Fr. Popielusko and Communist PolandROBERT ROYAL
As early as 1966, something unprecedented in Communist-dominated countries had occurred. There was a powerful element of independent civil society in Poland linked directly with the Church.
On October 19, 1984, Father Jerzy Popieluszko was returning from some pastoral work in the town of Bygdoszcz to his parish, Saint Stanislaw Kostka, in Warsaw. Three state security officers stopped his car without bothering to hide what they were doing. They tied him up, beat and tortured him to death, then threw the body, weighted down with stones, into the Vistula River.
When he did not turn up home at the time expected, everyone feared the worse. Since 1982 he had been repeatedly accused of crimes, harassed by police, and subjected to intimidation. After a bombing attempt, workers from the Huta Warsawa steel mills had to take turns protecting him. Father Popielusko was under regular police surveillance and was arrested twice in 1983. In the first half of 1984 alone, he was interrogated 13 times. It was still a shock, however, when ten days later his body turned up as the authorities dredged the river.
The Father Popielusko case also stunned the world because, contrary to official announcements claiming the priest had been kidnapped by unknown persons, everyone familiar with the situation in Poland knew the murder was the government’s work. In the mid-1980s, the Polish Solidarity movement, 10 million strong, was in the midst of the peaceful, but effective, resistance to the Communist regime, which would eventually free Poland and, in conjunction with other forces, lead to the breakup of the Soviet empire. The young priest had become pastor to the workers’ movement. Father Popielusko’s death confirms how seriously the Polish regime and its Soviet masters took the Catholic opposition. A few years earlier, in 1981, Mehmet Ali Agca, operating under Bulgarian and Soviet instructions, tried to assassinate John Paul II in St. Peter’s Square. Unlike its earlier, cautious treatment of a powerful national church, authorities had turned desperately to violence in the waning days of Polish Communism.
In 1982, just before John Paul II was scheduled to return to Poland on a visit, about 20 thugs attacked St. Martin’s Church in Warsaw and beat the volunteers working there for the Primate’s Aid Committee. Around the same time, Fathers Tadeusz Kurach and Jan Borkowski were arrested for “hooliganism,” several other priests were beaten, and two, Bishop Kazimierz Kluz and Father Honoriusz Kowalczyk died in “accidents.” Krakow Archbishop Henryk Gulbinowicz’s car was bombed. Father Tadeusz Zaleski had a corrosive chemical thrown at him and his clothes set on fire for his work with Solidarity. On another occasion, he was beaten unconscious and almost strangled with a wire. As late as 1988 and 1989, five priests died under mysteriously violent circumstance.
Unlike many other places of persecution in the twentieth century, these desperate attempts to stop growing Catholic resistance resulted from the weakness rather than the strength of the Communist regime. Indeed, Father Popieluszko, who had presided over many public masses during the rise of Solidarity, had constantly urged his listeners to show the maturity and humanity of their cause by their refusal to be goaded into violence:
Do not struggle with violence. Violence is a sign of weakness. All those who cannot win through the heart try to conquer through violence. The most wonderful and durable struggles in history have been carried on by human thought. The most ignoble fights and most ephemeral successes are those of violence. An idea which needs rifles to survive dies of its own accord. An idea which is imposed by violence collapses under it. An idea capable of life wins without effort and is then followed by millions of people.
It is no wonder that this eloquent soul was appointed by Cardinal Stefan Wyszynki as chaplain to striking steel workers in Warsaw and then naturally gravitated towards becoming a kind of unofficial spiritual advisor to the Solidarity movement. The nation was grateful. Estimates vary, but it is believed that at his funeral 400,000 Poles showed up to honor him.
Despite vigorous measures, the Communists in Poland were not as successful against the Church as they were in other nations in Central and Eastern Europe. The Church’s resistance owed a great deal to the well-formed Catholic laity that resulted from steps Catholic leaders took to thwart the worst threats to the faith. Cardinal Wysynksi, in particular hewed to a strong line that combined confrontation, as necessary, with a vigorous program of building up alternative programs of social formation within the Communist system. He asserted that Poles had demonstrated “in Dachau and the Warsaw Uprising that we have learned how to die for the Church and for Poland.” But Cardinal Wysynski believed that his people should embrace “martyrdom only as a last resort.” Instead, he wanted to find a way, despite all odds, that the Church in Poland could live and flourish. By a combination of bravery and shrewdness, he and the rest of the Catholic leadership managed to minimize outright martyrdom and the worst dimensions of persecution even as they faced tremendous pressures and threats.
As early as 1966, something unprecedented in Communist-dominated countries had occurred. There was a powerful element of independent civil society in Poland linked directly with the Church. The Church had such great credibility in Polish society that Polish intellectuals — traditionally anti-clerical — as well as labor leaders, journalists, historians, all came to regard Polish Catholicism as central to the basic moral reconstruction of the nation. The philosopher Leszek Kolakowski characterized the situation, as did many others, in striking terms: “It is not possible with internal repressive instruments to destroy the most powerful crystallizing force of social consciousness to resist the Sovietization process and the most powerful source of moral authority, viz., the Catholic Church.”
It is no surprise then that when the first Polish Pope, John Paul II, came to Warsaw in 1979, the crowds in Victory Square chanted: “We want God, we want God, we want God in the family circle, we want God in books, in schools, we want God in government orders, we want God, we want God.”
Thanks to heroic figures like Father Popielusko and many others, today Poles practice their faith vigorously and openly again.
Royal, Robert. “Fr. Popielusko and Communist Poland.” Arlington Catholic Herald (2000).
Robert Royal's book The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century: A Comprehensive Global History will be published by Crossroads the end of April 2000.
Published by permission of Robert Royal and the Arlington Catholic Herald.
Copyright © 2000 Arlington Catholic Herald
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