Chapter 13: The Martyrdom of Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko, by G.J.B. Theophilus

Martyrs in the History of Christianity
by Franklyn J. Balasundaram (ed.)

Chapter 13: The Martyrdom of Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko, by G.J.B. Theophilus


After the Second World War several countries in eastern Europe came under the communist league. As communism showed antagonism to religion, Church as an institution almost has been suppressed barring Poland. The Catholic Church in Poland continued to survive amidst strong opposition from the government and it bore a strong witness by opposing the oppressive regimes. The Church stood for the rights and dignity of human beings and therefore got back people into its fold who at one time abandoned it Also that the present Pope Paul II comes from Poland, it has given the Church a boost in its activities in the 20th century. For the Church to be alive in Poland several priests had to lose their lives. Among them the most prominent was Father Jerzy Popieluszko. He died as a martyr for the cause of human dignity and freedom.

General Background

After the Second World War, Poland was placed within the communist sphere as a result of the Yalta agreement and the Church found itself in constant confrontation with the communist system imposed upon the country. Poland grew into a totalitarian state and the ruling group tried to gain and maintain absolute power with itself, power over all people and all spheres of life. To achieve this power, it never hesitated to destroy all structures and forces which opposed it. All socially significant positions were occupied by members of the ruling group to ensure total control over all spheres of life. Through lies and a reign of terror established by an extensive security system, it enslaved people. In these circumstances the problem of freedom, of human rights and dignity became the primary problem for the individual and the nation. (Balchwickif, A Theology of Liberation -- in the Spirit. pp. 161-162, Religion in Communist Lands, Vol. 12, No. 2 Summer 1984, pp. 157-167.)

The Church as an institution survived in Poland unlike other countries of the communist block where it has been successfully marginalized. The Catholic Church with 95% of total population of Poland had played an important role in the struggle for freedom and human dignity against the oppressive system. Throughout its struggle, since the end of the war, the Church has drawn attention to and has made the people sensitive to the values of human dignity and freedom. (Ibid., p. 162.)

The Emergence of Solidarity

The conflict between the Church and State since the communist takeover in 1947 can be divided into three periods, 1947-1956,1956-1970, and 1970 to the present. The first period witnessed to the struggle of the Church for its survival as an institution against government’s attempts to gain control over it. At the outset of the second period of 1956-1970, Khrushchev’s attack on Stalinism at the 20th party congress of the Soviet Union in February 1956 shocked the whole of Eastern Europe including Poland. In Poland Lalladyslow Gomulka became the new party secretary. But the change in party leadership did not lead to any major reform. Whereas during the first period, naked terror was used to break the autonomy of the church, now administrative pressure was applied. The government hoped that the Church would slowly die, but it survived. By the late 60s many people were frustrated with Gomulka’s socialism which in fact was an oppressive regime. Young poles began to be attracted by "the pageantry, national traditions, patriotism and the sincerity and friendship which they found in the Church". (A. Tomsky, Poland Church on the Road to Gdansk, pp. 30-31, Religion in Communist Land. Vol.9, Nos.1-2, Sept. 81, pp. 28-29.) The second period also saw the decline of belief in official ideology and Christianity as the only "alternative ideology" which could unite the people against the state. In 1970, the beginning of third period, military men fired at striking workers on the Baltic Coast in December and this incident made Gomulka to step down from power. The new regime led by Edward Curek also saw, from the beginning a collision between the Church and the state. Since 1972 a movement of religious renewal had developed. This later came to be known as Light of Life movement. Churches began to be built by peasants without state permission and this development received the support of some bishops. (Ibid., pp. 31-34.) In 1975 constitution amendments were announced which further strengthened the power of the Party to which the Church protested. (Ibid., p. 35.) This also led to many protests by intellectuals in 1975 and 1976. (Balchwickif, op.cit. p. 162.) The condition of economy worsened in Poland. Employers controlled the unions and workers were not allowed to strike. Yet June 1976 witnessed strikes at Radom, Plock and Umus which forced the government to withdraw increase on food prices. In all this the Church supported the striking workers. The emergence of the opposition movement in Poland had introduced a third force in Church-state relations. The alliance between the Church and the opposition movement forced the government to try to woo the Church and as a result eased some of the restrictions on the Church. But it was too late. In 1977 a protest fast was organized in the Warsaw Church of St. Martin on behalf of those workers imprisoned after the 1976 strikes. The Church continued to attack the government. (Balchwickif, op.cit. p. 163.) On 16 October 1978 Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Krakow was elected Pope and with this the church once excluded from public life, was now in everyone’s thoughts and people began returning to its fold. The Pope visited Poland in 1979 and his message reflected Church’s responsibility to human’s moral, religious, economic and political life. His message also called upon people not to be afraid of fighting for their rights and suffering with Christ. The Pope’s visit gave a sense of confidence and unity as a nation and the strikes in the Gdansk shipyards and organization of forced trade unions was a consequence of this visit. (A. Thomsky, op.cit., p. 37.)

Solidarity, the first free trade union after the War was born in August 1980 as a result of strikes by workers in shipyards in Gdansk. (Bruno Chenu, et al., The Book of Christian Martyrs, London: SCM, 1985, p. 208.) "For the first time under a communist regime, all levels of the population were united in a free trade union which numbered around ten million members and which confronted the existing powers". (I. Krzeminski, "Solidarity the Meaning of the Experience: A Sociological Survey", p. 4; Religions in Communist Lands, Vol. 14, No. 1, Spring 1986, pp. 4-16.) Solidarity can be properly understood only in the context of the role of the Church and religion in the history and life of Poland. The solidarity movement was in essence a "spiritual revolution" started above all in response to the violation of human dignity and rights. (Ibid., p.12.) It aimed at long term social change without resorting to violence. Its leader was Lech Walesa.

Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko

Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko was born in 1947 in Bialystok. He joined the Warsaw seminary in 1966, the year in which the Church of Poland celebrated its first Millennium, but which also was a period of heightened anti-Church campaign and worst church-state relations since the early 1950s. (Grazyan Sikorska, To Kneel only before God: Father Jerzy Popieluszko, Religion in Communist Lands, Vol. 12. No.2, Summer 1984, pp. 149-146.) After a year at the seminary, Popieluszko did two years of military service in a special unit in Bartoszyce. It was here that Popieluszko had his first taste of difficulties which he would be facing later as a Catholic priest in a communist country. After two years in the army, he returned to the seminary and was ordained by Cardinal Wyszyuski in 1972. (Ibid., p. 149)

By this time Popieluszko had some experience of political reality. He, with his friends in the seminary had attended to their wounded student comrades who were beaten up by the police in the riots of 1968 and had begun to be open to political reality when Gomulka had given orders to open fire at striking workers in 1970. (Bruno Chenu,, op.cit. p. 208.)

After his ordination in 1972, Popieluszko served as curate to various Churches in and around Warsaw and neighboring villages. Due to his ill health he did not have a parish of his own and as a result, he was sent to work within the medical community of Warsaw, as a priest attached to the Warsaw curia. It was during this time he became a resident priest of St. Stanislaw Kostka church in the Zoliborz district of Warsaw. (G. Sikorska, op. cit.)

In August 1980 strikes broke out at Gdansk and almost throughout Poland. On Sunday 15 August 10,000 striking workers at Huta Warszawa demanded that the mass should be held inside the iron and steel making complex. Popieluszko was chosen both by the archbishop and the strikers to celebrate this mass. (B. Chenu. op.cit. p. 209.) He said masses and heard confessions and this involvement made an everlasting influence upon him. It was here that the bond between Popieluszko and workers was born. Later, he was chosen by the workers as their chaplain at the plant, and St. Stanislaw Kostka Church became an official ‘parish’ church for the steel workers in Warsaw. (Ibid., p. 150.) In the following months, Popieluszko became involved in trade union meetings as an observer without taking part in any decisions. He began to feel a profound sympathy for solidarity. (Bruno Chenu,, op.cit., p. 150.)

From April 1981 he started conducting religious services and these were related to the problems of the time. As a result, thousands of workers took part in them. (Ibid. p. 210.)

He became increasingly involved in the activities of the steel workers and ‘remained a source of moral and spiritual support to them throughout the solidarity era’, which came to an end with the announcement of martial law on 13 December 1981. (J. Luxmoore, "The Polish Church Under Martial Law", p. 124. Religion in Communist Lands, Vol. 15, No.2, Summer 1987. pp. 124-166.) Solidarity was banned and thousands of its members and supporters were detained. But Popieluszko continued to be very close to the workers and he believed this to be his duty as a priest. (G. Sikorska, op.cit., p. 150) He attended several political trials connected with action taken by steel workers during 1981. It was in the courtroom that he got the idea of conducting ‘special service for those in prison or under pressure and for their families’. In February 1982 in St. Stanislaw Kostica Church, the first mass for Poland was conducted. Thereafter masses came to be known as the ‘masses for the nation and they attracted people from all walks of life in several thousands’. (Ibid.) The masses started by reciting poetry by Polish actors and singing of national songs and ended with the same. (Ibid.)

During the masses, Popieluszko’s sermon expressed the desire "to include God in the difficult and powerful problems of the country" and repeatedly attacked ‘the abuse of human rights and freedom of conscience’ in Poland. (Ibid.)

He compared the sufferings of Poland with those of Christ on the cross:

The trial of Jesus goes on forever. It continues through his brothers. Only their names, their faces, their dates, and their birth places change." (Bruno Chenu,, op.cit., p. 210.)

His was the conviction that the Church cannot be neutral in the face of injustice but the defender of all the oppressed. He pointed to the authorities a long and detailed list of all factors that prevented reconciliation. According to him, "the bitter helpless and humiliation which many people suffer daily does not assist reconciliation." (G. Sikorska, op.cit., p. 151.)

Concentrating on current problem, Popieluszko always took note of the largest issues involved such as the nature of authority and government, justice and the fundamental human right to freedom and believed that the root cause of the problems of Poland was the exclusion of God from its socio-political life and in the governing process. The basic Christian truth is that the authorities should serve the people whom they govern. Popieluszko’s sermon frequently mentioned that freedom to humans is given by God and therefore any enslavement of freedom is to work against God. (Ibid., p. 152.)

Popieluszko’s sermons express his stand against revenge and use of violence and a desire to pray not only for those who are oppressed but also for those who oppress people. As a staunch supporter of solidarity he referred to it as the ‘patriotic struggle to reinstate human dignity’. (Ibid., p. 152.)

He believed that witnessing to the truth leads to freedom and constantly encouraged his hearers to witness to truth over against the lies. It is by witnessing to the truth that one overcomes fear which is the root cause for enslavement. In one of his sermons he says, "If truth becomes for us a value, worthy of suffering and risk, then we shall overcome fear -- the direct reason for our enslavement". (Ibid., p. 154.)

The essence of Popieluszko’s vision of freedom is the concept of solidarity of hearts, which was first introduced to the Poles by Pope Paul II. He strongly challenged his hearers to show care and love for those who suffer innocently. He says, "let us pray to God to fill us with the power of his spirit, to reawaken the spirit of true solidarity in our hearts." (Ibid., p. 154.)

Fr. Popieluszko’s vision of liberation made no appeal for the Polish authorities who dubbed the "masses for the nation" as "rallies hostile to the Polish state and accused Fr. Popieluszko of abusing the Church and his position as a priest." (Ibid., p. 155.)

Since 1982, when the first mass for Poland was organized Fr. Popieluszko had been under surveillance by the security police. In December 1982 his parish house was broken and vandalized. He had been detained on a number of occasions as on 28 August 1983 on the charge of ‘abusing religion for political purposes’ and was required to face interrogations. (Irena Korba, Father Jerzy Popieluszko, p. 89; Religion in Communist Lands, Vol. 13, No.1 Spring 1985, pp. 89-90.) Four months later he had been detained on charges that large quantities of explosives and leaflets calling for a national armed uprising were found in his house. Fr. Popieluszko denied any knowledge of the material and was released on bail after the intervention of Archbishop Bronislaw Dabrowski, the secretary of the Polish episcopate. (Ibid. p. 89.) He returned to his work as usual and in May 1984 preached a sermon which implicitly supported the election boycott sponsored by solidarity. (Ibid., p. 89) Again he was summoned for interrogation in June. In August general amnesty was granted and as a result 625 political prisoners and 35,000 allegedly ordinary criminals were released. Also, under the amnesty, charges against Fr. Popieluszko were suspended on the condition that he would not give any cause for complaint for a period of two and half years. However on August 26 he preached at a mass for the prisoners freed under the amnesty and demanded the authorities to follow up the amnesty by lifting the ban on solidarity, allowing freedom of expression, releasing underground solidarity leader Bogdanlis and restoring the right to erect crucifixes in class rooms, factories and other places. (A. Tomsky, op.cit., p. 32.)

Various strategies were attempted to remove him from the public including the possibility of transferring him to another parish in exchange for the release of solidarity activist Bogdanlis and Poitr Mierzejewski. Also the church hierarchy was suggested to send him abroad for an unspecified period of study leave. Fr. Popieluszko underwent enormous pressure and had received a number of threats. (Irena Korba, op.cit., pp. 89-90.)

Fr. Popieluszko and his driver, Waldemar Chrostowski were kidnapped near Torun on 19 October 1984 by three men, one in the guise of a policeman, as they were on their way back to Warsaw from Bydogoszez where Fr. Popieluszko had been preaching. Waldamar Chrostowaski managed to escape and reported the incident to the local priest and to the state authorities. An intensive search was done but after 11 days, on 30 October, Fr. Popieluszko’s body, beaten up and tied with ropes, was found in a reservoir on the river Vistula. (Ibid., p. 90.)

Fr. Popieluszko freely admitted that he had reason to fear for his life and on one occasion he had said, "if we must die suddenly, it is surely better to meet death defending a worthwhile cause than sitting back and letting injustice win." (Ibid., p. 90.)


Fr. Popieluszko was an ordinary Catholic priest but who sacrificed his life for the cause of human dignity and freedom. He was with the people when they were degraded, ill-treated and repressed. He was the voice of those who longed for freedom. He did not limit his duty as a priest to conduct worship services or in reducing faith into a purely private matter for the individual. Faith in God for him does not try to escape from the reality. His faith in God made him identify himself with the struggling masses. He recognized that the way to liberation is through courageously witnessing to the truth and through overcoming fear. It was his conviction that there is meaning in suffering for truth and even sacrificing one’s life for it. This conviction was a result of his understanding of God that God is a suffering God who suffers along with his suffering people and who works for their liberation. Pr. Popieluszko strived for human liberation in a given existential situation. In him, we see the ability to relate the gospel with the problem of freedom of people here and now.

The key value for which Fr. Popieluszko stood was for human dignity. His passion for human dignity was rooted in faith in God who makes no social discrimination and that love of God is love of one’s neighbor. He had a vision of national liberation through non-violent resistance and a spirit of solidarity He had become the symbol of non-violent resistance. Jerry’s sermons offer an insight into the longings of the polish people to live in a Polish way, in a Christian tradition and freedom. The life and death of Fr. Popieluszko makes him a powerful witness of a suffering and liberating God and challenges us to live likewise.



Chenu, Bruno,, The Book of Christian Martyrs, London: SCM, 1990, pp. 207-213.

Balchwickif, E., A Theology of Liberation with the Spirit Religion in Communist Lands. Vol. 13, No. 2, Sum. 94, pp. 157-167.

Grazyan, S. "To kneel only before God: Father Jerzy Popieluszko", in Religion in Communist Lands, Vol. 12, No.2, Series 84, pp. 149-156.

______________ "Recent events in Poland", in Religion in Communist Lands, Vol.12. No.3, Chs. 84, pp. 328-340.

Korba, I., "Father Jerzy Popieluszko", in Religion in Communist Lands, Vol.13, No.1, Spr.86, 88, 89-90.

Luxmoore, J., "The Polish Church under martial law", Religion in Communist Lands, Vol.15, No.2, Sum 87, pp. 124-156.

Tomsky A., "Poland Church on the road to Gdansk", Religion in Communist Lands, Vol.7, No.1, Spring 81, pp. 28-39.