I knew Fr Jerzy
Fr Ireneusz Skubis talks to Joanna Grzybowska, who was involved in the pastoral ministry conducted by Fr Jerzy Popieluszko.
Rev. msgr. Ireneusz Skubis: – You witnessed the life of the blessed priest and martyr Jerzy Popieluszko. How did you remember him?
Joanna Grzybowska: – When I met Fr Jerzy Popieluszko I was in the third form of grammar school. The grammar schools in Warsaw wanted to have crosses on the walls of their classrooms. My grammar school was one of the most involved schools in the struggle concerning the crosses. It was a wonderful grammar school in the district of Zoliborz, connected with the history of the officers’ Zoliborz. Nowadays it is the Stefania Sempolowska Gymnasium and Grammar School. It was founded in 1935 as Aleksandra Pilsudska Gymnasium for Girls, aiming to educate the daughters of the officers, the collaborators of Marshal Jozef Pilsudski. In the 1980s those attending grammar schools, i.e. young people who began thinking and observing what was happening in Poland – and there were many things – were actively involved in the ‘siege’ of the Higher Fire Brigade School, not so much in the strike. This story is well known. Fr Jerzy participated in the strike and supported the students of that college. When the students’ appeals to have crosses in their classrooms intensified the boards of the grammar schools, including my school, did not agree and ordered to take off the crosses from the walls. Then we decided to go to Fr Jerzy and ask him to store those crosses, which were so brutally removed, in some worthy place since we believed that one day those crosses would return to our classrooms. A special board was prepared and the crosses removed from the Warsaw grammar schools were hung there in the church, between the columns at the back of the presbytery. Then another board was placed and filled with school badges – not only from Warsaw but also from all over Poland. I got to know Fr Jerzy while struggling for the crosses. My first meeting with him was special. I am afraid of dogs very much. When we rang the doorbell we could hear a dog barking. At first I thought, ‘I am not going there. I am afraid of this dog.’ And I wanted to leave the group but it was too late because the door opened. There was a dog that chose me, jumped up on me and began licking me. It was a young dog called Tajniak (secret agent). I was petrified but then I got to like it and even we became friends. I was glad I did not leave because it would have meant that I had lost the chance to get to know this great, wonderful man and priest. We began talking about the situation in schools, our interests and plans. The Holy Masses for the Homeland were celebrated on every last Sunday of the month and the liturgy of those Masses had some special elements, e.g. at the end of the Mass the most famous Warsaw actors and actresses and some other people recited poetry. Fr Jerzy asked us whether we could help him prepare the texts that would suit the readings and help him make them special. Some of us were not involved in that but I took the request of Fr Jerzy seriously and began looking for appropriate texts and poems. Sometimes I rewrote them and sometimes I brought books to Fr Jerzy. Now I think that it was better that I had brought books because I had some traits, some notes which Fr Jerzy made beside the poems I had selected for him.
Apart from that literary preparation to Mass I participated in the Masses for the Homeland. I do not belong to the parish of Stanislaw Kostka but once my parents belonged to that parish and I went to Mass there every Sunday. And I participated in the Masses for the Homeland.
Fr Jerzy was always dedicated to Mass. He experienced every liturgy very deeply. He was extremely spiritual. There were so much peace, goodness and mildness in him that it was surprising that some people, and unfortunately, there were many such people, saw him as a militant man, a person calling to evil or hatred.
My last meeting with Fr Jerzy was meaningful. It was two days before he was kidnapped. He celebrated Mass and after it, when he left the sacristy – it was a rainy, unpleasant October morning – we talked for a while standing in front of the church. He was very sad. He told me that he did not have enough time to talk to me, that he still had a lot of visits and he was going to Bydgoszcz that week but after that he had no specific plans and after his return we would talk longer. He thought for a while, looked at me and said, ‘I do not know whether I would come back…’ This was my last meeting with Fr Jerzy.
– Did you belong to the group that systematically met with Fr Popieluszko?
– I met Fr Jerzy Popieluszko quite late, at the beginning of 1984. During that time there were various groups around him. He had a lot of meetings with students, workers and medical services. He used to go away and was often called by the militia and interrogated there. That’s why the meetings could not be systematic. I did not belong to university students whose chaplain was Fr Jerzy. So my meetings with him were not systematic and were not group meetings, but rather from time to time, and our meetings were short as I did not want to bother me. Seeing how much he was involved in various activities I wanted to help him and not to disturb. When I was to do something or to bring something I did my best to do it quickly. When he asked me to walk his dog I did so. Our meetings were not discussions and first of all, they were not systematic.
– Did only Fr Jerzy celebrate the Masses for the Homeland?
– Towards the end of his life the situation varied. He delivered sermons and many priests co-celebrated the Masses. The Masses for the Homeland became to be extremely popular and many people from all over Poland came to participate in them. They were most often celebrated inside the church but sometimes the number of participants was so big that the Masses were celebrated on the balcony, outside the church. People stood around it, in the small square in front of the church.
– Was Fr Jerzy Popieluszko the key person then?
– It is hard to tell. As far as the ‘harshness’ of speeches or direct criticism of the system or certain phenomena in Poland was concerned there were priests whose speeches were more radical. Their fates were different, some of them died in ‘mysterious circumstances’, e.g. Fr Sylwester Zych. Fr Stanislaw Malkowski always delivered passionate and categorical speeches. It is said that the Fourth Department had a list of priests, the so-called inconvenient priests. The astonishing thing was that Fr Jerzy was the first priest on this list. But the words of Fr Jerzy were not full of hatred. First of all, he did not criticise people. If he saw evil, he saw evil deeds and not evil men. During the marshal law he took the Christmas wafer and went to the soldiers that watched him, standing around the church, to share it with them. As I can remember he was very calm, mild, simply a good man. Once, when I brought him the texts he confessed, ‘You know, some girl from Switzerland sends me candies and I must answer her. She is small and she could have had done other things but she keeps sending me candies. I must write to her and send her some souvenir. Among the numerous matters he had to deal with, different things since people came to him with various problems asking for help and support, he remembered about that girl. He tried to remember about simple, apparently unimportant, matters. One could see the good radiant in him when he did that.
– Did you think that he could possibly be a saint in the future?
– Then I did not analyse his priestly attitude so deeply but what I greatly admired in Fr Jerzy was his extraordinary openness. He really wanted to help people himself or through others. He had the gift of involving people in order to create certain community, a group of people so that they knew they could count on one another.
I also noticed that Fr Jerzy experienced all matters very deeply. Standing at the altar he was a completely different priest than all priests. He was truly immersed in the mystery of the Eucharist. The Masses for the Homeland had the characteristic of certain theatricalness – there were additional decorations, elements to emphasise some historical events and current events; there were recitals of poems, important statements, crowds of people, various delegations. Those Masses had special social meanings towards the end of Fr Jerzy’s life. They became the most famous Masses for the Homeland celebrated in Poland. But Fr Popieluszko never treated Holy Mass as some show or form of manifestation, an event that would inspire the participants of the Mass to some violent reactions. On the contrary, he always appealed to be involved in the Mass itself, to experience it in peace and not allow to be provoked since the militia present everywhere did not like such a big gathering. The Liturgy itself was always the most important thing to Fr Jerzy. And that was what attracted people.
– When did you learn about the death of Fr Jerzy?
– On television – on Saturday 20 October 1984, when I heard the news about his kidnapped. I ran to the church. Then there were further reports, notices hung in the church. There were commentaries, presumptions and guesses. The prayer vigil began on 20 October and gathered more and more people. Just after my lessons I ran to the church where we prayed for his safe return. There were also Masses in the intention of Fr Jerzy. On 30 October there was an evening Mass. From the beginning of the Mass one could feel some excitement, anxiety; some people kept entering the sacristy and going out they passed some news. Then it was announced that Fr Jerzy was found dead in the Wistula River. From that moment I was constantly in the church because I was afraid of the situation that streets were closed and one could not go to this church. It happened that parishioners could only come close to the church and then I, not belonging to that parish, would be asked to leave the place. That’s why I stayed in the church, helping to decorate it. Besides, there were plenty things to do in the church. There were long queues to the confessional booths placed around the church. There were countless crowds. It lasted for the whole night.
– When did you get to know Fr Jerzy’s family, his mother?
– I got to know Fr Jerzy’s mother the day after the funeral. Earlier I had got to know his brothers – he had two brothers and two sisters, one sister was dead. Then there were pilgrimages and visits to Suchowola. I visited Fr Jerzy’s parents twice. I slept in their house in Okopy, we prayed the rosary together and sang the Jasna Gora Appeal. It was their family tradition: they knelt to pray at 9 p.m. I knew Fr Jerzy’s father and then I was at his funeral. I also participated in the funeral of the wife of the younger brother. Her name was Danuta. I was at the baptismal ceremony of Fr Jerzy’s nephew – Jerzy Popieluszko.
– What contacts have you kept with Fr Jerzy’s family?
– When Fr Jerzy’s family came to the celebrations in Warsaw, mainly on 23 April, his nameday, or on 19 October, the anniversary of his kidnapping, they sometimes came by, especially the elder brother with his wife and Fr Jerzy’s niece whom I know and have become friends.
– Do you ask Fr Jerzy for intercession?
– I have prayed to Lord God through the intercession of Fr Jerzy Popieluszko since the day of his death. At the moment we are preparing to the extremely important day of Fr Jerzy’s beatification. I have been convinced about the sanctity of the Servant of God since his death. He has always been an extremely important person to me and I have always felt his presence. There were special events that should be recollected, including the event concerning his cassock.
The only cassock of Fr Jerzy was in the church and there were systematic attempts to regain the personal things of Fr Jerzy from the public prosecutor’s office. In 1987 the parish of St Stanislaw Kostka was preparing for the visit of the Holy Father John Paul II but the visit was not planned and not included in his schedule. It was not known whether and possibly when John Paul II would come to the church. That’s why we were preparing and praying all the time. At the same time in Krakow, in the district of Nowa Huta, there was an exhibition dedicated to Fr Jerzy and the designer had the idea to put Fr Jerzy’s cassock (the one from the Zoliborz church) in a glass coffin with water at the bottom – the symbol of Fr Jerzy’s death. To prevent the cassock from soaking he used some glue to keep it above the water. Unfortunately, when the cassock was removed from the coffin it was destroyed. There were white spots on the entire cassock. Not knowing what to do Rev. Msgr. Bogucki asked me for help. So I scrupulously removed all particles of glue from the threads, using some solvent. I managed to clean the cassock and Fr Bogucki gave me a beautiful souvenir – a copy of the Bible dated 1830, which was a beautifully ornamented edition. The cassock was hung in the lower church where there were two small halls. The memorabilia of Fr Jerzy were exhibited there. Following the request of Fr Bogucki we tried to organize some room of remembrance that could be developed into a museum in the future. Sr. Zofia Janczak, a sacristine, ordered special wardrobes to be made and afterwards we placed the collection of Fr Jerzy’s personal things there, e.g. the letters from internees he had received, letters written on pieces of cloth, towels; prisoners’ rosaries made of bread, soap; the things he used, including this patched cassock, old worn-out shoes. When he got new shoes he gave them to some worker who he regarded as a person who needed shoes much more than him.
But coming back to the visit of the Holy Father, I was talking to Sr. Zofia and Rev. Msgr. Bogucki, whether we should hide the cassock for the visit of the Holy Father since the whole church had to be carefully checked by the security officers – for safety reasons – and we were afraid that on that occasion the cassock could be ‘lost’ somehow. Then Fr Jerzy appeared in my dream and told me not to worry about the cassock. I went to the lower church with the security officers and they checked every corner. They asked what was behind the door on the right. I told them that the sacristine kept pieces of materials, vases, etc. there. They gave up saying, ‘OK, we are not going there.’ Afterwards together with Fr Bogucki and Sr. Zofia we concluded that it was very strange that the officers, being so scrupulous and checking every centimetre of the church, did not go there.
We had a beautiful visit of the Holy Father to the church; his prayer in silence at Fr Jerzy’s grave, the dedication of the bell that rang for the first time…And then there were numerous wonderful visits of ordinary people and important figures from all over the world, which was reflected in the church archives. For several years we have had a museum dedicated to Fr Jerzy, with a visitor’s books. People from Poland and the entire world coming to the church put their names in the book. It is extremely moving.
I have the privilege to translate these entries that are in the archive and museum. For instance, I translated the magnificent words of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, and the inscriptions of many cardinals. During his every visit to the church Archbishop Angelo Amato, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, to whom the person of Fr Jerzy is very dear, writes something in the visitor’s book. Every time he expresses his great respect and admiration for Fr Jerzy. As I can remember his last entry is a prayerful wish that in the Year for Priests, which is to end soon, all priests treat this model of priesthood seriously and try to follow Fr Jerzy in their priestly lives. Since his life was a wonderful model to follow – an excellent example of priesthood and wonderful example of humanity.
– What will you tell Fr Jerzy on the day of his beatification?
– What I always tell him. I thank Lord God for the grace of getting to know Fr Jerzy and I thank Fr Jerzy for our encounter.