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How the Church Has Changed the World: Stronger than Steel


The sergeant stood before the young soldier in the cold rain.

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popieBlessed Jerzy Popiełuszko

Some men shuffled about them.  Most were smirking.  A few hung their heads.

"Beads are for girls," said the sergeant, "or worse.  That's what you are, isn't it?"

The soldier shut his eyes and did not reply.

"Look here," said the sergeant, with mocking friendliness.  He flung the soldier's rosary to the ground.  "Wood is wood.  Nothing else.  Tread on those beads.  Show that you're a man and not a girl.  Now!"

"Sir, I will not."

"Afraid your mama will strike you dead from the sky?"  The sergeant called out another private from the men nearby, a city boy who believed in nothing.  "You, tread this thing into the mud."

The boy did.

"No lightning, Popiełuszko.  No lightning.  But who knows?  Maybe it will come.  Why don't you stand at attention here to wait for the lightning?  At attention!"

And he left him there.  Alphons Popiełuszko was accustomed to such treatment.  The Polish communists sent seminarians into the army to indoctrinate them or shame them out of their vocations.  The beatings, the privations, the humiliations — all because he was a Catholic and a Pole and not a secular toady for the Soviet lords and their Polish cooperators — ruined his health for the rest of his life.

The seed in the dark earth

The young man returned to the vocation he had discerned when he was a boy.  He was ordained in 1972, at age twenty-four.  He took the name Jerzy, the Polish name we know as George.  That was fitting, for two reasons.  One is that the name means a tiller of the earth.  Father Popiełuszko grew up on a farm in the village of Okopy, on the western bank of the Bug River, the border between Poland and modern-day Ukraine.  Such a place was as the plains of Kansas are to the cultural elites in New York City: good for grain, and otherwise to ignore.  The other reason is Saint George himself, patron of soldiers.  The boy Alphons saw through the swagger of the communists in the Polish army.  The man George — Father Jerzy — would become, not by his own design but by the providence of God working through his fidelity, a great warrior for truth and against the lies of the communist regime.

Think of those dark years.  The Soviet Union seemed as immovable as the continents it spanned.  The United States would soon withdraw from the fight against the communists in Vietnam.  No one suspected that there would soon be a Polish pope, or that workers themselves would unite in Poland to protest the supposed workman's paradise.  The wisdom of the world was blind.

The man George — Father Jerzy — would become, not by his own design but by the providence of God working through his fidelity, a great warrior for truth and against the lies of the communist regime.

No one suspected the role that Father Jerzy would play in the coming drama of freedom, perhaps he least of all.  He was a priest in Warsaw, where he would eventually serve at the parish of Saint Stanislaus Kostka.  That too was fitting.  Stanislaus was a boy saint, remarkable for his piety.  His own older brother Paul, in exasperation, would insult and beat him, but Stanislaus endured it with patience, finally fleeing to enter a Jesuit seminary, dying at age eighteen, on the feast of the Assumption.  Father Jerzy was the man that Stanislaus might have been, physically frail but fearless, a sensitive soul who ministered to men as hard as the steel they wrought.

For that is what happened: Father Jerzy was assigned to be the chaplain to steelworkers in Warsaw.  He learned to do the heavy jobs they did, sweating beside them.  He urged them never to capitulate to a lie.  And more: "It is not enough," he said, "for a Christian to condemn evil, cowardice, lies, and use of force, hatred, and oppression.  He must at all times be a witness to and defender of justice, goodness, truth, freedom, and love."  His preaching began to draw large crowds.  His words were broadcast over Radio Free Europe, that shaft of light sent through the fissures in the Iron Curtain.

Then came Solidarity, and John Paul II, and the brave electrician Lech Wałęsa.

War and peace

Late in 1981, the Polish communists declared a state of martial law, and outlawed Solidarity — with its nine million members.  By this time, Father Jerzy was the spiritual leader of the movement.  The workers did not go to the Church authorities, who had worked out a modus vivendi with the communists and did not want trouble.  American diplomats, strangely deaf to the calls of the spirit, could see only that the Polish regime didn't kill a lot of people.  Why, some party members might even attend Mass.

His preaching began to draw large crowds. His words were broadcast over Radio Free Europe, that shaft of light sent through the fissures in the Iron Curtain.

Father Jerzy came to the United States that year to attend his aunt's funeral, and he could have stayed; General Jaruszelski, the head of state, would have preferred it.  But Father Jerzy said of the workers, "They need me and I need them."

His activity over the next three years was a never-­ending war waged by peaceful means; one young and deeply sensitive priest, drawing many thousands of people from all over Poland for his Masses for the Homeland, people otherwise afraid to speak up for their own rights, against a totalitarian state backed up by the military might of the Soviet Union.  Paper copies and audio tapes of his sermons spread across the country.  He did not urge his fellow Poles to take up arms.  Truth was the sword he wielded.  "An idea that needs rifles to survive will die of itself," he said.

Nor did he commit the modern error of separating the moral from the material.  "The workers of August 1980," he said, "called more for moral order than for higher wages."  Money can be printed.  Prudence, temperance, courage, and justice cannot.  Faith, hope, and charity cannot.  The regime wanted to throw away a thousand years of Christian morality, and replace it with "so-called secular morality," and that, for a Christian people, must ever remain a festering sore.  Yet Father Jerzy did not recommend retreat into a secret chamber, for private devotion, while the world went on as it would.  "There is no love without justice," he said, and love in turn finds strength in justice.

Love — not hatred.  Violence may appear to triumph for a time, said Father Jerzy, but we who stand beneath the Cross know that love shall win the day.

Terrible as an army with banners

During this time, the communist government did not rest.  Lies must sweat to retain the status quo: and let Catholics who are tempted to bow to the lies of our time take heed.  Father Jerzy was under constant surveillance.  The communists worked hard to turn the Polish hierarchy against him.  They planted arms and explosives in his room to accuse him of treason.  Pope John Paul II, who supported Father Jerzy from the Vatican, said that the bishops of Poland had better stand up for him, or else they soon would find rifles under their beds too.

They tried to kill him by ringing his doorbell and throwing a bomb through his window.  They tried to kill him by staging an auto accident.  Thirteen times in 1984 — in 1984, of all years — the secret police dragged him off for interrogation, while his supporters outside sang hymns and prayed.  Meanwhile, the Soviets demanded that Jaruszelski shut the priest's mouth.

That the Polish communists did — to their loss in this world, and God knows to what shame in the next.  On October 19, 1984, Father Jerzy and his driver were waylaid by three secret agents.  The driver managed to escape and warn the Church, but the agents beat the priest with clubs, bound and gagged him, and threw him in the trunk.  They smashed his skull.  They crushed his teeth to the nubs.  Finally, they loaded his unconscious body with a bag of rocks and cast him into a reservoir on the Vistula River.  When divers found the body two weeks later, there were no legs, there was no face.  Father Jerzy's brother identified him by a birthmark on his chest.

A million people attended his funeral. Men from Solidarity, square-jawed and grim, bore his coffin.

A million people attended his funeral.  Men from Solidarity, square-jawed and grim, bore his coffin.  "They wanted to kill hope," said Lech Wałęsa of the regime, "that it is possible in Poland to live without political violence," but the murder of the priest "exposes its deepest evil."

Father Jerzy overcame evil with love.  He did not lash out against his tormentors.  He urged his army of steelworkers to forgive, always.  It was a power that American diplomats missed; to read their musings is like listening to a color-blind person talk about Fra Angelico.  They thought that the Poles turned from communism to Solidarity without a violent upheaval just because Poles like to be orderly.

Perhaps they should have knelt beside the steelworkers at the Masses that Blessed Jerzy Popiełuszko said.  Or prayed the litany to the Blessed Mother that he composed.  One of the verses is simply this: "Mother of those who speak the truth, pray for us."



Magnificat Anthony Esolen. "How the Church Has Changed the World: Stronger than Steel." Magnificat (April, 2021).

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The Author

esolen54smAnthony Esolen is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. He is the author of many books including: Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, The Beauty of the Word: A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Reflections on the Christian LifeIronies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. Anthony Esolen is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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