Throughout history, the Polish people have often been under the control of a foreign power. The situation was no different at the end of World War II when communist Russia made Poland one of its eastern bloc nations and subjected it to the brutality of communism. Everything was to be subject to the state and controlled by the state. Freedom was to be crushed.
However, Poland was a predominantly Catholic country, and the Catholic church in Poland remained an important part of the lives of many Poles for their faith and for keeping alive the flame of freedom.
Karol Wojtyla Changes Everything
Everything changed for Poland in 1978, when Cardinal Karol Wojtyla from Poland was elected pope. For the Polish people, their fellow Pole, now Pope John Paul II, who had lived under both Nazi and communist rule and had opposed both, was the head of their church. This was the shot in the arm that was needed for those in Poland who were working for freedom.
Then, when Pope John Paul II visited his home country less than a year after his election, through his words and his presence, he conveyed a vision of freedom, and, most importantly, he gave the Polish people hope. At the end of one of his homilies, the Holy Father asked for the Holy Spirit to renew the face of the earth and Poland. The message was clear to the Polish people. The Holy Father was with them one hundred percent and was encouraging them to pursue the truth and freedom in order to restore their country.
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A Young Priest Heeds the Holy Father's Call
One of the people who heard the pope speak and attended his masses during his week long papal visit to Poland was a young parish priest named Fr. Jerzy Popiełuszko. He took the pope's message to heart. Fr. Jerzy was courageous and shared his bravery by speaking the truth and calling his parishioners to live the Gospel by not harboring revenge while they simultaneously pursued freedom of thought and speech through the means that they had. He exhorted them to truly live the Gospel which meant living with authentic freedom to serve God and to serve others.
For the Polish people, one of those means for expressing themselves was worker strikes. Through the worker strikes which began at the Lenin ship yards in Gdansk, the Polish workers began to organize themselves and develop a voice. Then there was another strike at a steel mill in the capital of Warsaw in 1980. Just like at the ship yards, the workers locked themselves in the facility to prevent any work from taking place. Then in an unprecedented move, the workers at the steel mill asked the Primate of Poland, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, if he would have a priest come into the mill in order for mass to be said.
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Chaplain to Solidarity
The cardinal saw this as a tremendous opportunity, and he sent just the right priest--the young Fr. Jerzy who was a parish priest at St. Stanislus Kostka parish. Through this initial introduction, Fr. Jerzy would eventually become the chaplain of the workers union.
Later, when the workers union was legitimized by the signing of an agreement with the government and the head of the union Lech Wałęsa, it established the first free labor union in the communist world. It was called Solidarity, and its numbers would grow to 10 million registered Polish workers in a country of 35 million people.
Fr. Jerzy was the ideal priest to serve as the chaplain. He cared deeply about the people and their concerns, and he would listen to them as they told him about their difficulties. In addition, he helped the union by connecting them with experts who could teach the union leaders how to effectively communicate with the government and how to respond non-violently to violence committed by the government. And, of course, he would administer the sacraments to provide God's grace to His people. The workers and their families responded to his compassion and embraced Fr. Jerzy. His parish would become the parish home of the workers at the steel mill.
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Speaking out during Martial Law
Just over a year after the agreement between Solidarity and the communist government, the government cracked down by imposing martial law. From December 13, 1981 until July 22, 1983, the government used the military to violently repress all opposition to the government.
Despite the dangers, Fr. Jerzy continued to celebrate mass in public places. Each month, he would offer a mass for the country at his parish St. Stanislaus Kostka. And each month, the attendance at the mass would increase. Eventually, there were thousands coming to the mass to pray and to hear the sermons which gave hope to people who were under such severe restrictions of their freedom of speech, assembly, and movement.
These well-attended masses offered the only real opportunity for public protest against the suppression imposed by the government. Indeed, Fr. Jerzy's homilies ended up being broadcast on Radio Free Europe in order to help spread his message to a wider audience than could attend the mass. Instead, of simply thousands of Poles hearing his homilies, millions were able to hear his messages that fanned the flames of faith and hope. The government was unsure what to do about this young priest who dared to speak of freedom while they brutally repressed the nation.
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Martyred for the Faith and for his People
Naturally, Fr. Jerzy became a target for the government. First, he was arrested on false charges in 1983. Through pressure from the Church hierarchy, Fr. Jerzy was released and pardoned of the trumped up charges. Then, in 1984, a car accident was planned that was designed to kill Fr. Jerzy. However, the priest avoided the "accident" and the plans of the government were foiled.
Finally, on October 19, 1984, another plan was executed by security police of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in order to eliminate Fr. Jerzy. Fr. Jerzy was kidnapped by the three security officers who had followed him in his car on his way back from Warsaw. He was beaten up almost beyond recognition, killed, and thrown in the trunk of their car. The men took his body to a nearby river where they tied Fr. Jerzy's feet to a rock and threw him in the water.
The Polish nation was shocked by the murder of this holy priest. After his body was recovered, a funeral mass was celebrated on November 3, 1984 at which over 500,000 people attended. Eventually, the security officers were convicted and sentenced to prison with light sentences.
However, the government had inadvertently created a further force to galvanize and encourage the Polish nation. As a martyr, Fr. Jerzy provided a person who symbolized their struggle against a repressive regime that would stop at nothing, including murdering a priest who was ministering to their needs both physical and spiritual, in order to suppress their human desire for authentic freedom and truth. Through their commitment and faith, the Polish people were eventually able to throw off the communist yoke in their own country in 1989 and to help see communism fall throughout eastern Europe.
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Feast Day: October 19th