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DETROIT (ChurchMilitant.com) - Today is the 37th anniversary of the death of a beloved Polish priest who gave his life for truth and freedom.
Father Jerzy Popiełuszko was kidnapped and brutally murdered by the communist secret police in 1984. The atheistic regime had control over Catholic Poland at this time and found the priest's loyalty to the Faith and his popularity with the Polish people a double threat to their control.
Popiełuszko preached to thousands who came to hear him at St. Stanislaus Kostka Church in Warsaw. They came from all over Poland to hear the priest — crowds overflowing into the streets to the consternation of the communists.
He served Huta steel mill workers and their families, even entering the mill — considered by authorities a communist "fortress" because it was a center of their economic power — to offer Mass.
He resisted the outrageous lies and propaganda spewed by the communist-controlled media and taught his people to do the same.
"Truth never changes. It can never be destroyed by any decision or legal act," Fr. Popiełuszko declared in one of his sermons. "Telling the truth with courage is a way leading directly to freedom. A man who tells the truth is a free man despite external slavery, imprisonment or custody."
Just weeks before his death, Popiełuszko hit the apex of his message, speaking against the communists' decision to force out of work employees who did not pay homage to their ideology. He argued all men had "the right to work in accordance with your profession and not be thrown out of work for your beliefs."
Popiełuszko was born Sept. 14, 1947 on the Feast of the Holy Cross in Okopy, a small village in the northeastern part of Poland.
Despite humble roots, he was known for his great faith at an early age. He walked two miles each day to serve Mass and entered the seminary after graduating from high school. His seminary studies were interrupted when, along with other seminarians, he was inducted into a special unit designed to indoctrinate the young soldiers out of Catholicism and into the communist way.
Popiełuszko resisted the indoctrination. He prayed the Rosary in the open and refused to remove his scapular. As punishment, he had to stand barefoot all night — in rain and snow.
After the communists declared martial law in 1981, Popiełuszko offered comfort and advice from the pulpit of St. Stanislaus Kostka Church — particularly to families of those being imprisoned and killed by the regime.
Peaceful resistance was always at the core of his advice. "An idea which needs rifles to survive dies of its own accord," he taught.
While many Poles were silenced, the priest continued to speak the truth. To the Poles — who in recent history had suffered eradication from the map of Europe, the invasion of the Nazis and now the occupation of the communists — he offered needed strength and encouragement.
He reassured his growing flock, urging them to hold their heads up, "for you have knelt only before God." When the communists forbade uttering the word "solidarity," he defended its use saying: "Solidarity means remaining internally free, even in conditions of slavery — overcoming the fear that grips you by your throat."
He began to hold special "Masses for the homeland" during the last Sunday of each month to keep the Polish spirit alive. The Masses attracted tens of thousands of Poles from all over the country, confounding the outnumbered communist police. His homilies continued to mobilize their spirit in resisting the dehumanizing evils of the atheistic regime.
The communists had their eye on Popiełuszko, targeting him for months.
They followed him, interrogated him, wiretapped his phone and made numerous attempts on his life, once throwing a firebomb through his doorway. Finally, on Oct. 19, they succeeded, abducting him on a country road at night outside Warsaw. They hogtied him and subjected him to prolonged torture before killing him.
His body was found on Oct. 30 in the Vistula River.
The results of the autopsy revealed details so horrifying both the communists and the Church have suppressed them. His remains were eventually identified by his brother — from a birthmark on his breast.
Some of what the post-mortem revealed was a brain concussion and an injured spinal cord. Internal bleeding from external pummeling was found in his lungs. His kidneys and intestines were reduced to pulp. When the doctors opened his mouth, they found his teeth were smashed and his tongue missing.
Mourners at St. Stanislaus Kostka Church were grief-stricken and struggled to express their faith.
A priest who led the mourners in saying the Our Father was unable to get the congregation to finish the prayer. When he reached "as we forgive those who trespass against us," the people could not — or would not — say the words. After numerous attempts by the priest, the people eventually uttered the words — praying it with the great force of their faith.
Pope Benedict bestowed the title "Blessed" upon Fr. Popiełuszko in 2010 and said:
He exercised his generous and courageous ministry beside all those who were working for freedom, for the defense of life and for its dignity. His work at the service of goodness and truth was a sign of contradiction for the regime governing Poland at the time. Love of the Heart of Christ led him to give his life, and his witness was the seed of a new springtime in the Church and in society.
Popiełuszko's earthly mother suffered and forgave as his heavenly Blessed Mother suffered when Her Son was murdered.
"I forgave my son's murderers for everything. May God forgive them too," she said. "Murderers did not fight with my son, but with God. After all, they did not hit Popiełuszko, but the cassock. They hit the whole Church."
Masses and memorial events took place throughout Poland Tuesday, paying tribute to the priest who gave his life for truth. Prefiguring his assassination, he often preached: "Truth that costs nothing is a lie."