Westerners, the story of Poland’s defiance of Communist tyranny almost
exclusively focuses on Gdansk, but events in Warsaw also played a critical
role. While Lech Wałęsa co-founded Solidarity and led the striking shipyard
workers in the north, Father Jerzy Popieluszko fortified the nation’s spirit
from his small pulpit in the capitol. Eventually, Wałęsa was elected president,
but the good Father never lived to see that day. The life and legacy of the
Blessed priest is stirringly chronicled in Jerzy
Popieluszko Messenger of the Truth (trailer here), which airs this
Wednesday night on New York’s Thirteen.
general outline of Bl Jerzy’s life and martyrdom will be familiar to cineastes
who have seen Agnieszka Holland’s To Kill a Priest, a film transparently based on the case that has both its considerable
flaws and merits. Frankly, the documented circumstances of his murder are far
more brutal than anything Holland depicted. Christopher Lambert, the former
Tarzan, is not exactly a dead ringer for unassuming Popieluszko either.
Jerzy recognized his calling at a young age and he suffered greatly for it
during his compulsory military service, but he never compromised his
principles. As a result of regular beatings, his health was already weakened
before he was ever assigned to a parish. He was not the Church’s most
charismatic preacher, but the Primate recognized his potential to serve as the
spiritual shepherd to Solidarity and their allies. Before long, his monthly sermons
at St. Stanislaus Kostka were drawing tens of thousands of people to the tiny
Warsaw church. Needless to say, the Communists were quite alarmed by all this,
especially when their masters in Moscow started taking note.
shy of ninety minutes, Messenger overflows
with history that fascinates and shocks in equal measure. Few non-Poles truly
realize the extent of the dirty war the Communist security apparatus waged
against Solidarity and its supporters, such as Bl Jerzy. The pattern of its crimes,
from the murder of Grzegorz Przemyk, the son of one of Father Popieluszko’s
aides, to his incomprehensibly violent martyrdom, rivals anything ever
perpetrated by the worst backwater despot.
Tony Haines and writer-producer Paul C. Hensler also incorporate some
extraordinary on-camera testimony from Solidarity veterans, including Wałęsa.
However, the most moving sequences feature the Father’s gruff former
fire-fighter bodyguard, who is clearly still haunted by his friend’s
Even though we must understand how Bl Jerzy’s
story will end (nobody is ever beautified if they peacefully retire to a gated
community in Florida), Haines and Hensler tell it in a manner that maximizes
the tension and telling details. It is also timely and inspiring, coming at a
time when a free and prosperous Poland can credibly aspire to become a world
power, while Russia continues to demonstrate militarily aggressive designs on
its former captive nations. Highly recommended for general audiences
(particularly students), Jerzy
Popieluszko Messenger of the Truth airs this Wednesday (6/18) on New York’s
PBS station, WNET 13. It is also available on DVD from the film’s website.
Labels: Communism, Documentary, Father Jerzy Popieluszko, PBS