Fr. Jerzy Popiełuszko’s Case as an Element of Policy of Poland’s Communist Regime Towards the Church
27 kwietnia 2010 | 11:00 | maj/maz Ⓒ Ⓟ
The reasons for the murder of Fr. Jerzy Popiełuszko committed on October 19, 1984, despite bringing to justice and convicting the crime’s direct perpetrators, remain insufficiently explicated until today.
Still, the case of Fr. Jerzy is clearly part and parcel of the policy of the then communist regime towards the Catholic Church, both during martial law and immediately after its lifting.
Throughout the rule of the communist system in Poland, irrespective of the changing circumstances or temporary ‘thaws’, hostility was the permanent attitude of the state towards the Church. The most severe persecution, consisting of detentions of clergy, assassinations, showcase court trials, or the arrest of Poland’s Primate, took place between 1947 and 1956. After that period, however, the regime would also often resort to brutal Soviet repression models. Units of Secret Police were trained to combat the Church. The number of agents acquired to work against the Church grew, too. Still, the authority of the Church in Polish society continued to rise, her strength confirmed conspicuously by John Paul II’s first pilgrimage to the Homeland in 1979.
The introduction of martial law in Poland on December 13, 1981 was supposed to put down the 10-million strong ‘Solidarity’ movement, to ‘quiet’ the nation and to ‘quench’ its awoken hopes for freedom. However, of Pope John Paul II’s second trip to Poland (June 16 through 23, 1983, one month before the promised conclusion of martial law) helped the communist regime in Poland and Moscow recognise that after 1981 the Church once again had risen in importance.
The years 1981-83 demonstrated that when the regime tried to crush it, ‘Solidarity’ found in the Church the freedom that was not available elsewhere. This was both the church in the physical sense, as places of worship and parish buildings that were open to widely-construed opposition, and the spiritual Church, opened to believers and non-believers alike.
Following June 1983, it began to dawn on the communist authorities that the time had come to launch a vicious fight against the Catholic Church, both as a hierarchy and institution and more and more often also as a community of the faithful and a community of solidarity. Inspiration for this struggle was provided by Moscow, as demonstrated by an analysis of the then Soviet press. Articles that came out at that time were supposed to strengthen the faction of the Polish communist party inclined to confront the Church.
The principal objective of the struggle was to subject the hierarchy of the Church not only to the letter of the law adopted by the communist regime but also to the communist interpretation of this law. Issues like human rights, civil rights, the right to assembly, association or a public expression of one’s views were to be understood by the Church in line with the nomenclature of the system. The idea was to show to the Church her grave violations of the ‘law’ and its ‘one and only’ interpretation as well as to effect a visible subjection of the Church to this law. Fr. Jerzy Popiełuszko was to be a showcase example.
Fr. Popiełuszko, subject to personal surveillance much earlier, was recognised by the Secret Police as someone special among Polish clergy after the Holy Mass for Poland in August 1982. He came under ‘operational surveillance’ and his case was coded ‘Popiel’, which allowed the launching of repression and the financing of activities towards reaching this goal. Since that time Popiełuszko was subject to mounting repressive measures. In the autumn of 1983 the regime decided to file a lawsuit against the priest. The indictment drawn up by public prosecutor Anna Jackowska was to exemplify the violations of the law and its communist interpretation by the clergy.
Direct measures against the priest were also meant as exemplary punishment. They included e.g. arrests and harsh treatment during detention, a search of his flat in Chłodna St., and libellous attacks in the press. These measures were to separate him from the clergy, show him as a negative model when compared to others, who worked towards good relations between the state and the Church.
In fact the above steps exerted pressure on the bishops, who were to recognise that there was no room for the Church in public space. The ecclesial hierarchy was to ‘silence’ priests like Popiełuszko to set an example for others. Otherwise the Episcopate were given to understand that they would be morally liable for possible further repressive measures directed at ‘troublemaking’ priests.
In practice this was supposed to create situations when the priests seen by the regime as troublesome would be relegated by bishops from their parishes, without an official interference on the part of the government. Fr. Popiełuszko was to disappear from public space. He was either to consent to a departure for Rome (which would be seen as a defection of his congregation and mean a loss of credibility), or to be forced to leave by the bishops (which, in turn, would compromise the Episcopate).
Why did Fr. Popiełuszko die, however? Was his death a direct consequence of the above plan of the years 1982-84, a revenge taken on him and the bishops? It may have been caused by something else. As Prof. Jan Żaryn maintains, it is nobody’s secret that the priest’s killers had had ties with both the internal services of Secret Police but also directly with Moscow and its residents in the Ministry of the Interior. The crime may have likewise been ordered by the KGB as a violent attack on the Church or on the ‘lenient’ Polish government.
No matter whether the orders were taken in Moscow or in Warsaw, it is Polish communists who are responsible for this crime since the logic of their actions in the years 1982-84 led naturally to such a result.
Refer to: Jan Żaryn, ‘Sprawa ks. Jerzego jako element polityki PRL wobec Kościoła’ [Fr. Jerzy Popiełuszko’s Case as an Element of Policy of Poland’s Communist Regime towards the Church], an address during a session for the media before Fr. Popiełuszko’s beatification, Warsaw, 28.04.2010
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