Thought for the Day – 19 October – The Memorial of Bl Jerzy Popiełuszko (1947-1984) Priest and Martyr
This beloved and unassuming young priest of Poland was a true hero of that tortured land during the Soviet Communist occupation. Now a Blessed, Father Jerzy was beloved by everyone in his homeland, believers and non-believers alike, because of his bravery in the face of extreme hatred on the part of the Communist officials. His story should be much more widely known than it is.
Never in good health, the strongest part of Father Jerzy were his hands. His most beloved possessions were the crucifix and Rosary sent to him by St Pope John Paul II, a fellow countryman. He was sickly his whole life, yet he never complained of illness or injury. One day, when he was making toys with his brothers and sisters, a nail pierced his palm. Later, one of the children noticed blood dripping from his hand. One of his siblings told the parents because young Jerzy did not want to bother anyone.
Young Jerzy’s great hero was Saint Maximillian Kolbe, another Polish priest who gave his life to save another prisoner – a man with a family – at Auschwitz. He determined early on to become a priest but kept it a secret so that the authorities could not alter his examination results or pressure the family to keep him out of the seminary.
In 1966, his entire seminary class was drafted into the special indoctrination unit in violation of a church-state agreement. This cruel treatment was reserved for the most outspoken church leaders, including the future St Pope John Paul II.
The horrible treatment he received in this “special unit” broke his health but not his spirit. He wrote to his father “It turned out to be very tough but I can’t be broken by threats or torture.” His seminary professors demanded that he take a period of rest but he refused. “One doesn’t suffer when one suffers for Christ,” was his reply.
St Pope John Paul said, on his apostolic journey to Poland in 1999:
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:10).
“Our century too has written a great martyrology. I myself, in the course of the twenty years of my papacy, have raised to the glory of the altars many groups of martyrs: Japonese, French, Vietnamese, Spanish, Mexican. And how many martyrs there were during the time of the Second World War and under Communist totalitarianism! They suffered and gave their lives in the death camps of Hitler or those of the Soviets. In a few days, in Warsaw, I will beatify 108 martyrs who gave their lives for the faith in the concentration camps. Now is the time to remember all these victims and to grant them the honour which is their due. These are “the martyrs, many of them nameless, ‘unknown soldiers’ as it were of God’s great cause”, as I wrote in the Apostolic Letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente (No. 37). And it is good that we speak of them in Poland, since this country had a special role in this contemporary martyrology. It is good that we speak of them in Bydgoszcz! All gave testimony of fidelity to Christ in spite of sufferings which horrify us by their cruelty. Their blood was poured out on our land and made it fertile for growth and for the harvest. That same blood continues to bring forth fruit a hundredfold for our nation, which perseveres faithfully alongside Christ and the Gospel. Let us persevere unceasingly in union with them. Let us thank God that they emerged victorious from their labours: “God … tried them like gold in the furnace, and like a sacrificial offering he accepted them” (Wis 3:6). They represent for us a model to be followed. From their blood we ought to draw strength for the sacrifice of our own life, which we must offer to God each day. They are an example for us, so that, like them, we may give a courageous witness of fidelity to the Cross of Christ.
4. “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you … on my account” (Mt 5:11).
Christ does not promise an easy life to those who follow Him. Instead, He proclaims that, by living according to the Gospel, they are to become a sign of contradiction. If He Himself suffered persecution, so too will His disciples: “Beware of men”, he says, “for they will deliver you up to councils and flog you in their synagogues” (Mt 10:17).
Dear Brothers and Sisters! Every Christian, united to Christ through the grace of Holy Baptism, has become a member of the Church and “no longer is his own” (cf. 1 Cor 6:19) but belongs to the one who died and rose for our sake. From that moment on, the baptised enter into a particular bond of community with Christ and His Church. They, therefore, have the duty of professing before others the faith they have received from God through the Church. At times this demands great sacrifice on our part, to be offered each day and sometimes for an entire lifetime. This firm perseverance alongside Christ and His Gospel, this readiness to face “sufferings for righteousness’ sake”, often involve acts of heroism and can take the form of an authentic martyrdom, carried out every day and at every moment of life, drop by drop, until the final “it is finished”.” – Homily in Bydgoszcz – Monday, 7 June 1999 (Excerpt)