WARSAW, Poland — Father Jerzy Popieluszko never got to see a free Poland, but his fiery sermons followed by his brutal death at the hands of secret police thugs were instrumental in breaking the back of communist rule. A grateful country finally rewarded him 21 years after the restoration of independence.
Almost 150,000 people showed up on Sunday for a mass and a celebratory march through Poland's capital to mark Popieluszko's beatification, the first step on the road to sainthood.
“The role of a priest is to tell the truth and to suffer for the truth and if need be give his life for the truth,” Archbishop Kazimierz Nycz told the enormous crowd as national flags and banners from the Solidarity labor union fluttered in the light breeze. Politicians from Prime Minister Donald Tusk to presidential candidates Bronislaw Komorowski and Jaroslaw Kaczynski looked on.
The liturgy was attended by 100 bishops and more than 2,000 priests, a sign of the strength of the Roman Catholic church in one of Europe's most religious societies. But there was a sense that the ceremony was reliving a time when it was a crucial institution in this country, which is becoming steadily more secular as Poland becomes wealthier and more closely integrated into the European Union.
During the 45 years of communist rule, the church formed the core of an alternative society that gave people access to a life untainted by the lies and absurdity of communism. The communists tried to break the church in the late 1940s, but proved unable to do so — leaving the church much more freedom in Poland than elsewhere in the Soviet bloc.
Popieluszko, a brooding and intense man who had been deeply religious ever since he was a child, grew up in that atmosphere, where the church played a primary role in national life. He was ordained by Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, a prelate who had spent years in detention.
Popieluszko quickly became involved with the Solidarity labor union in 1980, ministering to striking steelworkers at a Warsaw smelter. He rose to prominence in the gray years of the early 1980s, following the 1981 declaration of martial law — an attempt by the communist authorities to crush Solidarity, an organization they feared would lead to a loss of power by the Communist Party or an invasion by the USSR. Thousands of union activists were interned, and the brief burst of freedom was snuffed out.
Millions turned for succor to the church, and to priests like Popieluszko. His enormously popular sermons to the nation — of which there were 26 — drew thousands to his parish church in the Zoliborz suburb of northern Warsaw.
Communist authorities became increasingly concerned over Popieluszko's popularity, with even the Soviet media accusing him of being a counter-revolutionary. In 1983 his apartment was searched while reporters from state television filmed — police found tear gas grenades and weapons that had been previously planted.
An increasingly irate Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, the communist leader, told colleagues that “someone should stop his yapping,” a turn of phrase that the general's defenders say was a rhetorical flourish but that members of the secret police took to be an order to get rid of Popieluszko.
On Nov. 19, 1984, the priest's car was stopped north of Warsaw. He was seized, but his driver managed to escape. Popieluszko's bound and beaten body, weighed down with a bag of rocks, was fished from the Vistula River on Nov. 30.
The murder caused a national outrage. Enormous crowds turned out for Popieluszko's funeral at his parish church, and even the communist authorities realized they could not let matters lie.
By December of that year, four Polish interior ministry officers were on trial for murder — a remarkable event in a communist country. All four were convicted, with sentences ranging from 14 to 25 years. Although more senior officials avoided responsibility, and the four had their sentences shortened by amnesties, the fact that the Communist Party had to bow to public opinion and admit to criminal behavior gave an enormous boost to efforts to undermine its rule.
Popieluszko was immediately treated as a national and religious martyr, and his grave has long been a pilgrimage site. Those two roles — religious and patriotic — were both underlined during his beatification mass. The ground below the altar was strewn with red flowers, a mark of the blood shed for the faith, while a reliquary containing pieces of his forearm was laid in Poland's new pantheon, a place honoring national heroes.
“Be grateful Mother Poland, be grateful Warsaw,” Nycz said.