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The Catholic Priest & Martyr Who Helped Free Communist Poland: The Heroic Story of Blessed Father Jerzy Popiełuszko

On Sept. 19 of every year, the Polish people celebrate the feast of Blessed Father Jerzy Popiełuszko, a martyr whose heroic life and death contributed to Poland’s liberation from the communist regime.

Father Jerzy was a Polish Roman Catholic priest and a Chaplain of Solidarity, or the Independent Self-Governing Trade Union. This union was the main social movement opposing the communist regime in Poland.

His ministry started when Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński asked him to celebrate Mass for striking workers.

Then, in Feb. of 1982, he began celebrating Mass on the last Sunday of every month for the freedom of Poland.

He based his pastoral activities and teachings on the message, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21), the teachings of Pope John Paul II and Primate Stefan Wyszynski, as well as steadfastness, courage, and support for the persecuted.

His sermons were not filled with hate or aggression towards the communist regime but with love and empathy for those suffering because of it. They also filled people with hope because Father Popieluszko repeatedly emphasized that the Cross is our victory and Jesus conquers all.

As his sermons reached more and more people all over Poland, the communist regime decided he was a threat.

From that point on, the police constantly followed, harassed, and stopped him. His home was broken into twice and bombed. His car was doused with paint.

Despite all of this, he did not resign from his ministry. Moreover, following Jesus’ words in Matt. 25, he cared for the less fortunate and those in need, such as families with many children, the poor, and people confined in prison camps.

He collected food and medicine for them, attended hearings of those arrested for interfering with martial law, and supported political prisoners.

In 1983, he was arrested.

The communist government claimed:

“In his sermons, he abused freedom of conscience and religion in such a way that he permanently included in them, in addition to religious content, political content defaming the state authorities, and in particular, slandered that these authorities use falsehood, hypocrisy and lies, through anti-democratic legislation destroy human dignity, and deprive society of freedom of thought and action, with which, abusing the function of a priest, he made churches a place of anti-state propaganda harmful to the interests of the Polish People’s Republic.”

Father Popieluszko faced a 10-year sentence. He was released as a result of the church’s intervention and his prison sentence was dropped following the amnesty program of 1984.

The harassment, arrests, multiple interrogations, and increasing media propaganda against Father Jerzy did not make him resign, so the communist government decided he had to die.

On Oct. 19, 1984, Father Popieluszko went to the parish of the Holy Polish Martyrs’ Brothers in Bydgoszcz at the invitation of the Pastoral Care of the Working People.

While returning to Warsaw on the same day, officers of the Security Service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs abducted Jerzy Popieluszko and his driver, Waldemar Chrostowski.

They forced the priest out of his car, beat him, and threw him into the trunk of the communist agents.

His driver managed to escape by jumping out of the speeding car. Further events are known only through the agents’ testimonies – the executors of the kidnapping and murder.

While locked in the trunk, Father Jerzy tried to escape. The agents had to stop several times and beat him up until he finally lost consciousness.

Finally, they bound the priest in such a way that any attempt to straighten his legs resulted in strangulation. The murderers later testified before the court that they drove onto a dam on the Vistula in Wloclawek.

There, from several feet high, they threw the priest into the water. They tied his hands so that his attempts to move tightened the noose around his neck.

The body was weighed down with a sack filled with stones. It is likely that at that moment, Father Popieluszko was still alive. The autopsy of his body showed signs of torture.

The funeral, which 600,000 to 1 million people attended, turned into a major anti-communist demonstration.

Then on Dec. 31, 1989, after many more protests, Poland became free.

On June 6, 2010, Pope Benedict XVI beatified Father Jerzy Popiełuszko.

To this day, Father Popiełuszko inspires us to live the Gospel, preach God’s truth, and stand firmly in our beliefs.

His story also reminds us to do so with love, empathy, and kindness – especially when we speak to the less fortunate, those who suffer, those who do not know God, and those who have not yet experienced love and empathy from others.

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