The martyr Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko was born in 1947 to a devout Roman Catholic family in northeastern Poland. The young Jerzy entered the Warsaw seminary in 1965 after graduating from high school and was ordained a priest in 1972.
In 1980, he began serving the St. Stanislaus Kostka parish in the Zoliborz district of Warsaw, just as Poland’s Solidarity labor union started to challenge Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe. During Solidarity’s early success in 1980 and 1981 and the crackdown by General Jaruzelski’s military regime from 1981 to 1983, Fr. Popieluszko held monthly “Masses for the Fatherland” in which he decried the Communist government’s human rights abuses and defended workers’ rights, urging above all nonviolent resistance. He frequently quoted St. Paul, urging his faithful to “defeat evil with good.” Tens of thousands of Poles attended these Masses, including secular dissident intellectuals such as Adam Michnik and Jacek Kuron, and Radio Free Europe regularly broadcast Fr. Popieluszko’s sermons.
The Communist regime’s official media frequently denounced Fr. Popieluszko, and in 1984 three government agents stopped his automobile as he was returning from Bydgoszcz, where he said his last Mass. The police officers beat him to death with a rock, tied his limbs to rocks and heavy bags of sand, and threw his body into the Vistula River. Fr. Popieluszko’s funeral was attended by hundreds of thousands of mourners. Under significant pressure from Poland’s people, the Communist government put Fr. Popieluszko’s assassins on trial and, in an unprecedented move, imprisoned the policemen.
Since Fr. Popieluszko’s death, eighteen million pilgrims have visited his grave in Warsaw, including the Dalai Lama, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (before he was elected to the papacy), and President George H. W. Bush. The Catholic Church beatified Fr. Popieluszko in 2010, at a ceremony in Warsaw attended by 150,000 people, including the martyr priest’s then-ninety-year-old mother, Marianna.
Fr. Popieluszko is the subject of the new documentary Jerzy Popieluszko: Messenger of the Truth, which was screened at the Vatican in October and will be released early in 2013. Paul Hensler served as writer/producer for the documentary. An experienced Hollywood producer and screenwriter, Hensler acted as a military consultant for such films The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now. Filip Mazurczak sat down with him to discuss Fr. Popieluszko’s life and legacy. The interview transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Filip Mazurczak: Why did you decide to make a film about Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko?
Paul Hensler: Since 1988 or 1989 when I first read the book The Priest and the Policeman, which the documentary is based on, I have believed Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko was a humble, great hero of human rights. He has not yet been recognized as such, but in him I see all the traits of a great hero: humility, dedication to his people . . .
I was working in the film industry when someone handed me the book. As soon as I read it, I planned that someday I would make this into a movie. He was a great, unsung hero, and I think when people hear about his story, his fame will grow.
Fr. Popieluszko isn’t well known outside Poland. In fact, most Americans have never heard of him. Do you think that an American audience can relate to your film, especially young people who grew up after the Cold War?
I was in Vietnam in 1966, an awful long time ago. In my day it was a very relevant, important, horrific war. But today if you ask a young person in the United States, “What do you know about the Vietnam War?,” they’re not even sure where Vietnam is.
There was a time in Poland after the collapse of Communism, when everyone was preoccupied with their new life and democracy, that few people realized they were enjoying that new life thanks to Fr. Popieluszko. Few remembered who he was until June 6, 2010, when he was beatified in Warsaw.
Now, the requests for his relics and the knowledge of him are growing. I’ve been to Poland many, many times, and when I ask people who he was they tell me “Of course, he was a Polish hero.” I want to capitalize on the fact that he was beatified two years ago, and I truly believe that he will be made a saint within the next four years.
There are many martyrs of Communism, and many heroic Catholics who stood up to the regime. In addition to Fr. Popieluszko, there were Cardinal Wyszynski in Poland and Cardinal Mindszenty in Hungary. What makes Fr. Popieluszko unique?
Most other martyrs of Communism died in violent uprisings or joined with radical groups that worked to overthrow the government. The unique thing about Fr. Popieluszko is that he was nonviolent, and he was only thirty-seven when he was murdered. He’s young. He’s relevant. He was very handsome.
And Fr. Popieluszko did it without a bullet being fired. He was responsible for the beginning of the end of Communism in Eastern Europe, and there were no deaths. Many great heroes preached non-violence, but he practiced it. One of the marvelous things about his assassination was that after the Polish secret police killed Fr. Popieluszko, Poland’s favorite son, not a shot was fired. There were no street riots and there were no gunshots. There was no beating up the ZOMO, the Communist police. The Poles followed what he had asked them to do, which was to defeat evil with good.
President Reagan took a tough stance against the Soviet Union, and Mikhail Gorbachev opened the system to the world. Do you believe that the Church and religion also played a key role in the collapse of Communism?
The collapse of Communism in Poland was caused by the Polish people who were first Catholic, second Polish, and third anti-Communist. And here is this character who starts preaching in the middle of this. Why out of the blue do people in the hundreds of thousands show up at his church? Not all of them were Catholics. Everyone was in those crowds. But they went there standing shoulder to shoulder with their countrymen—Jews, atheists, Protestants, agnostics—listening to Fr. Popieluszko’s simple message of country, peace, non-violence.
The entire country was united by his message, so much so that when he was murdered, almost a million people gathered in Warsaw for his funeral, the largest gathering for a funeral in the history of Poland. They were saying, “We will not leave this place until you tell the truth.” And the government was forced to put the murderers of Fr. Popieluszko on trial and send them to prison—the first time government agents had been put in prison in the history of the Soviet Bloc.
The Church uses saints as blessed people we can relate to. Did Fr. Popieluszko ever help you in difficult times? Did you ever identify with him?
Absolutely. I’m a Vietnam veteran who became very ill because of the work I did there. At the age of sixty-four, I developed acute diabetes and lost my left leg. I am also an ardent Catholic, and I go to church every day if I can. My prayers are for Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko, the hero of human rights, to guide me, and I believe I’ve made it through some pretty tough times with the hope that one day I would share this story.
Twenty-three years after I first learned about him, I financed a documentary to tell Fr. Popieluszko’s story that was invited to the Vatican. The Church realizes that the Church in Poland gave birth to a hero, and the Church today is in desperate, desperate need of heroes. And Fr. Jerzy is young and vibrant and can reawaken our love for our faith. A young Catholic priest, thirty-seven years old, a skinny, sickly priest who helped bring about the end of Communism in the most humble way.
Do you think that your film and the publicity coming out of it will help to make Fr. Popieluszko better known outside Poland?
Yes. After forty years of Soviet Bloc oppression and after forty years of being told what to think, what to do, when to wake up, he taught the Polish people to demand their freedom. I think Fr. Popieluszko’s story is relevant in Libya. It’s relevant in Syria and in countries like Myanmar, North Korea, and China.
I hope that another Fr. Popieluszko—another young activist, another young priest—will see this documentary in some dark corner where there’s no freedom, where there’s oppression. And I hope it will help lead his group or his country to freedom and to their faith.
What were your impressions of Catholicism in Poland today?
Poland has one of the most wonderful assets in this disgruntled world, and that’s the gift of faith. During my time there, I was so impressed by the number of people going to church each day. Faith and religion guide the Poles’ lives. We’ve lost that in the United States to electronics, media, tweets, and the Internet. That all also exists in Poland. But they have at their core a love of God, a love of Catholicism, and a love of their country. I would live in Poland tomorrow just to witness the power of Catholicism.
Filip Mazurczak is a graduate student at the George Washington University studying international affairs.
Jerzy Popieluszko: Messenger of the Truth
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.