Modern Day Saints

Father Jerzy Popieluszko

September 14, 1947 - October 19, 1984


As some background to our story of Father Jerzy Popieluszko, the following is from an article by Stephanie block, she states, “As someone who has written a good deal about Alinskyian organizing, I am often confronted with one of two errors.  The first is that “social justice” means something bad – or, at the very least, that the Church has no business involved with it.  The second is that Alinskyian organizing is just like – oh, say – the Solidarity movement in Poland of which the Church was pivotally supportive.


The documentary Messenger of Truth, which follows the work of Blessed Father Jerzy Popieluszko in support of Solidarity, the non-government-sanctioned union led by Lech Wałęsa that was instrumental in breaking Communist control of Poland, brilliantly clarifies these issues.  Not only is the Church rightly concerned with the welfare – in all its many aspects – of a society but it is most effective when being itself.  To be piously Catholic, in other words, is an intrinsic challenge to unjust social structures.  Nothing more is required.


Pious Catholicism isn’t static and it isn’t safe.  It stands in diametrical contradiction to modern ideas about social order: “It is the essence of the Communist regime – it is a totalitarian regime – because it wants to control all aspects of a person’s life, including your thoughts, your ideas,” says Grazyna Sikorska, author of A Martyr for Truth, a biography of Father Popieluszko. “You rely on the State for everything in your life.”


The Catholic’s thoughts and ideas, by contrast, are directed toward God, relying on Him alone.   From Roman Caesars demanding an offering of incense to contemporary governments demanding silence about their moral abuses, the existence of a believing Christian is an act of contradiction.”


Father Popieluszko was an ordained priest in Communist Poland when in the summer of 1980. While serving the parish church of St. Stanislaw Kostka in Warsaw, the striking workers of the Lenin Shipyards in Gdańsk, some 250 miles north, begged to be sent a priest to say Mass for them.   When the priest chosen for the task was unable to go, Father Popieluszko volunteered.


In Father Popieluszko’s words he stated his presence there was understood symbolically for a victory for the Church, which had been patiently knocking at the gates of Polish factories for thirty long years. .  He began to celebrate Mass for the striking workers weekly, in his Warsaw parish church, and organized a monthly Workmen Fellowship for prayer, preaching, and a lecture series on a broad range of subjects, including Polish literature, history, the Church’s teaching about social science, law, economics, and even negotiation techniques.


Solidarity’s support among the Polish people and its relationship to the Church, were a cause of tremendous concern to the Communists.  The Communist imposed martial law to stop the “virus” of Solidarity. They arrested about 5000 key Solidarity workers, leaving their families without a livelihood.


Father Popieluszko urged non-violence and countered by organizing relief services for the affected families.  A monthly “Mass for the Homeland” drew crowds of thousands to St. Stanislaw Kostka where they listened to his sermons. The sermons were taped and disseminated throughout Poland with the help of Radio Free Europe.


Father Popieluszko was a staunch anti-communist, and in his sermons, interwove spiritual exhortations with political messages, criticizing the Communist system and motivating people to protest. During the period of martial law, the Catholic Church was the only force that could voice protest comparatively openly, with the regular celebration of Mass presenting opportunities for public gatherings in churches.


Popieluszko’s sermons which were routinely broadcast by Radio Free Europe became famous throughout Poland for their uncompromising stance against the regime. The military police called these Masses “séances of hate,” harassing and threatening Father at first and then later arresting and interrogating him. They did their best to silence and intimidate him. When those techniques did not work, they fabricated evidence against him; he was arrested in 1983, but soon released on intervention of the clergy and pardoned by an amnesty.


A car accident was set up to kill Father Popieluszko on 13 October 1984 but he escaped it. The alternative plan was to kidnap him and this was carried out a week later. The priest was beaten and murdered by three Security Police officers and his body was dumped into the Vistula Water Reservoir near Włocławek from where it was recovered on 30 October 1984.


News of the political murder caused an uproar throughout Poland, and the murderers and one of their superiors, were convicted of the crime. More than 250,000 people, including Lech Wałęsa, attended his funeral on 3 November 1984. Despite the murder and its repercussions, the Communist regime remained in power until 1989.


On 19 December 2009 it was announced that Pope Benedict XVI had approved the decree of beatification of Father Popieluszko. He was beatified on 6 June 2010 in Warsaw's Piłsudski Square. His mother, Marianna Popieluszko and more than 100,000 was present at the event.


Again from Stephanie Block, “So how does the Solidarity movement, supported in practical ways by the Church, differ from Alinskyian “faith-based” organizing?  Don’t they both concern an organized people?  Aren’t they both concerned about fighting – non-violently – for social justice?

The answer is that Solidarity wasn’t using the Church to give it validity.  The Church supported it because the members of Solidarity were enslaved by a State operating under the spell of an intrinsically evil ideology.  Manipulating Catholics to (say) support a given piece of educational reform – one, ironically, that is in the service of the same ideology Solidarity opposed – is the mirror opposite of the Church’s efforts to support fundamental human freedoms.


The Workers Fellowships weren’t designed to school its participants in “self interest” and socialist politics – re-educating them in a new set of values; they were designed to elevate the soul’s spiritual and intellectual life, drawing it more deeply into authentic Catholicism.”    


Father Jerzy Popieluszko was truly a modern day saint as well as a martyr.


Jim Fritz


Spero columnist Stephanie Block is the author of the four-volume 'Change Agents: Alinskyian Organizing Among Religious Bodies', available at Amazon.




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