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A window at Toronto's Newman Centre in memory of Jerzy Popieluszko (Bill Wittman)
A window at Toronto's Newman Centre in memory of Jerzy Popieluszko (Bill Wittman)

Thomas Rosica

A martyr to Solidarity Add to ...

For Catholics and Christians, the Eucharist is truly the sacrament of non-violence: The way of Jesus to conquer evil and violence must be the Christian way.

This reality was lived out in the life of a young Polish priest, Rev. Jerzy Popieluszko who was beatified as a martyr Sunday, on the feast of Corpus Christi, in Warsaw's Pilsudski Square.

Father Popieluszko was kidnapped and killed by security agents in 1984 after several years of work with Poland's Solidarity movement, his body later found in a reservoir.

He was born Sept. 14, 1947, in the village of Okopy in eastern Poland, member of a strong Roman Catholic family. His seminary training was interrupted by two years of military service, during which he was beaten several times for living his Christian faith.

After ordination, the young priest, who never enjoyed good health, held several appointments before his final appointment to the parish of St. Stanislaw Kostka in Warsaw. He worked part-time in the parish, which enabled him to work as well with medical personnel. As a result of his close work with health-care personnel, he was asked to organize the medical teams during Pope John Paul II's visits to Poland in 1979 and Warsaw in 1983.

August, 1980, saw the beginning of the Solidarity trade union. Workers from the Warsaw steel plant, who were on strike in support of the shipyards on the Baltic Sea, requested a priest to say mass for them. The lot fell to Father Popieluszko. He stayed with the workers night and day. Solidarity represented for him a vision that he had first learnt from St. Maximilian Kolbe: that of spiritual freedom amidst physical enslavement.

On Dec. 13, 1981, Communist authorities imposed martial law, arresting many Solidarity activists and launching a program of harassment and retaliation against others. Many who had been on strike lost their jobs, and so their ability to support their families; others were beaten up on the streets and left for dead. Father Popieluszko became an important focus in a welfare program to support families affected by martial law.

He regularly attended the trials of Solidarity activists, sitting prominently in court with their families so that the prisoners could see they were not forgotten. It was in the courtroom that he had the idea for a monthly mass for the country, to be celebrated for all the imprisoned and their families.

It was not a political demonstration - Father Popieluszko specifically asked his congregation not to display banners or chant slogans, and insisted that change be brought about peacefully. His masses became well known not only in Warsaw but throughout Poland, often attracting 15,000 to 20,000 people.

Father Popieluszko was neither a social nor a political activist, but a Catholic priest. He wasn't a forceful speaker, but someone of deep conviction and integrity. His sanctity lay in fundamental righteousness that gave people hope even in horrendous situations. He knew that all totalitarian systems are based on terror and intimidation. The Communists saw him as an enemy because he freed people from fear of the system.

On Oct. 19, 1984, he was kidnapped by security agents on his way back to Warsaw after a visit to a neighbouring town. He was savagely beaten until he lost consciousness and his body was tied up in such a way that he would strangle himself by moving. His weighted body was then thrown into a deep reservoir.

Father Popieluszko's driver, who escaped, told what had happened. On Oct. 30, the priest's bound and gagged body was found in the freezing waters of a reservoir near Wloclawek. His brutal murder was widely believed to have hastened the collapse of Communist rule in Poland.

His funeral was a massive public demonstration with over 400,000 people in attendance. Official delegations of Solidarity appeared from throughout the whole country for the first time since the imposition of martial law. He was buried in the front yard of his parish church of St. Stanislaw Kostka, and since that day, 17 million have visited his tomb.

Father Popieluszko promoted respect for human rights, for the rights of workers and the dignity of persons. He represented patriotism in the Christian sense, as a cultural and social virtue. More than 80 streets and squares in Poland have been named after him. Hundreds of statues and memorial plaques have been unveiled to him; some 18,000 schools, charities, youth groups and discussion clubs have been named after him.

Because the murdered priest is being proclaimed a martyr for hatred of the faith, his beatification process did not require evidence of a miracle, even though many have been reported. His beatification provides a model for priests, calling us to strive that what we say and do outwardly should always agree with our inward conscience.

The blood of his martyrdom has become the seed of faith for his homeland and for the church. In this Year for Priests, when the priesthood and the church have suffered much because of the past "sins of the fathers," the life and death of Father Popieluszko remind us what the priesthood and the Roman Catholic Church are all about.

Basilian Father Thomas Rosica, chief executive officer of the Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation and Television Network in Canada, is a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.

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