By Anita Crane, published @ RenewAmerica.com
“Justice and the right to know the truth require us, from the pulpit, to repeatedly demand a limit on the tyranny of censorship.” –Father Jerzy Popieluszko
On September 16, the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation will show “Messenger of the Truth” in Washington, D.C. and Gary Chartrand will address the audience. This is the compelling documentary about Blessed Father Jerzy Popieluszko, chaplain to the Solidarity labor union that nonviolently took down the Communist regime in Poland – and I hope it moves Washington policy officials in the right direction.
Chartrand and his Polish-American wife, Nancy, are executive producers of the film. They discovered Father Popieluszko at his parish gravesite while on a pilgrimage led by their 2010 Florida pastor, Polish immigrant Father Remek Blaszkowski.
There, Gary asked Father Blaszkowski: “Father, how come I’ve never heard about this man?”
That question was prescient because today, as Americans struggle to secure human rights, Catholics are 25 percent of the U.S. population we must take the lead. In “Messenger of the Truth,” Father Jerzy Popieluszko and the brave Polish people show us how.
The weapon of truth
At the 1945 Yalta Conference, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt handed Poland to Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin, when they had no right or authority to do so.
Two years later on September 14, the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross, Jerzy Popieluszko was born to faithful Catholic parents in that very country and he would become the Kremlin’s No. 1 enemy. “The entire communist system was afraid of Father Jerzy Popieluszko and his only weapon was the truth,” said Father Blaszkowski.
By the 1970s, 95 percent of Poland’s 38 million people were Catholic. Nazis and then Communists had tried to crush the Catholic Church by martyring her priests and religious sisters, but the Soviets didn’t dare to outlaw the Catholic Mass.
In 1978, everything changed when Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was elected as the Vicar of Christ. Pope John Paul II went to his native country in 1979 and the majority of Poles quickly responded to his message of freedom.
Many Americans know about Lech Walesa organizing the Lenin Shipyard workers in Gdansk.
However, it seems few know about the Huta Warsaw Steel Mill strike in 1980. While riot police surrounded the workers, three secretly left to ask Cardinal Stefan Wyzinski for a priest to say Mass. Wyzinski sent Father Popieluszko to the Communist steel mill, he named Father their chaplain and named Father’s parish St. Stanislaws Kotska as their church. The workers were thrilled. In addition to being their priest, Popieluszko was their spiritual advisor, their teacher and their strategist. The workers even asked Father to help design their union flag. Then he and 20,000 laborers marched announcing Solidarity in Warsaw, which nearly every Polish worker joined.
In 1981, the Kremlin appointed General Wojciech Jaruzelski to prime minister. He and other brutes cracked down on the Poles. Jaruzelski announced martial law, he jailed 5,000 Poles, ordered the Solidarity offices destroyed and sent Secret Police to spy on every church.
As a safeguard against Communist propaganda, Father Popieluszko had every one of his sermons recorded, but these recordings reached far beyond his imagination. Father’s voice and image during these sermons and homilies, vintage film, his journal and eyewitness accounts, even from enemy leaders, are the compelling genius in “Messenger of the Truth.”
Jaruzelski had Solidarity leaders and Father Popieluszko arrested and stripped searched. He also had some beaten and killed. Still, tens of thousands flocked to Father’s monthly Masses for Poland. Afterward, audio recordings of his homilies were smuggled to Radio Free Europe and broadcasted for millions more.
The Polish people showed two signs at the Masses: They formed the letter V with their fingers and held up beautiful crucifixes. As a result, General Jaruzelski’s exasperation is amusing. In “Messenger,” we see one of his many state TV tirades about the mysterious V signal: “Today there are still hands that are spread in the form of a letter. Not even one Polish word begins with that letter. Because of this letter, it won’t get better in Poland. It can only get worse.”
The meaning of the V isn’t explained in the film, but I had a hunch and asked Gary Chartrand about it. Indeed, the V stood for “In hoc signo vinces” – “In this sign you will conquer.” This is the message that Constantine and his troops saw written in the sky with a sign of the cross on their way to the Battle of Saxa Rubra in 312 A.D. The troops of tyrant Maxentius, brutal killer of Christians, outnumbered Constantine’s army by at least two-to-one. After the sign, Constantine put the cross on his shield and won the battle, which, among other things, led to outlawing slavery and the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire.
Almost 30 years after the brutal murder Father Jerzy Popieluszko, retired Jaruzelski died at the age of 90 in May 2014. But, according to Father Blaszkowski, not before he summoned a priest, confessed his sins, received the last rites and begged for a Catholic funeral Mass.
Outside that funeral Mass, protestors held posters of Father Popieluszko and other victims of Jaruzelski’s regime.
“You know, forgiveness is a difficult business,” Father Blaszkowski explained. “When you think about a man who killed his own countrymen, a man who enslaved his own nation, a man who really had no scruples for his own people: When you think about people who suffered for decades, there’s lots of anger and hurt. I don’t think it was a protest against him reconciling with God, but a protest against his legacy. I’m thrilled he made it, but the end of his life doesn’t equal amnesia for the Polish people.”
Scenes behind the documentary
In Poland, young Remek Blaszkowski and his family wept when they listened to Radio Free Europe broadcasting the trials for Father Popieluszko’s murderers. Remek grew up listening to Father Popieluszko’s homilies too.
As adults, Remek and his brother Andy immigrated to the United States and were ordained Catholic priests in the Diocese of St. Augustine, Florida. Eventually both were assigned as pastors of parishes, but now Father Remek is vice rector and dean of human formation St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach. The brothers have led many pilgrimages in Poland, and pilgrims responding to acts of God on the 2010 tour brought about the film.
Father Remek said that when he walked into St. Stanislaws Kotska Church, something happened that he cannot explain: He felt a profound and peaceful force that almost paralyzed him. During Mass, he couldn’t say the homily he planned and said something different. He believes the Holy Spirit took over.
After Mass, a severe rainstorm trapped all the priests and pilgrims at the parish. It was raining so hard, they couldn’t walk from the church to their bus. Then the pastor said, “Father Remek, underneath the church in the basement, there’s a museum dedicated to Father Jerzy but today it’s closed.”
Father Remek looked at his brother, Father Andy, and said, “What kind of a museum can you have in the basement? It’s not a big deal. We’re missing the tour of the castle right now.”
Suddenly, the door opened and a man walked in completely drenched. The pastor asked, “What are you doing here?”
According to Father Remek, he told the pastor, “I felt that Father Jerzy was asking me to come.”
The pastor said, “This is strange. This man works in the museum and he gives tours in English.”
After the tour, Gary Chartrand told Father Remek: “Father, how come I’ve never heard about this man? We have to make a movie about him.”
Father Remek bought portraits of Jerzy Popieluszko for his office and Gary’s office. He said it seemed like the saintly priest was staring at him. Every day Father Remek asked Father Popieluszko for help and asked, “What do you want from me?”
A year later, filmmaker Paul Hensler called him to say that making a film about Father Jerzy was his lifetime dream. As it turned out, Hensler lived nearby and long ago he bought the film rights to “The Priest and the Policeman: The Courageous Life and Cruel Murder of Father Jerzy Popieluszko” by journalists John Moody and Roger Boyes. Moody, Boyes and Hensler appear in the film, which is directed by Tony Haines.
Considering rampant violence and threats around the world, Pope Francis believes that the third world war is taking place “piecemeal” right now.
Right now, “Messenger of the Truth” shows us the perfect strategy for our times. It is sold by many retailers, it’s currently licensed to PBS World channels and viewers may request that their local channels show it.
To register for the September 16 screening in Washington, D.C., click on http://victimsofcommunism.org/events/messenger-of-the-truth-film-screening/
2018 update: Here is a link to buy the DVD