The martyrdom of the Chaplain of ‘Solidarity’
Fr Andrzej Orczykowski, SChr
The architecture of Zoliborz, a district of Warsaw, is dominated by two characteristic towers of Saint Stanislaus Kostka’s Church. The history of this church has been marked by Fr Jerzy Popieluszko, the chaplain of ‘Solidarity.’ He was sent to work in this parish in 1980.
Solidarity with workers
In August 1980 he became involved in the pastoral ministry for workers. When the workers of the Warszawa Steelworks (then Lucchini Steel Works and at present ArcelorMittal Warszawa) announced an occupation strike he celebrated the first Mass for them and became their chaplain. From that moment he spoke the same language as the workers. His sermons were unambiguous, clear and directly reached people’ hearts. His priestly ministry persistently connected him with the worker’s environments and those who created the Independent Self-Governing Trade Union ‘Solidarity’.
From the beginning of the marshal law, introduced on 13 December 1981 in the whole territory of the Polish People’s Republic, he cared for the imprisoned and for the families of the internees. He prayed for them. He was very close to those who were sentenced on the basis of the decree of the marshal law. He could not pass by indifferently those in need. He shared what he had; organised medical help, brought gifts from the West. His flat became the meeting place of the persecuted. He did not only welcome them all but he himself went to them. On Christmas Eve during the marshal law, he stood up from the Christmas Eve meal and taking a bag full of wafers he went to the military-militia posts in the district of Zoliborz.
Mass for the Homeland
Masses in the intention of the Homeland began to be celebrated in the St Stanislaus Kostka’s parish church in October 1980. The first Mass was said on 22 February 1982. And it was Fr Jerzy Popieluszko that systematically celebrated them on the last Sunday of the month. Believers from all over Warsaw and various parts of Poland began attending the Masses in the Zoliborz church to pray for the Homeland. Feeling unity and responsibility for their Homeland they listened to the homilies about human dignity, homilies that gave them hope that the Truth and Good would win. Fr Jerzy’s sermons, enriched by the teaching of John Paul II and Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, did not refer to politics but he reminded people of what faith, hope, love, goodness, truth and justice meant… His teaching and attitude showed how to live, aroused optimism, restored hope and set free from hatred.
Intimidating Fr Jerzy
The intensive pastoral activities of Fr Jerzy Popieluszko were watched by the Security Services [internal intelligence agency] from the autumn of 1983. He was continuously watched and received letters full of threats. But all the efforts to frighten him failed. Following the request of the workers and having in mind the life of Fr Jerzy endangered by the attempts of the Security Services, Poland’s Primate Cardinal Jozef Glemp proposed him to go to studies in Rome. Fr Popieluszko responded, ‘I cannot betray these people. When I leave them they will be broken down.’ The closest collaborators of the Chaplain of ‘Solidarity’ claimed that he was aware of the danger. His acquaintances recollect that he often said, ‘I am not going to live long’ and ‘I am ready for everything.’ Wanting to realise his vocation, in accordance with the motto written on this ordination picture, ‘God sends me to proclaim the Good News and treat the wounds of harmed hearts’, he was ready to die. The first unsuccessful attempt on the life of Fr Popieluszko was a car accident on the road from Gdansk to Warsaw staged by the SB officers on 13 October 1984. The second attempt happened six days later.
Kidnapping and death
On 19 October 1984, Fr Jerzy conducted a prayer meeting in the Workers’ Pastoral Ministry in the All Saints parish run by the Martyr Brothers in Bydgoszcz. He celebrated Mass and then led the reflection of the sorrowful mysteries of the Rosary. He finished the whole prayer meeting imploring, ‘Let us pray to be free from fear, intimidation and most of all, from the greed of revenge and violence.’ That evening he decided to return to Warsaw. About 10 p.m. the car of the Chaplain of ‘Solidarity’ driven by Waldemar Chrostowski was stopped on the road between Bydgoszcz and Torun, near Gorsk, by the uniformed traffic wardens who actually were the Security Police officers. The driver was forced to give the car keys and walk to the policemen’s car where he was put in chains. The priest was forced to go out of the car. The officers tugged at the sleeve of his cassock. He was hit in the head until he lost consciousness. After he had been put a gag over his mouth he was thrown into the boot. The martyr’s way of Fr Popieluszko began.
After having driven several kilometres the SB officers stopped in the forest because they noticed that their car broke down and Fr Jerzy tried to get out of the boot. During the stop Fr Popieluszko tried to run away. When he was caught he was beaten up until he lost consciousness and again was thrown into the boot. During the way from Torun to Wloclawek Fr Jerzy kept trying to get out of the boot. That’s why they stopped on a side road, again beat him using batons, threatened him to use their guns and when he lost consciousness they tied his hands and legs. They put a compress that made his breathing difficult. A rope was put around his neck so that every attempt to get straight caused suffocation. They tied a sack full of stones, which they had prepared earlier, around his legs. The SB officers decided to drown Fr Jerzy and his body was dumped into the Vistula Water Reservoir near Wloclawek.
Funeral and grave
20 October 1984, at the end of the news ‘Dziennik Telewizyjny’ the speaker informed about the kidnapping of Fr Jerzy Popieluszko. His fate was unknown. A prayer vigil began in the Church of St Stanislaus Kostka and it continued till 30 October when the body of Fr Jerzy was found in the water reservoir near Wloclawek. On 2 November the coffin with his body was transported to St Stanislaus Kostka’s Church in Warsaw. The funeral was conducted the next day and the participants included 1,000 priests and over 600,000 people from all over Poland. They were convinced that there were witnesses of the sacrifice of the Priest who had been killed for telling the Truth. At the end of the ceremony the coffin was placed in a grave next to the entrance to the church. Since the day of the funeral numerous believers have come to visit Fr Jerzy’s grave. On 14 June 1987, the Holy Father John Paul II made a pilgrimage there. After having put flowers on his grave he prayed for a long time, embracing the grave. Leaving he kissed the tombstone. Cardinals from Poland, England, Austria, Belarus, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Chile, Philippines, Germany, Rwanda, the U.S.A and the Vatican have come here to pay prayerful homage to Fr Jerzy. Moreover, bishops, priests, presidents and heads of state have stopped at the grave.
Process of beatification
The cause for his beautification is being prepared based on the common conviction of believers that Fr Jerzy died a martyr’s death for faith. The process, began on 8 February 1997, was finished on the diocesan level on 8 February 2001. The second stage of the process began in the Vatican on 3 May 2001. Currently, the Theological Commission established by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints is evaluating the ‘Positio’. We can learn from the news, although not confirmed, that the members of the Commission are convinced that the Chaplain of ‘Solidarity’ can be beatified as a martyr who died for his faith. The theologians’ opinion will be forwarded to the cardinals, members of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. The result of their discussions will be sent to the Pope. If the Holy Father confirms that he will give his consent to issue a decree of martyrdom of the Servant of God Fr Jerzy Popieluszko. At the same time or soon afterwards the date of his beatification will be given. During his 12 years of priesthood Fr Jerzy Popieluszko showed a wonderful model of life full of love of his neighbours. Completely dedicated to people who came to God through him, in the mystery of the Communion of Saints, through the testimony of his life and martyr’s death he constantly calls us to the evangelical solidarity.