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Poland honors a hero priest

Father Jerzy Popieluszko ministered to a country oppressed by communism until he met an untimely death.

Communist authorities became increasingly concerned over Popieluszko's popularity, with even the Soviet media accusing him of being a counter-revolutionary. In 1983 his apartment was searched while reporters from state television filmed — police found tear gas grenades and weapons that had been previously planted.

An increasingly irate Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, the communist leader, told colleagues that “someone should stop his yapping,” a turn of phrase that the general's defenders say was a rhetorical flourish but that members of the secret police took to be an order to get rid of Popieluszko.

On Nov. 19, 1984, the priest's car was stopped north of Warsaw. He was seized, but his driver managed to escape. Popieluszko's bound and beaten body, weighed down with a bag of rocks, was fished from the Vistula River on Nov. 30.

The murder caused a national outrage. Enormous crowds turned out for Popieluszko's funeral at his parish church, and even the communist authorities realized they could not let matters lie.

By December of that year, four Polish interior ministry officers were on trial for murder — a remarkable event in a communist country. All four were convicted, with sentences ranging from 14 to 25 years. Although more senior officials avoided responsibility, and the four had their sentences shortened by amnesties, the fact that the Communist Party had to bow to public opinion and admit to criminal behavior gave an enormous boost to efforts to undermine its rule.

Popieluszko was immediately treated as a national and religious martyr, and his grave has long been a pilgrimage site. Those two roles — religious and patriotic — were both underlined during his beatification mass. The ground below the altar was strewn with red flowers, a mark of the blood shed for the faith, while a reliquary containing pieces of his forearm was laid in Poland's new pantheon, a place honoring national heroes.

“Be grateful Mother Poland, be grateful Warsaw,” Nycz said.