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Father Jerzy Popieluszko 1947 - 1984

Polish priest, martyred in his fight to protect freedom of expression.

Father Jerzy Popieluszko

Father Jerzy Popieluszko

Jerzy Popieluszko was born into a farming family in the Bialystok region of Poland. He was a very religious and solitary boy. In 1965 he entered a seminary in Warsaw. During his military service (1966 – 1968) he was punished several times for his "rebellious attitude". He was ordained a priest in 1972. He worked in various churches in Warsaw, including the church of St. Anna, headquarters of the academic pastoral – from which a pilgrimage of university students left for Czestochowa every year – and a centre of numerous opposition activities. At the end of the Seventies Father Popieluszko suffered from serious ill health and was forced to reduce his commitments.

In June 1980 he was sent as resident priest to the parish of St. Stanislao Kostka, which included the huge "Huta Warszawa" steelworks. On 28 August, the primate of Poland, cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, sent Father Popieluszko to the Huta plant where striking workers had asked for a priest to celebrate Mass: he thus became Solidarnosc's chaplain at the steelworks. After the introduction of the state of war, he was one of the organizers of the Primate's Committee in Aid of the Persecuted and their Families, which coordinated the local committees and in January 1982 he attended the trial of the Huta strikers. Along with the parish priest of St. Stanislao Kostka he started to hold a monthly Mass for the Nation which attracted thousands of people: workers, intellectuals, artists and even non-religious people. In his sermons he appealed for the return of civil liberties and of Solidarnosc. He provided widespread material and spiritual support and kept in close touch with dissident intellectuals and with Solidarnosc's underground network. The authorities feared his influence and directed a barrage of protests to the Warsaw Curia, accusing him of subverting the State. He was kept under constant surveillance by the Security Services, also with the collaboration of secret agents, including one priest and at least four lay people belonging to his own inner circle (as has since emerged from Security Service files); he was also continually summoned by the police...

During his Masses for the Nation the church was frequently surrounded by a cordon of police vehicles while gangs of troublemakers also began to make their appearance. On 14 December 1982 unknown persons threw an explosive device into his room. From that moment on, the Huta Warszawa workers decided to guarantee him a 24-hour bodyguard. In May 1983 he organized the funeral of Grzegorz Przemyk, son of the poetess Barbara Sadowska, a leading light of the opposition, assassinated by the police. In September 1983, for the first time, Father Popielusko organized a workers' pilgrimage to Czestochowa that was to become a tradition still observed today. In the autumn of that year he also organized a university for the workers of his parish in his church.

On 12 December 1983 he was summoned for questioning and detained as a suspect for "abusing the freedom of conscience and of confession, both during his religious offices and in his sermons". He risked 10 years' imprisonment and only the archbishop of Warsaw's insistence at the Ministry of the Interior secured his release without having to undergo a trial. But the security services continued to keep him under control. Primate Glemp proposed that he should go and study in Rome, but Father Popielusko refused. On 1 May 1984 he was celebrating Mass for the workers, during which he spoke of the dignity of work and at the end of the service, the police shut off the roads around the church and attacked the crowd of workers with hydrants. At the same time the mass media conducted a ferocious defamatory campaign against the young priest, defined by the government spokesman as: "a political fanatic, an anti-communist Savonarola, while his Masses are nothing but tirades of hate".

On 13 October 1984 three Security Service officers tried to cause a car accident while Father Popielusko was traveling in Danzig. On 19 October, while he was reciting the evening Rosary in a church in Bydgoszcz, the priest repeated once again: "We ask to be free of fear, of terror, but above all from the desire for vendetta. We must conquer evil with good and keep our human dignity intact, this is why we cannot resort to violence". On his way back to Warsaw he was kidnapped by the same three officers. His driver, Waldemar Chrostowski, managed to escape and testified to what happened: prayer vigils immediately gathered in Warsaw in a climate a great apprehension. On 30 October Jerzy Popielusko's body was found in a reservoir near Wloclawek. The autopsy revealed that before dying he had been beaten up and trussed. The trial against the assassins took place from 27 December 1984 to 7 February 1985. Despite the prosecution asking for the death penalty for two of the accused, they received sentences ranging from 14 to 25 years' imprisonment, while the instigators remain unknown. The material killers later had their sentences reduced and were soon released from jail.

The funeral, which took place on 3 November and was attended by tens of thousands of people, turned into a huge popular protest. The body was buried in the courtyard of the church of St. Stanislao Kostka and his tomb soon became a place of pilgrimage and the site of official visits from foreign politicians. It is estimated that in ten years it was visited by 18 million people. On 8 February 1997 the process of beatification officially began, to be concluded four years later. On 3 May 2001 proceedings began for the process of canonization.

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Dissidents of totalitarianism

in Central Europe's communist regimes

The so called "dissent" in the communist regimes of Eastern Europe cannot be just reduced to the simple notion of an "opposition" as its definition would suggest, but it should be above all considered as an attempt to build a "parallel polis" based on the responsibility of every citizen and aimed at occupying the spaces where cultural, social and human freedom are allowed, as wrenched from the totalitarian rule over the social fabric. Members of Charter 77 and Solidarnosc, such as Vaclav Havel, Radim Palous, Jacek Kuron and Adam Michnik, have always underlined that “the power of the powerless” consists in winning over fear through the empowerment made possible through a collective assumption of responsibility, witnessed by the exhortation to "live the truth" within a society based on lie. Ver often their "dissent" consisted in a way to claim the enforcement of laws, such as the ones about freedom of conscience, or the international agreements subscribed by their countries, such as the Helsinki Accords. This was the origin of a broad movement that was able to condition the behaviour and mentality of the public opinion, up to the point in which, letting aside Romania, the totalitarian rule was overthrown in a peaceful way, without shedding blood, with the rise of a new leading class recognized by the majority of the population and ready to take on government responsibilities.