Fr. Jerzy Popiełuszko gave his priesthood and his life in the 1970’s-80’s for the people of Poland suffering under Communism. As we celebrate the fifth anniversary of his beatification on June 6, 2010, and we joyfully anticipate his imminent canonization (see pages 28 and 29), we would also like to recognize the fact that behind every saint there is, of course, a mother. We introduce to you therefore, Fr. Jerzy’s remarkable mother, Marianna Popiełuszko (1920-2013).
|Jerzy with his parents.
As a young mother, Marianna Popiełuszko hoped that one day she would become the mother of a priest. While she was anticipating the birth of her third child, having already one son and one daughter, she prayed to the “good God” that, should she have another boy, he would become a son of the Church. “I offered my son to God and to the Virgin Mary.” Alfons, or “Alek” as he was known to family and friends, was born on September 14, 1947, Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
Marianna and Władysław Popiełuszko were devout Catholics, residing in Okopy, in the Białystok area of Poland. Though poor farmers living an austere life, they took great care in providing a decent living for their five children. For them, God always came first: Mass, the family Rosary, morning and evening prayers, special devotions for the different feast days. Marianna would also often repeat, “Niech będzie pochwalony Jezus Chrystus” (Praised be Jesus Christ) and remind her children that every day should be lived for the greater glory of God.
These practices in the Popiełuszko household served as a formation for the future of young Alek. From the time he became an altar boy, he would get up every morning at five a.m. and make the three mile trek through the woods, in any weather, to serve the morning Mass before going to school. He was an obedient child and though he was an average student, he worked hard and did well. After school he would oftentimes stop in again at the church to recite the Rosary. The school principal one day complained to his parents that young Alek spent too much time in prayer! To this, his mother only responded, “In Poland we have freedom of worship.” Nothing was done to stop him.
Alek had always felt drawn to the priesthood and seemed to know that God was calling him. Marianna continued to pray for her son that God’s Will be done, and when he informed his family that he was leaving for Warsaw to enter the seminary, she quietly thanked God with all her heart, “…I was happy when he became priest and I was praying constantly that he will be faithful to God, because this is the most important thing in life.”
|Left: Official portrait of Father Jerzy Popiełuszko (1947-1984), for his beatification in Warsaw on June 6, 2010.
Alek became Fr. Jerzy Popiełuszko when he received Holy Orders from Poland’s Primate, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, on May 28, 1972, in St. John’s Cathedral in Warsaw. On his inaugural Mass cards he had printed the motto: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor (Luke 4:18).” Living by these words throughout his priesthood, he dedicated himself entirely to the service of God’s people. He is especially remembered as being gentle, kind, and devoted to all in his various assignments in parishes and as chaplain among medical students.
It was in August of 1980 that Fr. Jerzy was asked to say Mass for the opposition trade union, Solidarity. The entire country was on strike and the foundry workers in the Warsaw Ironworks were looking for a priest who would celebrate the Holy Mass for them in the factory. Cardinal Wyszyński sent his own chaplain in search of a priest available to render this service and it would seem that, almost by accident, since no other priest was free that day, that Fr. Jerzy was chosen. After the Mass, Fr. Jerzy stayed long into the evening to speak with the workers at the foundry. He was liked by the men and they brought to him their families. Many went to him for confession and he also performed preach good news to the poor (Luke 4:18).” Living by these words throughout his priesthood, he dedicated himself entirely to the service of God’s people. He is especially remembered as being gentle, kind, and devoted to all in his various assignments in parishes and as chaplain among medical students.
It was in August of 1980 that Fr. Jerzy was asked to say Mass for the opposition trade union, Solidarity. The entire country was on strike and the foundry workers in the Warsaw Ironworks were looking for a priest who would celebrate the Holy Mass for them in the factory. Cardinal Wyszyński sent his own chaplain in search of a priest available to render this service and it would seem that, almost by accident, since no other priest was free that day, that Fr. Jerzy was chosen. After the Mass, Fr. Jerzy stayed long into the evening to speak with the workers at the foundry. He was liked by the men and they brought to him their families. Many went to him for confession and he also performed marriages as well as baptisms for both babies and adults. This was the true beginning of his ministry and the threshold of great transformation for all of Poland and even Europe.
Despite Martial Law, Fr. Popiełuszko began saying the “Masses for the Homeland”. People came from far and wide for the Mass and even non-Catholics came to hear his homilies. The Communist authorities were increasingly annoyed by this outspoken young priest but also nervous about his influence on the people. Churches were filled and confessional lines were long. It was apparent that something needed to be done and Fr. Jerzy soon became the target of the Secret Police. He was put under surveillance, his apartment and phone were tapped and he received death threats. Yet his faith in the Queen of Poland, Our Lady of Częstochowa, was unswerving. Miraculously, he remained at liberty and was able to apply himself whole-heartedly to the mission he had undertaken.
Fr. Jerzy knew though, that his days were numbered. His prayer became more profound and he confessed himself more frequently. He also began devoting himself to settling his own affairs. In September 1984 he paid an unexpected visit to his family in Okopy. His mother remembers, “At that time he brought me his cassock to sew, saying: ‘I will take it back next time; or Mum will have it as a remembrance.’ And saying farewell to us, he said: ‘In case I am killed, please, do not cry about me.’ I was petrified, because he had never spoken so.”
|Pope John Paul II praying at the grave of Fr. Popiełuszko in Warsaw.
Then, on the night of October 13th, 1984, an attempt was made on Father’s life. This attempt failed, but six days later, as he was traveling near Torun in a car returning from pastoral work in Bydgoszcz, he was stopped by three agents of the Security Service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. They seized him, savagely beat and tortured him, and bound him with ropes. Then attaching a large stone to his feet, they threw him, alive, into the Vistula River. Fr. Jerzy’s body was found eleven days later, on October 30th. He was 37 years old.
Father’s last words as he had left on that fateful night were, “Let us pray so we can be free from fear and intimidation, but mostly free from the desire of revenge and retaliation.”
The Communists tried to silence Fr. Jerzy and intimidate the Polish people. Instead God provided the people with a martyr and new strength. The following year saw Gorbachev come to power promising reforms. Communism in Poland and Europe collapsed by 1989, only five years later.
In 1987, when Pope St. John Paul II visited the grave of Fr. Jerzy Popiełuszko, he met with the mother of this courageous priest. Thanking her for the gift of her son to the Church, he said to her, “Mother, you have given us a great son”. Marianna’s reply surprised even the pope, “Holy Father, I did not give him, but God has given him to the world through me. I gave him to the Church and I cannot take him back.” The Pope then kissed and embraced her.
Fr. Jerzy Popiełuszko had learned from his good mother, “To be faithful to God and, as much as one can, to serve others.” All his life he had lived by these words, dedicating his life to the service of truth, freedom, and respect for the dignity of every human being. He was beatified on June 6, 2010 in Warsaw by Cardinal Amato, representative of Pope Benedict XVI and Prefect of the Congregation for the Cause of Saints, in the presence of his mother, Marianna. She had been his first teacher, she had prayed for him, she suffered his death, and now she forgave his murderers, “I do not want to judge anybody, as God will judge the murderers by himself. I would be glad the most, if they experienced conversion. I have already forgiven them.”
|At age 90, Marianna was present at the beatification Mass of her son. She died on Nov. 19, 2013.