Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko: Biography, Miracle & Quotes

Instructor: Katie Streit

Katie has a PhD in History. She has taught middle school English and college History.

In this lesson, we will learn about the life and martyrdom of Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko. He was a Catholic priest, who risked his life to speak against the communist government in Poland during the 1980s.

The Ultimate Sacrifice

How far would you go to defend your faith? Would you die for it? Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko did just that while serving as a Roman Catholic priest in Poland during the 1980s. In this lesson, we will learn more about Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko's religious conviction, defense of human rights, and criticism of Poland's oppressive communist government. We will also learn about his path to sainthood as a martyr of the Catholic Church.

Context - War and Communism

It is important to get some background information before we delve into the life of Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko. Nazi Germany occupied Poland at the onset of the Second World War. The Nazis aimed to destroy Polish culture by targeting the country's leaders — murdering thousands of teachers, priests, politicians, and other intellectuals. Hundreds of thousands of Poles were relocated to ghettos and concentration camps, including the infamous Auschwitz.

Krakow Ghetto
Ghetto

In addition to the 1.9 million non-Jewish Polish civilians killed during the war, an estimated 90 percent of the Polish Jewish population (nearly 3 million people) died during the Holocaust.

Auschwitz Concentration Camp
Auschwitz

Soviet influence in war-ravaged Poland was immense after the war. Poland's constitution, economy, military, and foreign policies aligned with the Stalinist ideologies of the Soviet Union during the 1950s. The communist government — led by the Polish United Workers' Party — controlled Poland from 1952 to 1990. The Roman Catholic Church remained a powerful institution in Poland despite attacks from the communist state.

The situation in Poland improved at the end of the Stalinist era in the 1960s, but economic troubles led to renewed instability in the 1970s. Trade unions and intellectuals tried to undermine the communist government while operating under the protection of the Catholic Church. The 1978 election of Pope John Paul II — the former archbishop of Krakow — was a source of inspiration for change among Polish citizens.

The first visit to Poland for Pope John Paul II
Pope

In 1980, Solidarity grew as a major anti-communist movement supported by millions of Poles. General Wojciech Jaruzelski tried to break Solidarity in December 1981 by declaring martial law and outlawing the associated trade union (the Independent Self-Governing Labour Union Solidarity). The union and movement continued to operate underground even though its leaders were imprisoned. It is within this context of repression that Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko's story rests.

Man of Faith

Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko was born in Okopy, Poland, on September 14, 1947. After high school, he attended a seminary in Warsaw to become a Catholic priest. Popieluszko was a year into his training when he was drafted into the Polish military. The communist government placed seminarians into a special unit aimed at dissuading them from becoming priests and indoctrinating them in communist ideologies. Popieluszko, however, resumed his priestly studies after his military service and was ordained a priest on May 28, 1972.

Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko
Popieluszko

Popieluszko served as a priest in several parishes before being assigned to St. Stanislaus Kostka parish in Warsaw in May 1980. Three months later, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski requested that Popieluszko celebrate mass for Solidarity workers on strike. From that point forward, Popieluszko supported the Solidarity movement while assisting union workers, political prisoners, and families whose loved ones were imprisoned under martial law.

Martial law in Poland
Martial Law

Dangerous Work

Starting in February 1982, Popieluszko began celebrating Masses for the Homeland once a month. During the masses, he proclaimed the Catholic faith, defended human rights, and sermonized against martial law. He was quoted as saying, ''To live in Truth is the basic minimum of human dignity, even if the price to defend the Truth could be costly. You need to always remain faithful to the Truth. Truth can never be betrayed.''

As more and more people attended his dynamic masses, the government grew increasingly frustrated with the priest. Government officials tried to stop him through intimidation tactics — having him followed, harassing him, and burglarizing his home. A bomb was left outside Popieluszko's home in December 1982, and a year later he was arrested. He was ultimately released and continued with his ministries despite the growing threat to his life. Popieluszko reportedly said, ''Therefore the role of the priest is to proclaim the Truth and suffer for the Truth. ... If necessary, even to die for the Truth.''

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