Blessed Fr. Jerzy Popiełuszko: Martyred Freedom Fighter

Next year—2019—will mark the 30th anniversary of communism’s collapse in Poland and Eastern Europe. It will also mark 35 years since the murder of Father Jerzy Popiełuszko. I was safe in California when the communist secret police killed my former vicar in Poland in October 1984. In May 1980, Father “Jurek” Popiełuszko was assigned to our parish, St. Stanislaus Kostka, where I was baptized. He was a physically frail servant of God with an indomitable spirit. To understand Father Jurek, we must shed some light on his personal background and the social and political context of his life.

Farm, Seminary, and Priesthood
One of five children, the future priest was born in a farming family in Okopy in the Podlasie region in what is now eastern Poland. The infant was originally baptized Alfons, to commemorate his mother’s brother, Alfons Gniedziejko, an underground Home Army soldier killed by the Soviets after the conclusion of the Second World War.

The Popiełuszko family was traditionalist, patriotic, devout, and poor. Their son earned official reprimands from the communists for his religiosity in high school. He resolved to enroll at a Catholic seminary in 1965.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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As a form of persecution, the communists called up seminarians for military service. Popiełuszko served for two years, 1966-1968, in a special unit for clerics. A red drill sergeant attempted to drum the faith out of the seminarian; he failed. Cleaning toilets while wearing a gas mask was just one form of communist fun and games. The reds routinely mocked his given name: Alfons can also mean “a pimp” in criminal slang. Despite all the physical and psychological abuse, the seminarian led the resistance among the clerics. Prayers and encouragement helped. Many years later the NCO still referred to his underling as “this uppity mug priest” (krąbrny klecha).

The stint with the military almost cost Popiełuszko his life; He fell seriously ill and had to put his religious studies on hold for a couple of years.

Finally, Jerzy Popiełuszko was consecrated as a priest in 1971. He was first assigned to a couple of suburban churches right outside of Warsaw, where he concentrated on teaching children catechism. Later, he was dispatched to a church in the Polish capital itself. His duties were light on account of his health. He even ended up again in a hospital for several months. However, as soon as he was released, Father Jurek returned to his duties with vigor, ministering to medical students and nurses at the university church of St. Anna in Warsaw’s Old Town. Eventually, under his tutelage, they served on teams of medical volunteers during the first visit of Pope John Paul II to his homeland in 1979.

Father Jurek took a few breaks, including a brief visit to Canada and the United States, where he had family in Pittsburgh. Fr. Popiełuszko was surprised how unaware the average American was regarding the outside world, but, at the same time, his U.S. trip was a much-needed dose of rest and freedom to recharge his system before returning home.

The Milieu of St. Stanislaus
In May 1980, Father Jurek was assigned to St. Stanislaus Kostka in the Żolibórz section of Warsaw. Our parson, Msgr. Teofil Bogucki, immediately took the young priest under his wing. A formidable and distinguished individual, the parson had previously been transferred from St. John Cantius a few blocks away. A combat chaplain of the Home Army, Msgr. Bogucki fought against the Nazis during the Warsaw Rising of 1944. This also led him to actively oppose the communists after the war.

In the second half of the 1970s, the Monsignor received illegal news sheets from another vicar, Father Henryk “Henio” Michalak of St. John Cantius. Father Henio picked them up from my father, Witold Chodakiewicz. Along with my mother Agnieszka and Wojciech Arkuszewski, he was a clandestine printer for the Scouting Group of the Committee to Defend Workers (KOR). Father Jurek quickly fit into this welcoming milieu.

Soon after Father Jurek’s return from the United States in July 1980, strikes broke out all over Poland and—significantly for him—at the Warsaw Steelworks, which eventually became a major stronghold of “Solidarity.” The hard hats asked Msgr. Bogucki for a chaplain. The parson dispatched his vicar, and so Father Jurek joined the strikers. He established a close relationship with them which lasted until his death.

Solidarity Underground
After September 1, 1980, when I returned to Poland from the West to fight the communists, I naturally saw Father Jurek around. I was 18 years old. Msgr. Bogucki was still a towering figure in the parish. I got closer to Fr. Popiełuszko only after the communists imprisoned my father (technically, he was interned, i.e., held without charge as a “threat to the socialist state”) on the same day the regime imposed martial law: December 13, 1981. The coup failed to crush Solidarity, but it did push it underground. Father Jurek invariably helped me with whatever I needed.

I was with the clandestine Independent Students Union (Niezależne Zrzeszenie Studentów – NZS). My uncle, Chris Cieszewski, now a professor of forestry at the University of Georgia, at the time headed the cell I belonged to along with, inter alia, Peter Penherski, currently a professor of psychiatry at the University of Alabama. We wanted to fight against the communists with arms in hand. But Fr. Jurek retorted: “Defeat evil with goodness!” (Zło dobrem zwyciężaj). We kids did not like this at all. We painted slogans, distributed handbills, and printed illegal press material. My volunteer day job was with the Charitable Committee of the Primate of Poland To Assist Political Prisoners (Komitet Prymasowski). Father Jurek supported my efforts.

I worked in the Old Town’s St. Hiacynthus (Jacek) Church, where there was a warehouse under the supervision of Father Jan Zieja. I cleaned, sorted, and organized the goods stored there. Transports arrived from the West, including the United States, with charitable help. This included clothes, washing powder, canned food, and other necessities. Sometimes we unloaded large cans of jam which had false bottoms and contained printers’ ink. Occasionally, there was printing equipment. From time to time, I delivered the aid packets directly to the wives of the political prisoners whom I knew. Usually, the women were ashamed to accept charity, but they accepted supplies from me since my family was in a similar predicament.

My mother, sister, and I visited my father in the Białołęka prison several times. Each time we smuggled out letters and various messages. Around February 1982, Jacek Kuroń asked us to find medicine for his father, Henryk. Both men had collaborated with the communists. The younger Kuroń had traveled a tortuous road from a Stalinist and Maoist to a Marxist revisionist. Eventually he ended up with the left wing of the dissident movement. Their views were repulsive to us, even though we appreciated them siding with Solidarity against the Jaruzelski regime.

Off I went to find the medicine, but after about a week I had run out of options. As soon as I would mention the Kurońs, the usually friendly faces would turn grim. So, I made my way back to Father Jurek. He told me to go to a certain monastery and ask there. “But I’ve already been there!” I protested. “Okay. Don’t worry. Come back in two days.” And he miraculously produced the medicine. He simply did not care that it was intended for a sworn enemy of Christianity, and the Catholic Church in particular. Fr. Popiełuszko saw only a human being in need.

Masses for the Fatherland
In September 1980, Msgr. Bogucki launched a monthly Mass for the Fatherland at St. Stanislaus. In February 1981, Father Jurek took over. And he continued with them despite martial law. One of the first Masses after the Jaruzelski takeover, on January 17, 1982, was devoted to Solidarity internees, including my father. Thousands attended. The crowds spilled into the streets. Fr. Popiełuszko also visited other places in Poland, preaching faith and freedom. Everywhere he comforted people. He assisted families of political prisoners with uplifting prayer and material aid. He organized pilgrimages for workers to the shrine of Our Lady of Częstochowa. The communists hated him.

The intrepid priest first fell under the scrutiny of the secret police back in 1974. The Security Service (Służba Bezpieczeństwa – SB) targeted him for recruitment. He flatly refused numerous times. Also, the SB failed to find kompromat on him—usually proof of corruption, like drugs, alcohol, or evidence of sexual peccadillos. They could not blackmail him. Ultimately, his recruitment file was closed in 1982.

Meanwhile, another file had been opened for surveillance on the “mug priest.” It was codenamed “Popiel,” in a crude contraction of his last name, a mockery of the name of a mythical Polish ruler eaten by mice, or perhaps because of the ashen skin color of the chronically ill Solidarity chaplain. The police harassed Fr. Popiełuszko. They surrounded him with secret informers. Their ranks included at least two priests-traitors: Father Michał Czajkowski (known as “Jankowski”) and Father Tadeusz Stachnik (known as “Miecz”).

The SB organized provocations against its target. First, in December 1983, Father Jurek was formally accused of “abusing freedom of conscience” and “utilizing religion” to attack the regime. Next, the SB planted evidence in his apartment, including grenades and ammunition, and charged him with terrorism.

Jerzy Urban, the red propaganda master of the Polish communist regime, proceeded to unleash a torrent of lies against Father Jurek. On September 12, 1984, the Soviet Union’s Izvestia chimed in, claiming that the priest “cooperates with rabid counter-revolutionaries.” General Wojciech Jaruzelskich allegedly told his head of the secret police, General Czesław Kiszkak, to “shut him up.” The red dictator also complained numerous times about Father Jerzy to the head of the Poland episcopate, Cardinal Józef Glemp. The hierarchs endeavored to send the Solidarity chaplain out of Poland. On October 16, Cardinal Glemp told Fr. Popiełuszko to study abroad in Rome. The priest refused. It was too late anyway.

The Murder of a Priest
On October 19, 1984, Father Jurek set out for Bydgoszcz to visit Solidarity workers. One of the collaborator priests snitched about his itinerary to the secret police. On the way back to Warsaw, his car was pulled over by three SB men. They beat up Father Jurek and threw him in the trunk of their car. They cuffed his driver, Waldemar Chrostowski, and put him on the back seat. After a while, Chrostowski, a former paratrooper and commando, jumped out of the speeding car. He survived and ran for help.

Father Jurek did not. He attempted to get out of the car trunk several times. Each time the policemen would pull over and beat him unconscious. Then they drove him to a secluded place by the Vistula. Next, they tortured him horribly. Finally, they tied a rope around the priest’s neck, weighed his body down with a sack of stones, and threw him into the river. Father Jurek was most likely still alive. His body was fished out on October 30.

To this day, many questions remain unanswered about the murder. First of all, we do not know who ordered the hit. Most documents have been destroyed. A communist court ruled that it was a rogue operation by three low-ranking secret policemen. A supervisor was found complicit as well. The perpetrators were given relatively lengthy jail sentences, though soon enough reduced significantly. Their immediate superiors were exonerated. The head of the SB, General Kiszczak, intervened secretly on their behalf directly with the attorney general of the People’s Republic.

As for General Jaruzelski, no shred of hard evidence implicates the leader of the communist regime. Was it a murder similar to the Thomas Beckett affair? The dictator expressed his hatred of the priest in an off-the-cuff remark, and his courtiers took the hint. They, in turn, hinted to their underlings to take care of business. The sordid business eerily reminds one of the recent Kashoggi killing. Circumstantial evidence strongly suggests that Jaruzelski was guilty in the conspiracy to kill Father Jurek.

Further, two Polish state prosecutors, Andrzej Witkowski in 2001 and Leszek Pietrzak in 2008, at the Institute of National Remembrance, hypothesized that the priest was murdered not on October 19, but six days later. Meanwhile, he was held in a secret bunker and tortured to the amusement of the top communist leadership. This narrative has been rejected as unsubstantiated.

There were further suspicions regarding the driver. Chrostowski was accused of serving as a secret police informer and fabricating the story of his own escape. He has now been exonerated. Instead of a snitch, it turns out he himself was the target of a secret police operation codenamed “Desperat.”

Blessed, to be Canonized
After Fr. Popiełuszko’s murder, Msgr. Bogucki continued the Masses for the Fatherland. Father Jurek’s legacy lives on. Monuments of him dot Poland’s villages and towns; there are scores of streets, squares, and schools bearing his name. He was pronounced the official patron of Solidarity.

The beatification process for Fr. Jerzy was opened under Pope John Paul II in 1997. Pope Benedict XVI beatified him in 2010 as a martyr of the faith. The Congregation for the Causes of Saints is now considering a miracle attributed to Fr. Jerzy’s intercession in September 2012. The canonization process commenced in Creteil, France, in 2014. All documents were turned over to the Vatican the following year. The decision to canonize is currently in the hands of Pope Francis.

Amid it all, we have this enduring commandment from Fr. Jerzy: “Defeat evil with goodness!” It remains valid even as communism has morphed into post-communism in the former Soviet zone, and reemerged as radical secular and moral-cultural relativism in the West, particularly the United States.

Let us remember the collapse of communism and the blessed man who helped bring it about.

(Photo credit: Wikicommons)


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