1947 - 1965
The small, poor village of Okopy in the Podlasie region is - according to church records on September 14, 1947 - the birthplace of a boy named Alfons (he changed the name in May, 1971), son of Marianna and Władysław Popiełuszko.
This and most of the other villages in Podlasie were patriotic and deeply involved in the anti-communist opposition. The Popiełuszko family was extremely active in the struggle, therefore the memory of this early life must have had a tremendous influence on the future priest.
Alek (a diminutive form of his second name, Aleksander) was raised in poverty, which was characteristic of the Polish countryside in the early years of introducing People's Power. He started education in 1954 and from very early age discovered his priestly calling. Every day, before going to school, he would visit the parish church in the nearby town of Suchowola. He became an altar boy at the age of 11. Although not the best in his class he enjoyed his favourite subjects of - History, Polish and (in retrospect it seems obvious) Religion.
He didn't have much free time, as is usually the case in the countryside, where his time was taken by labouring on a farm. His mother recollects the period as follows: “[...] He would simply take the cows for grazing to the outskirts of the village during which time he talked with an old lady. He was a people person” (Kotański, J., Ksiądz Jerzy Popiełuszko, Lublin 2004, p. 17). He was an average student in the Suchowola high school, which he attended from 1961. However, it was not until years later, his colleagues had noticed he was particularly polite and sensitive to human suffering. He passed his high school finals, with no particular problems and was exempt History and Russian exams because of high marks received from those subjects. He would rather forget the results from his science subjects, especially in mathematics.
Alfons Popiełuszko passed his high school exams in 1965 and subsequently joined the Metropolitan Higher Seminary in Warsaw. This choice was no accident, it was because Cardinal and Primate of Poland, Stefan Wyszynski, was the senior pastor. Popiełuszko tried to stay close to the Primate following his footsteps to learn the Cardinal’s approach towards people. In particularly the Primate's dignified attitude during the millennial celebrations in 1966 left a lasting impression.
During his studies – although contrary to an agreement between the Church and the Communist state - he was called up to the army. The unit for would-be priests' training was located in Bartoszyce, near the Soviet Union border. Evidently, not being a coincidence, but another element of persecution of the Roman Catholic Church by the Communist regime. At this time military service was a greater opportunity for indoctrination of young men, especially harsh for seminarians, who underwent extra-intensive ideological "treatment". It was a great test of character.
Alfons Popiełuszko began his military service in the autumn of 1966. Persecution for religious practice was part of everyday life, with severe penalties for violation of prohibitions, even within the terms of military procedures. For example, traditional collective responsibility for any signs of "clericalism", such as possession of a rosary or a medal of Our Lady, was rigorously applied. Popiełuszko, the seminarian, survived this "school of life" intact. His strength of spirit overcame mindless violence as well as the imposed atheism. Although, after the military service the future priest suffered health problems (relating to heart and thyroid), this failed to stifle his calling and he returned to the seminary.
He was ordained as a priest, Jerzy Popiełuszko, on May 28, 1972 by Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, the Primate of Poland. The first Holy Mass he celebrated was in Suchowola. Soon afterwards, Fr. Jerzy became a curate of the Holy Trinity Parish in Ząbki, near Warsaw, then later in Anin. That was a great challenge for him as he wanted to remain true to himself and close to people he served. He had "a special touch" - recalls one of his friends - and quickly became a favourite among his parishioners. Friendships made during that period lasted until the priest's death. Many of his friends provided shelter for him from the security service. Popiełuszko was a man of many talents and ideas, with great organizing skills. Those qualities won over many warm and friendly people. He was known for his independent conduct and judgement, also for his courage to promote his ideals.
In 1978 Fr. Jerzy Popiełuszko was transferred to the Infant Jesus Parish, in the Żoliborz district of Warsaw, where he taught Religion to children and in extremely adverse housing conditions. Shortly afterwards he was transferred to Res Sacra Miser Chapel in Krakowskie Przedmieście Street in Warsaw, where - to his astonishment - he became a priest of future physicians.
From the university chaplaincy, Fr. Jerzy was nominated for the priest of mid-level medical staff. It was clearly thanks to his efforts, this vital ideological and spiritual community, dangerous to the system, yet of great importance for people, had come into being. The previously mentioned personal qualities of this priest played a vital role in the process. Suffering from overwork with worsening health problems after his military service, Fr. Jerzy collapsed while celebrating Holy Mass in March 1979. After a stay in hospital he was transferred to the Academic Church of St. Anna in Krakowskie Przedmieście Street in Warsaw. His responsibilities were reduced with a view to speed up his recovery, yet they still remained heavy. Due to his experience, Fr. Popiełuszko became responsible for the medical aspect of the approaching pilgrimage of Pope John Paul II to his homeland in 1979. Regular contact with future, also practicing doctors and nurses was an opportunity to organize this community. As is the case, earlier and this time also, owing to his personal qualities, Fr. Popiełuszko quickly gained friendship and trust of the medical staff, who accepted him as their chaplain. Moreover, Fr. Jerzy became involved in the pro-life movement.
In May 1978 Jerzy Popiełuszko became a resident of St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish Church, in Wilson Square (at the time Paris Commune Square), located near the centre of Żoliborz. Meanwhile, eventful times were approaching (for Fr. Jerzy as well as for Poland). During August of 1980 the Huta Warszawa steelworks went on strike, with the strikers asking to have a Holy Mass celebrated at the premises of the plant. None of the priests, who worked permanently in the Parish of St. Stanislaus Kostka, could go there and support the strikers. Therefore, Fr. Jerzy decided to go and celebrate the Holy Mass where he witnessed staunch religiousness and quickly found a common language with the workers. Fr. Jerzy said the Church, which had been knocking on big factories' doors for several decades, had been finally admitted.
August 1980 saw a breach being made in the Soviet bloc. A legal organization, independent of the regime, came into being, in the second largest (after the USSR) country of the Eastern bloc. In addition, it was an organization of the nominal "owners" of country - the workers. Independent Self-Governing Trade Union "Solidarity" was not merely a trade union, but also an organization which gathered people who wanted change for their country. It took the Communist Party 30 years to have 3 million members - a few months were enough for "Solidarity" to gather 10 million. In the aftermath of "Solidarity", many other organizations were formed, e.g. Independent Students' Association (NZS) or the Independent Self-Governing Trade Union of Individual Farmers "Solidarity" (NSZZ RI).
The Church of St. Stanislaus Kostka became one of the most important meeting places for workers in Warsaw during the formation of "Solidarity". Again, as with the nurses and physicians, Fr. Jerzy started to build a community. He had a great gift for combining pastoral work with broadening people's knowledge about Poland, the world and life. The authorities could not turn a blind eye to this fact. The problem for them was as long as the "solidarity carnival" lasted, they could not openly attack the organization.
Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski put an end to this carnival in December 13, 1981 by introducing martial law. The Military Council of National Salvation (WRON) was established. Apart from a group of generals, martial law was introduced with 70 thousand troops, 30 thousand officers from the Ministry of Internal Affairs who had over 1,700 tanks, 1,400 armoured vehicles and 500 infantry vehicles at their disposal. Over eight thousand commissioners entered newly militarized factories and offices. Polish society has been subjected to rigors, without precedent, since World War II: people presumed dangerous for military rule were interned, some of the businesses underwent restructuring to suit military ends, school and university classes were suspended, also the publishing of all the press (except for the party's "Trybuna Ludu" and the military "Żołnierz Wolności").
December 13, 1981 marked the beginning of the last stage for the life and work of Fr. Jerzy Popiełuszko. His first sermon under martial law was on January 17, 1982 when he encouraged people to think about those deprived of their liberty. Fr. Popiełuszko had delivered 26 sermons since the introduction of martial law. He discussed obvious aspects of life - the necessity of truth, honesty and love among the members of society. It was dangerous for the authorities because he was exposing the lies of the regime and the simplicity of his sermons clearly contrasted with the language of the party's propaganda. Notes one of the biographers: "Fr. Jerzy was a voice that could not be silenced" (Kotański, J.) He was also a very hard-working person. In addition to the Masses for the country, he initiated Nowa Huta workers' pilgrimage to the sanctuary of Jasna Góra. The idea soon evolved into a Nationwide Pilgrimage of the Working People.
The Communists could not accept Fr. Jerzy's activity just as they could not accept the truth and honesty he advocated. Communist security service began to come ever closer to the priest. Having been unable to exclude him from pastoral work by exerting pressure on his superiors, the Communists began to intimidate Fr. Jerzy. His apartment was broken into (twice), he was being constantly followed, his car was damaged and car crashes were arranged. In September 1983, public prosecutor Anna Jackowska started an investigation against Fr. Jerzy Popiełuszko and in December that year she charged him with the abuse of the freedom of conscience and religion to the detriment of Polish People's Republic. In the first half of 1984 he was arrested once and brought in for interrogation thirteen times. Driven by the security and propaganda services (notably by Jerzy Urban, the government spokesman, who referred to the sermons as "the sessions of hatred") organized attacks by the media and the press also intensified. Press conferences held by the government spokesman often could have been construed as instructions on how to deal with the rebellious priest. In view of the growing tension, many attempts were made to relocate Fr. Jerzy to Rome. However, he declined to study there "saying that: »I cannot leave these people, I cannot betray them".« To leave at that time would have meant to escape from the position the Church had trusted him with. He added: »I stayed through the difficult times and I am supposed to leave them now? What will the Church offer them - my resignation, my betrayal?« He cried. Nevertheless he was aware of the danger" - recalls Fr. Zdzisław Król.
On October 19, 1984, after a Holy Mass in the Parish of the Holy Polish Martyr Brothers in Bydgoszcz, on their way to Warsaw, Fr. Jerzy Popiełuszko and Waldemar Chrostowski, the driver of Volkswagen Golf, were pulled over and kidnapped in Górsk by three security service officers (Grzegorz Piotrowski, Leszek Pękala and Waldemar Chmielewski) who were dressed as policemen. The agents operated under Independent Group "D" (disintegration) from the 4th Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. At that point the trail ends. Nobody knows what really happened to Fr. Popiełuszko. On October 21, a special group was formed in the Ministry to investigate the abduction (theoretically, nobody knew about the priest's death). The group was composed of experienced officers from the 4th Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (Zenon Płatek, the head of the Department, and his deputy, Adam Pietruszka). The political decision to reveal that security service agents were arrested in connection with the case was taken on October 24, and the agents' names were revealed three days later. On October 30, a further three days, a body identified as Fr. Popiełuszko was recovered from a dam reservoir near Włocławek. Police records describe the incident as follows: "At 5 p.m. [...] the recovery of a male body commenced with the help of divers. The victim - reports Krzysztof Mańko, one of the divers - was wearing a cassock, facing the weir and had been weighed down. (Chinciński, T., Na tropach prowokacji, "Biuletyn IPN" 2004, no. 10, p. 38).
The mutilated body, to such an extent, was barely identifiable. What was the reason for such cruelty? Historian Jacek T. Żurek claims that it was to frighten those who did not want to come to terms with the regime - Fr. Jerzy's tongue was crushed with one of the security service members said that "he won't bark anymore". Perhaps it was more of a symbol - to kill a priest who preached the truth is like killing the truth itself. We will never know who gave the orders or what it would look like in the course of a proper investigation. The transport of the body from Bialystok (the place of autopsy) to the gravesite near St. Stanislaus Church in Warsaw turned into a great manifestation of faith and unity. A solemn funeral was conducted on November 3 and Holy Mass was celebrated in complete silence. No speeches were given.
A day before the funeral, the security service group was dissolved. The Interior Bureau of Investigation from the Ministry of Internal Affairs took over the case. Obviously nothing changed either in the course of the investigation or with regard to the expected results. Nothing was clear.
The trial of the alleged killers also did not result in any changes thereto. It lasted from December 27, 1984 to February 2, 1985 and took place before the Provincial Court in Toruń in the presence of the "public" which consisted mostly of security service policemen and Communist-supporting journalists. The trial resulted in convictions for G. Piotrowski and A. Pietruszka (25 years of imprisonment each), L. Pękala (15 years), and W. Chmielewski (14 years). All the convicts were released from jail before serving the full sentence. Pękala left prison after 5 years, Chmielewski after 8, Pietruszka after 10 and Piotrowski after 16 years.
Paradoxically, the lawsuit was a kind of a display of passing accusations. Jerzy Popiełuszko along with the Catholic Church of Poland seemed to be the defendants in the "trial". Later on, Wojciech Jaruzelski (in a conversation with Erich Honecker) referred to the Catholic Church as a hump that could not be removed.