Thirty years ago today, in the wee hours of the morning, a Catholic priest was beaten and thrown into a reservoir. Blessed Jerzy Popielusko was a martyr for Solidarity whom I’ve admired ever since I read his story.
Solidarity was the name of a labor union movement in Poland that began soon after Pope John Paul II made a visit to his homeland in 1979.
In August 1980, ship workers in Gdansk went on strike. Warsaw steelworkers joined them in solidarity and sent someone to the chancery to ask for a priest to come and say Mass for them.
Father Jerzy Popieluszko happened to be there and volunteered to go and celebrate Mass at the huge cross the strikers had erected at their factory.
This young priest was an unlikely advocate of the strikers. But he soon became their chaplain, advocate, and spiritual advisor.
After the December 1981 martial law crackdown and arrest of many Solidarity union members, he visited those in prison and help organize ways to respond to their families. He also began to celebrate a monthly Mass for the Fatherland where he helped Solidarity discover its spiritual roots.
He very clearly saw his work not as political – though it had strong political implications. He was only doing what the church should always do – be at the side of people struggling to live as human beings.
As he said:
…when people suffer and are persecuted, the church also feels the pain. The mission of the church is to be with the people and to share in their joys and sorrows.
He, like another martyr for solidarity with the poor, Monseñor Oscar Romero, knew that this was dangerous work. When we truly side with the poor we can expect to be misunderstood and even persecuted.
As Father Jerzy said:
If we must die, it is better to meet death while defending a worthwhile cause than sitting back and letting an injustice take place.
For his preaching and solidarity his Masses were interrupted and a bomb thrown at his apartment. Finally, he was kidnapped on the night of October 19, 1984, and killed early the next day.
Not many of us are called to witness by dying for God and the oppressed, but we are all called to give our lives to serve God.
As Blessed Jerzy put it:
To serve God is to seek a way to human hearts. To serve God is to speak about evil as a sickness which should be brought to light so that it can be cured. To serve God is to condemn evil in all its manifestations.
The church of San Bartolomeo all’Isola in Rome has been set up by the Community of San Egidio as a place to remember the martyrs of the New Millenium. In the chapels there are relics of many recent martyrs, including the Missal used by Archbishop Romero the day he was killed in El Salvador, one of the letters from a Nazi prison of Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, and one of the stone in the bag that was used to drown Blessed Jerzy Popielusko. Here is a photo of the relic of Blessed Jerzy.