by Pope John Paul II, a fellow countryman. He was sickly his whole life, yet he never complained of illness or injury. One day when he was making toys with his brothers and sisters, a nail pierced his palm. Later, one of the children noticed blood dripping from his hand. One of his siblings told the parents because young Jerzy did not want to bother anyone.

Young Jerzy’s great hero was Saint Maximillian Kolbe, another Polish priest who gave his life to save another prisoner – a man with a family – at Auschwitz. He determined early on to become a priest, but kept it a secret so that the authorities could not alter his examination results or pressure the family to keep him out of the seminary.

In 1966, his entire seminary class was drafted into the special indoctrination unit in violation of a church-state agreement. This cruel treatment was reserved for the most outspoken church leaders, including the future Pope John Paul II.

The horrible treatment he received in this “special unit” broke his health, but not his spirit. He wrote to his father “It turned out to be very tough, but I can’t be broken by threats or torture.” His seminary professors demanded that he take a period of rest, but he refused. “One doesn’t suffer when one suffers for Christ,” was his reply.

He became so weak that he suffered recurring fainting spells. A fellow priest found him lying in a dead faint at the foot of the altar, unconscious. After he endured another long hospital stay, it was discovered that Father Jerzy suffered from a serious blood disorder. He would need transfusions after each recurrence of the illness. He was placed on a special diet. His doctors hoped that a quiet life would prevent further episodes. He planned to rest and spend more time with his beloved seminary students when the call came that would give him no rest for the remainder of his life. His new position as chaplain to factory workers “gave him wings,” and changed the course of his life. He worked tirelessly to learn how to operate machinery, but more importantly, he grew to love the workers and they grew to love him. He tore down barriers between himself and the worker; there were many baptisms and weddings. All this brought him much joy.

In the meantime, He was shadowed relentlessly by the secret police, receiving death threats and urged to break contact with his beloved workers. “Truth that costs nothing is a lie,” became his motto.

In autumn of 1981, Father Jerzy came to the United States to attend the funeral of a beloved aunt. Like many Poles, he loved America and his many friends tried to convince him to stay and take political asylum. He knew that his people would be in danger if did that: “They need me and I need them.” So, as soon as the funeral was over, he flew back to Warsaw.

The communist regime declared a “state of war” against the Polish people on Dec 13, 1981 and, after attacks by security forces on factories and demonstrators, the Solidarity movement was forced underground. Solidarity was the first independent labor union founded within the Soviet bloc. It had over nine million members. Those workers who escaped arrest turned up at Father Jerzy’s apartment as soon as martial law was declared. “It was reflex,” said one worker — “when in trouble, see Jerzy.”

They came because they knew he was not afraid. On one wall of his apartment was a huge map of Poland marking every prison camp; next to it was a makeshift crucifix. When asked if he was afraid to have such a thing on his wall, he answered, “It is they who are afraid.” For Father Jerzy, his calling could be summed up in a verse from Saint Luke that he had chosen when he was ordained. It read, “To let the oppressed go free.”

The Polish people who had heard of Father Jerzy came from near and far to help those oppressed by the communists. People came from distant parishes and from abroad to give him aid. While his own garments and shoes rotted away, he cared only to provide for the needy, both Catholics and unbelievers. In return for their generosity, the secret police persecuted his workers and students. They followed him wherever he traveled. His apartment and car were electronically bugged so that the secret police knew his location at all times.

Martial law had silenced millions of Poles, but Father Jerzy was not afraid to speak out. He began to hold special “Masses for the Homeland” as Christmas (the celebration of which was forbidden) approached. Many of the miners from southern Poland were so moved by the strength and confidence of his soft voice that they proclaimed that it was the most powerful they had ever heard. Father said openly what they really felt, but could not say. They would rise again after any humiliation, “for you have knelt only before God.” The regime had banned the mere mention of Solidarity, but Father declared, “Solidarity means remaning internally free, even in conditions of slavery: overcoming the fear that grips you by your throat.”

The “Mass for the Homeland” grew into a national event, with people coming from all ver Poland to attend. The most famous actors in Poland vied to take part in the readings.

Even at his Masses, security forces forces circled the church as police tried to incite the congregation. Father’s only words were “Overcome evil with good.” The priest received hundreds of letters of thanks from Mass-goers, thanking him for restoring their faith. There were many conversions, including ranking communists who dared not go to anyone else. They knew that they could trust this priest.

Thousands of paper copies and audio cassettes were made of his preaching and spread across Poland. Church officials had forbidden the spread of these materials; so Father had to open his own underground print shop. His acclaim grew so great that even the Warsaw police refused to take part in actions against him. Men from other parts of Poland had to be brought in to do the dirty work.

As his Masses grew in popularity, the greater became the threats and harassment. “The most they can do is kill me,” he said. However, when the first attempt was made on his life, he was shaken. He had just collapsed into bed at 2 AM on the first anniversary of martial law, exhausted from preparing Christmas gifts for the children in Warsaw’s hospitals, when the doorbell rang. Father was too tired to get up and answer it. A moment later, a bomb crashed into the next room, blowing out the windows where he would have been standing.

Father was astonished at the hatred behind this attack. He had always thought that he would be exiled to Siberia like generations of Polish priests before him. He had even kept practicing his Russian so that he could “preach the good word in the camps.” Now he confided to a friend that he began to feel real fear. But nothing would separate him from his flock, because “there is a dimension beyond fear. Arrest, torture, even death itself are not the end of the story.” After the initial attempt on his life, brawny steel workers guarded him around the clock — “like a treasure, like a brother’s brother,” said one of the men.

One day a steelworker friend came to him in despair. Under threats of blackmail, he had signed a document agreeing to become a police informer. If he would become an informer, his friends and fellow workers would have nothing to do with him. If not, the police would come for him. In order to help his friend, Father told the man he would have to use his name. The man had no choice but to agree. When the situation became public, the police did not pursue it.

Father’s boldness enraged the authorities. Silencing him became a top priority. The priest’s movements were being followed at the top level of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, with major decisions on the case taken by the minister himself. At special meetings with church officials the regime demanded an end be put to Father Jerzy’s activities. Hearing that arrest was imminent, Father’s parishioners blocked police attempts to take him away for interrogation. Church officials reached the agreement that Father would submit to at most an hour of questioning.

When the search party arrived at the apartment, which was a gift from an American aunt, they “found” grenades, explosives and ammunition, as well as leaflets calling for armed uprisings. Of course, it was the police who planted these things so that Father would spend the second anniversary of the uprising in jail.

Father’s friends knew that he would not last long without his medications. The night in jail proved to be profitable. He spent the night talking to a convicted murderer and by dawn the man had confessed. Of course Father had no consecrated hosts on him; so he blessed a piece of prison bread and told the man, “Next time, we shall share a meal.”

The Cardinal-Primate of Poland, Jozef Glemp, had never been fond of Father Jerzy’s activities. He believed it was his first priority to preserve church-state “dialogue.” He disapproved of Solidarity, interested only in his accommodating approach as the only path to peace. For Father Jerzy, the only path to preach was respect for human rights. Cardinal Glemp was ordered by party magistrates to silence sixty-nine “anti-socialist” priests. It was obvious that the Cardinal disapproved of Father’s activities. When the Polish Pope sent Father Jerzy a crucifix and a rosary, Glemp changed his tune and praised the young priest as an example for the Polish clergy.

John Paul II had great admiration for the young priest for bringing together all parts of Polish society in a bold moral challenge to communist power. Father Jerzy’s spirit cheered the Pope and gave him hope for Poland’s eventual freedom from communist yoke. Soviet authorities, worried about the increase in religious fervor in the homeland, forbade the young priest and the Pope to meet with each other during the Holy Father’s trip to Poland in 1983.

General Wojciech Jaruzelski, the Polish puppet dictator, visited Moscow in May of 1984. Increasingly sharp attacks on Father Jerzy and other “extremist” priests appeared in the Polish press. Wherever he preached, death threats by phone and letter grew more numerous and alarming. To cheer the young priest, Warsaw students had given him a little black puppy which he promptly named “Tajniak” — Polish for “secret agent” — because it followed him everywhere.

Thirteen interrogations in the first six months of 1984 were staged to terrorize Father. His supporters always accompanied their priest to secret police headquarters. They waited outside, chanting hymns and prayers until the end of the ordeal. Inside, Father sat with hands behind his back, fingering the rosary beads that the Pope had sent him. He answered their questions as he always had — by reciting the rosary again and again. Furious, the agents would finally release him.

With Moscow and Warsaw turning up the heat, Father Jerzey finally lost the support of Cardinal Glemp. At his May 1984 Mass for the Homeland, Father made the Primate furious. Eleven top Solidarity leaders had just rejected a deal that representatives of the Primate and the regime had pushed them to accept: release from prison if they would drop their Solidarity activities. Father praised the prisoners’ courage for not betraying their ideals. When people “support the mechanisms of evil they become responsible for their own slavery.”

From that time on, the Primate’s negotiators dealt directly with secret police officials over Father’s silence. They reached an a greement with the authorities to muzzle him, but could not enforce it. “If I shut up, it means they have won” he told an Italian journalist. “To speak out is precisely my job.” When the Cardinal spoke publicly, he hardly drew anyone. Conversely, whenever and wherever Father Jerzy spoke, he drew the crowds.

In the summer of 1984, Church and Solidarity officials learned of secret plans to kill one of three leading “anti state” priests, including Father Jerzy. Several priests had already been killed in suspicious “accidents” involving the secret police. Father Jerzy’s own car had barely escaped a similar accident. A papal chaplain had died in a mysterious car crash in 1982, and several other pro-Solidarity clerics narrowly escaped a similar death. Polish Church officials chose to keep these and other killings quiet rather than protest them.

The workers redoubled their protection of Father Jerzy. State security cars circled the rectory and his apartment no longer was open to the troubled and the needy. Father rarely left the apartment now and avoided giving rides to friends, fearing that officials had sabotaged his car. However, the Masses for the Homeland continued. In the words of one worker, “We need it more than bread.” Father responded to the calls for violence, “You conquer people with your open heart, not with a closed fist.”

As he grew more and more frail with each passing month, he continued to bring aid and good cheer to Warsaw’s growing numbers of sick and poor. One woman was surprised to see Father leaving her mother’s apartment after bringing her Holy Communion. The daughter thought of him as a national celebrity, while the mother knew him only as her parish priest who visited regularly.

The sick and worried young priest hardly slept at all any more. Many nights he awoke in a sweat. He tried to appear calm, but his foreboding was so strong that others felt it as well. His old cheerfulness was gone, and his friends felt that he was near the breaking point. After the usual prayers after one Mass, Father turned to the congregation and stated, “Now I need your prayers.

The ring was closing around our priest. He returned to his family village, expecting the worst. He lingered in each corner of his family home as if saying good-bye. His mother watched him walk the farm and fields of his childhood. He was accused of holding “seances of hate” and “sessions of political rabies” in his church. One government official added, “Even though there is no such thing as a human soul, the struggle for power over it is real.”

The next day at secret police headquarters, the officers in charge of his case excitedly discussed their new orders: to go beyond the intimidation that had failed so far. He could be pushed off a moving train or have a “beautiful traffic accident” on the road. They could kidnap and torture him until he revealed the information they sought. Or maybe his weak heart would give out. The orders to eliminate him at any cost came from “the very top.”

By early October, Church officials assured the regime that the “Popieluszko problem” would be taken care of to their liking. The Primate’s increasingly harsh rebukes — for endangering the interests of the Church and worse — left Father Jerzy shattered. Friends recall seeing him sobbing uncontrollably just after had come from a meeting with Cardinal Glemp.

The Pope watched events in Warsaw with mounting alarm. He was afraid for Father Jerzy’s life. “One must suffer for the truth, the priest had written. “That is why I am ready for anything.” In lieu of Cardinal Glemp’s accommodation with the regime, the Pope sent a special blessing and crucifix to Father Jerzy. In Rome, John Paul demanded, “Why don’t they defend him!”

It was planned that Father would be kidnapped outside of Warsaw because of his strong worker guards there. The police tried to force him to travel alone. His traveling bodyguard, Waldemar Chrostowski, was interrogated many times and presured to “cease their friendship.” When he ignored the warnings his apartment was gutted by a powerful firebomb. Even though Waldemar was a firefighter by profession, authorities halted investigation of the incident.

On October 9, the order was given that Father Jerzy was to be killed without fail, but first, security agents should try to “extract” as much information from him as possible in a wartime Nazi bunker in the forest. Any others traveling with him would also be murdered.

On October 13, 1984, Father and his bodyguard were returning from his last Mass for the Homeland” along with a prominent Solidarity leader. Thanks to the bodyguard/chauffeur’s quick reflexes, they eluded the secret police ambush. When the death squad returned to headquarters, a superior remarked “What a pity — it could have been a bigger accident with so many involved.”

Father Jerzy suddenly felt that an unbearable burden had just been lifted from him. He knew the end was near. A colleague remarked, “He went straight for what was coming to meet him.”

A few nights later, Father noticed that a secret police car had been stationed outside his window for several hours in the icy cold. “They must be freezing,” he told Chrostowski, and sent him down with a message”You ‘ve been on duty for so long – Father Jerzy wants you to have a cup of coffee.” The officers looked annoyed and turned away.

When he traveled, Father like to dress casually, but this time he put on his priestly garments. As always, he took along the rosary, his greatest treasure, given him by the Pope. That evening he presided at a special Mass for the Working People at a small town in the countryside. The topic of his sermon was “Overcome Evil with Good.” Secret agents waited outside, wrapping their wooden clubs with rage. Father spoke his last words to the congregation, “Most of all, may we be free from the desire for violence and vengeance.”

Father wanted to be back at his home parish for Mass the next morning. His friends had spotted a strange Fiat waiting outside the church in the small town. In the car was the officer in charge of the long-running investigation, one of the most brilliant and trusted officers in the Polish secret police. With him were two other highly decorated officers from the security service’s Fourth Department, responsible for religious affairs. This was the same team that had tried to ambush the priest six days before. These callous men had argued about selling the priest’s car for spare parts.

Parishioners offered to escort Father Jerzy by car back to Warsaw, but he was used to being followed and it was late. He and his bodyguard would go alone. The secret police overtook them on a deserted road about a half hour from the town. They held the bodyguard at gunpoint. The captain dragged Father by the cassock to the Fiat. “What are you doing, Gentleman? How can you treat someone like this?”

In a cold fury, the kidnappers beat him with fists and clubs, smashing his skull and face. Unconscious, he was bound, gagged and thrown into the trunk. As they headed for a lonely stretch of woods, the bodyguard hurled himself from the Fiat in a desperate attempt to escape. He made it to a nearby workers hostel and quickly raised the alarm. When they reached the hospital emergency ward, another squad of secret police and a state prosecutor were waiting to take him away. But for the authorities it was too late. The bodyguard had already alerted the Church.

The secret police Fiat sped on with Father Jerzy in the trunk The captain’s men were arguing now, and downing quick shots of vodka. The kidnappers were so terrified that they would be identified that they wanted to leave the priest in the woods. “No,” said another angrily, “the priest must die.”

With the bodyguard’s escape, news of the abduction had swept across Poland. Shock and outrage were nationwide. The parish church overflowed with thousands of people. Every night, larger crowds came to the Masses, praying for Father’s deliverance. Massive security forces surrounded the Warsaw steelworks, where the men were praying at work. Throughout Poland, there were mass meetings in factories and spontaneous prayers in schools. The national crisis mounted. Other churchmen denounced the kidnapping, but Cardinal Glemp refused to comment. The Holy Father declared himself “deeply shaken,” condemning the shameful act and demanding Father Jerzy’s immediate release.

After ten days of waiting, the nation’s patience ran raw. Authorities dispatched large security forces and imposed emergency measures in cities and towns. The last Sunday of October, a record 50,000 people engulfed the parish church at a cold, outdoor Mass for the Homeland. They listened to a tape of Father Jerzy’s last sermon. They hoped and prayed to see him again.

When smiling security officers pulled the battered corpse of Father Jerzy from a reservoir on the river Vistula, about eighty miles from Warsaw, it was tortured beyone recognition. A sack of rocks hung from his legs. His body had been trussed from neck to feet with a nylon rope so that if he resisted he would strangle himself. Several gags had worked free and lay across his clerical collar and cassock, soaked with the priest’s vomit and blood.

Officially, Father spent less than two hours with his kidnappers, but his torture was much too extensive and systematic to have in inflicted in that brief time. Family members present at the autopsy described a body covered head to foot with deep, bloody wounds and marks of torture. His face was deformed. His eyes and forehead had been beated until black. His jaws, nose, mouth were smashed. His face was deformed, and both hands were broken and cut, as if the priest had been shielding it from blows. His fingers and toes dark red and brown from the repeated clubbing. Part of his scalp and large strips of skin on his legs had been torn off.

The autopsy showed a brain concussion and damaged spinal cord. His muscles had been pounded again and again until limp. Internal injuries from the beatings had left blood in his lungs. One of the doctors that performed the post-mortem reported that in all his medical practice he had never seen anyone mutilated internally. The kidneys and intestines were reduced to pulp, as in others cases of prolonged police torture in Poland. When his mouth was opened, the teeth were found completely smashed. In place of his tongue, there was only mush.

A group of priests tried to identify the body, but could not recognize their friend. Identification was finally made by Father’s brother from a birthmark on the side of his chest. Making the full autopsy report public was deemed too explosive by regime and Church officials, who continue to suppress it. Church and independent sources familiar with the report have said it details an even more horrifying picture suffered by the defenseless priest.

“The worst has happened,” declared Lech Walesa, Solidarity’s leader. In Rome, the Holy Father reacted with shock, following the news late into the night. At the parish church in Warsaw, a priest made several attempts to get the mourning population to say the Our Father. When he reached “Forgive us as we forgive those who trespass against us” the congregation refused to pray with him. It took several more attempts before the people would utter that line, and when they did, they prayed it with great force.

Just as was feared, when the state trial was held for the perpetrators, only the mid-level criminals were sentenced. Those who masterminded the plot got off scott-free. Because they were afraid that Father Jerzey’s final resting place would become a shrine, the state officials pressured his parents to bury him in their distant village. The faithful demanded a huge funeral and that he be buried in the parish cemetery. It was the pleading of Father’s mother that he be buried at the parish church in Warsaw.

Father’s mother had continued to wear a red shawl as long as she believed her son was alive. Now, for the funeral, she wore her black shawl. On the day of the funeral ten thousand steelworkers in hard hats marched past secret police headquarters, chanting “We forgive,” “Greetings from the underground,” and “No freedom without Solidarity.” Half a million people filled the streets leading up to the parish church. Scattered throughout were the forbidden Solidarity banners of factories, schools and offices from every corner of Poland. One read “A strike at the heart of the nation,” another proclaimed, “But they can’t kill the soul.”

Father Jerzy knew that his death would have immense power. “Living I could not achieve it,” he once said when the danger rose. The parish church, Saint Stanislaw’s has become a national shrine. As of the writing of this piece by James Fox in 1985, and unending river of pilgrims flow past Father’s grave. Great mounds of flowers are put there. Even communists visited the grave. A thousand-man volunteer force guards the church yard in teams around the clock.

The murder of the holy, defenseless priest emboldened the populace and encourage many conversions and vocations. All the while the regime continued to defame the priest.

Today, Poland, as the rest of the former Iron Curtain countries of Europe, is a free country and a proud ally of our own country. The enemies of Christ rule Europe no more.

***Author’s note: It was by chance that I was looking for reading material when I happened upon this Reader’s Digest of May, 1985. I could not sleep thinking that Father Jerzy’s story must be made widely known. The title of the original article was “Do you hear the Bells, Father Jerzy?” The author of the piece is John Fox.

Father Jerzy, may you rest in peace.

Father Jerzy, pray for us!