Jerzy Popieluszko, born in a small village in northeastern Poland in September 1947, seemed a very unlikely hero in his early years.
He was short, frail, sickly, introverted and of average intellect. At 17, he traveled to Warsaw intent upon a quiet life in the priesthood.
He would only live another 20 years, but before he died at the hands of the Communist government, he was seen by the regime as the most dangerous man in Poland. To millions of others, he was a beacon of hope; his only weapons were the truth and his courage.
In 1978, Polish Cardinal Karol Józef Wojtyła became Pope John Paul II. The news surprised the world, but it electrified Poland.
Poles turned out by the millions to welcome John Paul when he returned to Poland as Pope in 1979. They heard him declare, “Be not afraid!” and they knew what his message was. Father Jerzy took it personally. He resolved to step up his public opposition to the regime.
Poles had put up with Communism since the Soviets imposed it on them after World War II. In clever and sometimes subtle language, both John Paul II in Rome and Father Jerzy in Poland told them they could and should resist.
Then in a crackdown against growing grassroots pressure for freedom, the Communist regime imposed martial law in December 1981. Thousands of dissidents were jailed. Poland descended into a long, dark, eight years of renewed persecution.
Father Jerzy denounced martial law and aided the underground resistance. His sermons were routinely broadcast by Radio Free Europe, making him famous throughout the East bloc for his uncompromising stance against the Communists. His church was routinely jammed as people traveled from all over the country to hear him speak every Sunday.
“It is not enough for a Christian to condemn evil, cowardice, lies and use of force, hatred, and oppression,” he once declared. “He must at all times be a witness to and defender of justice, goodness, truth, freedom, and love. He must never tire of claiming these values as a right both for himself and others.”
A visiting Western journalist asked Father Jerzy in 1984 how he could continue to speak so boldly without fear of retaliation. His reply was, “They will kill me. They will kill me.” But, he went on, he could not remain silent as members of his own congregation remained jailed, tortured and were even killed for nothing more than wanting to be free.
A few months later, Father Jerzy was ambushed and kidnapped. He endured torture so fierce that one of the secret police agents who inflicted it would later remark, “I never knew a man could withstand such a beating.” His body was discovered in the Vistula River 11 days later.
When Father Jerzy’s dream of a free Poland was finally achieved in 1989, he wasn’t alive to see it. But everyone knew that this prophecy of his had come true, thanks in no small part to his own courage and sacrifice: “An idea which needs rifles to survive dies of its own accord.”
Lawrence W. Reed, a resident of Newnan, is president of the Foundation for Economic Education. Each week, he writes about exceptional people, including many from his book, “Real Heroes: Inspiring True Stories of Courage, Character and Conviction.” He can be reached at email@example.com