Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko was a priest who was active in the Solidarity movement in Poland in the early 1980s. He became well-known throughout Poland when his homilies, which were strongly critical of the communist state, were widely broadcast on the radio. Because he encouraged people to resist the oppressive regime, and to actively protest against it, state officials tried to intimidate him to be silent, but were unsuccessful. On October 19, 1984, Fr. Jerzy led a prayer service for some workers in the town of Bydgoszcz. Before leaving to go back to Warsaw, he concluded the service with the words: “Let’s pray God to set us free from fear and terror, but, first and foremost, from the desire for violence and vengeance.” Fr. Jerzy, however, never arrived to Warsaw the next day. When word spread that he was missing, a sense of alarm spread through the country. The people were furious, and the atmosphere was extremely tense. Priests called upon the people to remain calm, to refrain from violence, and to keep vigil and pray for Fr. Jerzy’s safety. Masses were being celebrated around the clock, with massive crowds. On October 30, at Fr. Jerzy’s church in Warsaw, during a Mass at which over 2,000 people were in attendance, someone slipped a note to the priest celebrant. They had found Fr. Jerzy’s body. He had been savagely beaten to death by three members of the secret police, and thrown into the river. The Mass was televised, so the terrible news immediately spread throughout the country. The priest, fighting back tears, was determined to finish the Mass. It was time for the Lord’s Prayer, and as the priest recited the prayer, he suddenly stopped at the words: “and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive….” He then repeated, “… as we forgive… as we forgive….” Finishing the prayer, he emphasized once more: “we must forgive.” Fr. Jerzy was officially declared “blessed” by the Church in 2010 during a Mass in Warsaw at which over 100,000 people attended.
I came across his story in an article by the author Cynthia Haven. In it she observes that every human society is vulnerable to sudden outbreaks of terrible violence, used as the means of relieving disputes among its members. Forgiveness alone, she concludes in her article, is the mechanism that counteracts this natural inclination to seek the destruction of one’s enemies. To forgive is to imitate Christ, who utters the words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” as he hangs crucified on the cross. Rather than escalate the violence by wiping out His human creatures who had rejected, mocked, tortured and killed the Son of God, the Lord instead offers us mercy.
If the state of things worries us, our response must be to resist the temptation to be overwhelmed with anger, which moves us to violence against our neighbor. Instead, we must pray for personal conversion, that we might have hearts that sincerely forgive and which ask forgiveness. This is the gospel and the path to peace, revealed to us over and over again by the courageous witness of the saints, like Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko.