Poles await sainthood of Solidarity priest murdered 30 years ago

Michel Viatteau
1 / 4

Marianna Popieluszko, mother of late Catholic priest Jerzy Popieluszko, looks at a pictures in Warsaw of her son. The photo on the right shows his hand after his bound remains were found in a waterway in 1984

Marianna Popieluszko, mother of late Catholic priest Jerzy Popieluszko looking at a pictures in Warsaw of her son. The photo on the right shows his hand after his bound remains were found in a waterway in 1984

Fresh from celebrating the sainthood of Pope John Paul II this spring, Polish Catholics are now eagerly awaiting the canonisation of a priest they cherish as a martyr for freedom.

Dissident priest Jerzy Popieluszko, a key figure in Poland's 1980s anti-communist Solidarity movement, was abducted, tortured and murdered by the secret police 30 years ago this week.

Beatified in 2010, now all he needs is a miracle to be recognised as a saint.

Last month, the Roman Catholic Church opened a probe into a presumed miraculous healing linked to Popieluszko in France in 2012.

A man dying of a rare form of leukaemia in a Paris suburb went into remission after a priest said a prayer "asking Jerzy Popieluszko to intercede".

But wary of naysayers, the Roman Catholic Church is painstakingly carrying out a two-pronged investigation into the event -- first at the local level, then in the Vatican -- before recognising any miracle.

Polish Cardinal Kazimierz Nycz, the archbishop of Warsaw, asked reporters this week to hold off on writing about the Paris healing until the Congregation for the Causes of Saints winds up its investigation.

Speaking on the sidelines of a conference on Popieluszko's legacy, Nycz took the opportunity to draw a comparison between the murdered priest's commitment to freedom of conscience and to the so-called conscience clause that is now inscribed into Polish law.

It allows physicians to refuse to perform certain operations that go against their personal ethics. No specifics are given but the law is understood to refer mostly to abortion and in-vitro fertilisation -- both reviled by the Church.

"The blessed Father Jerzy (Popieluszko) respected human liberty and freedom of conscience (...) We don't make decisions for adults. We don't limit human freedom," Nycz said at the conference.

- 'Fight the evil, not the man' -

Murdered at age 37 while Poland was under communism, Popieluszko has become a symbol of the battle waged by the Solidarity opposition and the Catholic Church against the totalitarian regime that took its orders from Moscow.

A chaplain for Solidarity -- the Soviet bloc's first free trade union -- Popieluszko held "masses for the homeland" after Poland's last communist leader General Wojciech Jaruzelski tried to strangle the movement in December 1981 with a brutal military crackdown.

The quietly charismatic Popieluszko drew thousands of people to his masses, to the fury of the communist regime.

On October 19, 1984, Popieluszko was abducted by three secret police officers who tortured him to death before throwing his body into the Vistula river outside Warsaw.

After a high-profile trial, the three men were given long prison sentences in 1985, then partially pardoned. But their superiors have never been identified.

Their leader, Grzegorz Piotrowski, was freed after 15 years and went into journalism, according to Polish media. His articles were said to be violently anticlerical.

Participants at this week's conference did not shed any new light on Popieluszko's death, but they did reveal previously unknown anecdotes.

Warsaw professor Milena Kindziuk, who wrote a book on the communist media's relentless attacks on Popieluszko at the time, recounted how he resisted friends attempts to convince him to publicly condemn Jaruzelski.

"I'm fighting the evil, not the man," he is said to have replied, according to members of his inner circle.

A solemn mass will be held on the 30th anniversary of his death on Friday at his old church in Warsaw, where he is buried.