Among the highlights of 2014 for me was a visit to the grave of Father Jerzy Popieluszko.
I was first there in 1986, when Poland was still under Communism, and just months after his savage martyrdom.
For those who don’t remember: Fr Jerzy was the young Polish priest who celebrated a regular “Mass for the Homeland” in which he spoke openly about the crushing of people’s lives under Communism—the exploitation of workers, the random arrests, the brutality of the police, the hunger and hardship experienced daily by so many families. And, above all, the lies that were told, and had been told for years, by the politicians, the Party officials, the Communist rulers, who lied about Poland’s history, her current plight, her past heroes, her present heroes, and her long-held deep and vibrant Christian faith. He was kidnapped and murdered by a team of secret police, in particularly brutal circumstances.
Back in the 1980s, many of us in the West were trying to help the Poles. On one visit, smuggling in materials for Solidarity—booklets, information, and even stationery and staples for underground newsletters—we went to Fr Jerzy’s grave in the grounds of his church in Zoliborz. In those days the whole churchyard was a bit of “free Poland”, where the Communist authorities dared not enter, filled with pictures, icons, banners. Fr Jerzy—“George” in Polish—was frequently depicted slaying a dragon. He was by popular acclaim a saint.
And now it seems that he will be formally named one. In 2010 he was beatified: Blessed Jerzy. News has now emerged of another miracle attributed to his intercession, a truly remarkable story involving a priest who placed a relic of Blessed Jerzy by the bedside of a man dying of cancer and begged his intercession. The coffin had already been ordered, and arrangements for the funeral were in hand. But, overnight, the man recovered.
Why was I at Fr Jerzy’s grave in 2014? A prosaic reason really: I was, with colleague Clare Anderson, making a television programme for EWTN focusing on the life and legacy of St John Paul II. Fr Jerzy was—and is—part of that story: the great Pope’s visit to Fr Jerzy’s grave was along Poland’s path to freedom that began with that Warsaw sermon in Victory Square in 1979.
For our EWTN feature, we filmed pilgrims praying and singing at the grave, and then visited the museum which now fills the church crypt. But—and here is the main reason I am writing—I found it had a much more poignant and worrying message than I had imagined. Far from being just a story about Poland and Communism and those-poor-brave-folks-in-eastern-Europe, which it was when I first went there in the 1980s, it was a story about freedom, and truth, and the price to be paid for standing up for both.
Fr Jerzy’s message was not just for Poland but for all time: when a government tries to impose untruths, when it distorts history, when it crushes attempts to live by ordinary moral values, then we must speak out. We must conquer hatred with love, lies with truth, anger and fear with courage and hope. This applied in Poland under Communism, but it applies anywhere, at any time. So if, for example, a government—without necessarily being crude, or brutal about it—tries to impose the belief that marriage is not about a man and a woman but about two people (or more?) of the same sex, then we must speak out and tell the truth. And this applies when such untruths are imposed on children in schools, or public figures are bullied into silence on the subject, or if the Church is so bullied.
Fr Jerzy never suggested that “freedom” in the abstract is an absolute. What matters most is truth. We are not free to kill, maim, or steal. Any civilisation worthy of the name imposes all sorts of restraints on its citizens. But truth is absolute and does not need to be imposed, because it imposes itself. A government that tries to impose an untruth finds that it needs, with increasing pressure, to keep finding ways to prevent the truth from emerging, from pouring out through the cracks in the blocks it keeps trying to push into place.
Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko came from a hard-working rural family: his name, with that “pop” in its first syllable, has a country-air sound to it in Polish, faintly comic to sophisticated city-dwellers. This, combined with his ill-health and his non-stop life of prayer and work that rarely seemed to leave time for sleep or meals, should have made him a ridiculous figure. But it didn’t. It was this gentle priest—he always spoke about forgiveness and love, never violence, never anger—who was the hero of an oppressed nation, and is today the authentic vision of priesthood for a new generation of Poles. He is also, and this is what challenged me, a hero to all of us in the West who thought that truth and freedom were easy things to cherish, and now need to draw on his courage and example.
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