By Antonio Gaspari
VATICAN CITY, JUNE 3, 2010 (Zenit.org).- A film about the story of Father Jerzy Popieluszko, a witness and martyr of the Polish people, who will be beatified Sunday in Poland, was shown last Friday at Vatican Radio.
The film, “Popieluszko: Freedom Is Within Us,” by film director Rafal Wieczynski was released last year in Poland. Wieczynski told ZENIT that in Poland some 1.3 million have already viewed the movie.
The Polish-language film, which can be viewed with English subtitles (though it is not yet available on DVD), tells the story of a man who worked against the Communist regime with the weapons of the Gospel until he was martyred for the faith.
Jerzy Popieluszko was born Sept. 14, 1947, in Okopy in the province of Bialystok, Poland. He was ordained to the priesthood by Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski on May 28, 1972, in Warsaw.
Aside from parish work in the Church of St. Stanislaus Kostka in Warsaw, he brought his ministry to the workers, organizing conferences and prayer meetings for them. He tended to the sick, the poor and the persecuted.
The film depicts how, because of his courage, his defense of human rights, his requests for freedom and justice, and his ability to love even his persecutors, the priest immediately became a threat to the Communist regime.
Father Popieluszko helped the workers, gave them courage, educated them in fraternal love, invited them not to respond in kind when they were struck, heard their confessions, and aided their families.
The priest taught people to respond with prayers and religious and patriotic hymns to threats and attacks. He worked as a chaplain for the Solidarity movement and supported it in its battles for better social conditions, for freedom, justice and progress.
The Communist authorities tried in various ways to threaten and frighten him. They killed the children and the relatives of those closest to him. One of his collaborators gave in to the threats and became a spy for the secret services.
Yet Father Popieluszko never gave in to the provocations, and the film shows how he never ceded to hatred.
It portrays how, in a very difficult moment, when he discovered that he had been betrayed and was on the verge of fear, when his friends could no longer take the oppression and the terror, he said: “I fight sin, not its victims.”
The priest’s heroic ability to love everyone in a Christian way made him free and almost invincible. The regime did not know what to do. The authorities tried to discredit the priest and accuse him of political conspiracy, but Father Popieluszko was known for never talking about politics.
When the situation showed signs of getting worse, Church leaders tried to convince Father Popieluszko to go to Rome for safety, but the priest, convinced about his mission, stayed in Poland, confident that this was the way to be obedient and faithful to Christ.
On Oct. 19, 1984, having returned from pastoral work in Bydgoszcz, near Torun, he was seized, savagely beaten and tortured by three agents of the Security Service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
After being tied up and put into the trunk of a car, the priest tried to escape, but the agents caught him, beat him again even more violently, disfiguring him, and bound his legs and mouth together in such a way that he could not move without suffocating. They tied a large stone to his feet and threw him, alive, into a river. He was 37.
The Communist regime thought that it had silenced the most courageous of its opponents, and instead, the death of Father Popieluszko was the beginning of the end for the governing forces. Shortly after the priest’s martyrdom, not only was Poland liberated, but the whole “Iron Curtain” collapsed.
Despite threats and violence from the authorities, more than a half million people attended the Nov. 3, 1984, funeral of Father Popieluszko. Among the young people who followed his coffin in prayer was Rafal Wieczynski, the film’s director.
Wieczynski told Vatican Radio: “I was 16 when I participated in the funeral of Father Popieluszko.
“Together with 600,000 others I was able to perceive the sentiments of the people at that time.
“He became a kind of master, a figure with whom I compared myself.”
The film director explained, “I wanted the new generation to experience the sentiments of those times, when the people were united on the basis of the values of the Gospel.”
Wieczynski told ZENIT, “It is very important that it has been seen in the schools by students, who never knew what the Communist dictatorship was.”
Father Popieluszko’s tomb, which stands next to the Church of St. Stanislaus Kostka in Warsaw, is the destination of a continuous stream of pilgrims from Poland and the rest of the world. Some 18 million people have visited the tomb, including Pope John Paul II, who prayed there on June 14, 1987.
Before the showing of the Italian version of the film at Vatican Radio, Hanna Suchocka, former Polish prime minister, member of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences and current Polish ambassador to the Holy See, explained that “there has never been a lack of men and women in the Church who have witnessed to Christ to the very end.”
She added that the figure of Father Popieluszko is nevertheless “exceptional because he is a contemporary hero, who has testified to how one can defeat evil with good.”
Father Jerzy Popieluszko was above all a “witness to Christ,” Suchocka stressed, “a priest who lived and worked for men.”
“Perhaps now,” she added, “as we near the conclusion of the Year for Priests, it is worthwhile remembering the figure of Popieluszko, as a spiritual example; despite his fragile health, he remained great in his capacity to accept the grace of God.”
The Polish ambassador then pointed to another aspect of the figure of the priest, stating that “Father Popieluszko was a person of interior freedom, despite the pressures that the authorities, his environment and his collaborators exerted on him.”
“Perhaps it was this freedom that his executioners wanted to suffocate,” she added. “But his sacrifice was not in vain. Poland was liberated and his memory has remained alive in the minds and hearts of Poles.”
In the film, black and white clips of television news are alternated with the events of the priest’s life. Although the movie does not denounce the Communist dictatorship in an explicit way, it is one of the strongest testimonies to the cruelty and inhumanity of that regime, and the power of faith in God to overcome these horrors.
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On the Net:
Father Popieluszko Web page: http://www.popieluszko.pl/