LIFE OF BLESSED FATHER JERZY POPIEŁUSZKO
Father Jerzy Popiełuszko was born on the 14th of September 1947 in a village called Okopy near Suchowola in Podlasie. His parents, Marianna and Władysław, ran a farm.
From 1961 Jerzy studied in a senior high school in Suchowola. The school teachers spoke of him as a skilled and ambitious pupil. From early years he served as an altar boy. At the graduation ball he informed of his vocation for priesthood. Following the final exams at the senior high school in 1965, he joined the High Seminary in Warsaw.
At the beginning of the second year of his seminary studies Father Jerzy joined the armed forces. In 1966 – 1968 he fulfilled the military service in a special unit for seminary students in Bartoszyce. It is worth reminding that the process of enlisting clergymen was carried out in defiance with the agreement between State and Church signed in 1950, and was used by communist authorities to persecute the Church and non-compliant bishops. State officials hoped that chosen officers would implement a carefully planned system of indoctrination persuading clergymen to abandon their studies in seminaries. As a clergyman and soldier, Jerzy Popiełuszko had a great courage in defending his views, which made him subject to various forms of discrimination. Having returned from the military service Father Jerzy Popiełuszko contracted a serious illness. Since that time till the end of his life he suffered from health problems.
On the 28th of May 1972 he was ordained priest by receiving holy orders from cardinal Stefan Wyszyński. On the backside of the picture commemorating his first mass he wrote very significant words: ”God sends me to preach the Holy Gospel and treat the wounds of wretched hearts”.
Father Jerzy fulfilled his priesthood duties in the following parish churches: the church of the Holy Trinity in Ząbki, the church of the Holy Virgin Queen of Poland in Anin and the church of Infant Jesus in Żoliborz. In his priesthood he was especially fond of working with children and teenagers. Unfortunately his health problems became more acute. In January 1979 Father Jerzy fainted when celebrating mass. After a few weeks in hospital he never returned to previous duties of a curate.
In the academic year 1979/1980 he worked in the Student Fellowship of St. Anna’s church. He conducted discussion meetings for students of medicine.
At the end of 1978 Father Jerzy was appointed community leader of the middle medical staff. From this date onwards he celebrated monthly mass in the Res Sacra Miser chapel. Thanks to his commitment these prayer meetings gave birth to a fellowship unifying many people from medical circles, especially nurses. They cooperated in setting up a voluntary medical service during the Pope’s first pilgrimage to Poland in 1979.
On the 20th of May 1980 Father Jerzy Popiełuszko began his ministry service in the parish church of St. Stanislaw Kostka, which was to be the last place of his work. As a resident he was also the community leader for middle medical staff. From August 1980 he played his part in establishing Workmen Fellowship. In October 1981 he was appointed the diocese community leader of the medical circles and the chaplain in the House of Meritorious Medical Service Employee, located at 37, Elekcyjna Street. Inside a chapel, which he had helped to arrange, Father Jerzy used to say weekly mass for inhabitants of this house.
Summer of 1980 was a breakthrough period in his life. On Sunday the 31st of August a delegation of striking steelworkers asked cardinal Stefan Wyszyński to allow a priest into the steelworks plant. Cardinal Wyszynski’s chaplain made his way to the church of St. Stanislaw Kostka. In the sacristy he asked Father Jerzy Czarnota if he could go to the steelworks, but the latter could not as he was about to say mass for his own congregation. At that point Father Jerzy Popiełuszko offered to go in his stead.
Here is how Father Jerzy recalled the events of that day:
”I will never forget that day and that mass. As I was making my way to the steelworks, I felt a great stage fear. This was a totally new experience. I kept asking myself many questions. What will I find? How will they welcome me? Will there be enough room for saying mass? Who will do the scripture reading and singing? These may seem very naive questions today, but at that time they accompanied and made me arrows all the way When I approached the gate of the steel-works I had the first surprise. I saw a thick row of people who were smiling and crying simultaneously. When they applauded, I thought someone important was following me. I soon found out the applause was for me, the first priest ever to pass through the gate of the steelworks. At that point I realised this cheerful welcome was actually addressed to the Church, which had been patiently knocking at the gates of Polish factories for thirty long years. My misgivings were needless, as everything had been made ready for the mass. In the middle of the factory square there was an altar with a cross and even a makeshift confessional. The said cross was later dug in near the gate of the steelworks. It has survived hard times and has stood unshaken till now, always decorated with fresh flowers. Readers volunteered. You should hear the voices of those men who had often used a coarse language and were now reading the Holy Scriptures with piety. Later on thousands of people exclaimed ”Thanks be to God!”. It turned out that even the singing was much better than it often is in church interiors”.
The spiritual friendship between Father Jerzy and steelworkers stemmed from that gathering around the open-air altar. Following that event he celebrated mass for them every Sunday at 10.00 a.m. in the church of St. Stanislaw Kostka. He held regular monthly meetings. He set up a sort of school for workmen where he preached the Good News but also organised a series of lectures to help them obtain basic knowledge. Specialists in different subjects taught workmen the elementary concepts of Polish literature, history, Church’s social science, law, economics and even negotiation techniques. Participants of these unusual lectures, most of them workmen of the biggest plants in Warsaw, had special student books and even took exams.
Father Jerzy shared steelworkers’ joys and sorrows. On the 25th of April 1981 the flag of the Warsaw Steelworks Solidarity Movement was consecrated in a festive ceremony. Bishop Zbigniew Kraszewski, who said the mass, visited the workmen in their plant a week later.
After martial law was declared, Father Jerzy launched various charity activities. He provided assistance to the persecuted and to those who were suffering from injustice. He participated in trials of those who had opposed the martial law. He also helped to distribute gifts arriving from abroad.
Starting from the 28th of February 1982 he celebrated mass for the Homeland on regular basis, delivering religious and patriotic sermons (26 in total). In his preaching he explained moral aspects of painful reality in the light of the Holy Gospel and the teachings of the Church. In September 1983 Father Jerzy organised a pilgrimage of workmen from the Warsaw Steelworks to Jasna Góra. One year later workmen from different parts of Poland would join the pilgrimage to Częstochowa. Thus Father Jerzy’s idea took the shape of the yearly Polish Workmen’s Pilgrimage to Jasna Góra, taking place every third Sunday of September.
Due to his activities, Father Jerzy became the target of rough attacks by state authorities. There were an ever-increasing number of incidents aimed at intimidating the commonly esteemed priest, some putting his life at risk. His flat was robbed twice, his car was destroyed and he himself was permanently monitored. Someone even threw an explosive into his flat. On two different occasions Father Popiełuszko was a victim of a car crash which seemed to have been prearranged.
Official letters were sent to the Church authorities stating that sermons delivered in the church of St. Stanislaw Kostka threatened the interests of the Polish People’s Republic. In September 1983 the province vice prosecutor Anna Jackowska started an investigation on alleged abuse of the freedom of conscience and faith threatening the interests of the Polish People’s Republic, and on the 12th of December Father Jerzy was faced with accusations. This event marked the beginning of an extremely difficult period in his life. From January until July 1984 he was interrogated 13 times. He was also arrested but set free after an intervention by the Church authorities. He was accused and freed from punishment on the basis of the 1984 amnesty. Prayer and help of prelate Teofil Bogucki, Warsaw bishops, friends and parishioners accompanied him all those days.
A slanderous campaign conducted by the government spokesman Jerzy Urban (known under the nickname of Jan Rem) gave rise to especially brutal attacks.
In the autumn of 1984 Father Jerzy’s situation became more and more difficult. Although he deeply believed in the sense of his service, he was tired of continuous attacks and had a foreboding he might get killed. Health-related problems and persistent psychological tension made him consider some form of rest, hence the idea of studying in Rome. However, given the choice, Father Jerzy decided to stay in Warsaw.
According to testimony of the accused in the Toruń trial, the simulated car accident that took place on the 13th of October on the way from Gdańsk to Warsaw was the first attempt on Father Jerzy’s life.
The second one was planned for the 19th of October.