That martyred Catholic land gave us St. Maximilian Kolbe, Bl. John Paul II, and Bl. Jerzy Popiełuszko – the prophets who fought subhumanism.
On August 15th at the Copernicus Center in Chicago, we will be presenting a documentary film about one of these prophets – Father Jerzy Popiełuszko: Messenger of the Truth – with the goal of raising the funds to release the film in theaters nationwide. (To attend the screening, click here.) An ordinary priest, Fr. Jerzy did not seek out the limelight; he merely wished to do his job, which meant ministering to workers in Warsaw. Repressed, deprived, and micromanaged by the one-party state that also owned all their factories and mines, these workers decided to sidestep their Communist puppet representatives and organize an independent union, and Fr. Jerzy committed to help them. He began with small-scale acts of defiance – transmitting messages after martial law was imposed, giving sermons at workers’ Masses – but his witness proved so contagious that Fr. Jerzy became the spokesman for a national freedom movement that shook an empire to its foundations. So the empire sent its stooges, who beat him to death and dumped him in a river. They thought they were done with him; subhumanists don’t believe we have a soul, and so they underestimate what life and death can mean. “A single death is a tragedy,” Stalin once joked. “A million deaths is a statistic.”
But what happens when one death transforms the lives of millions? That skews the statistical curve, and confuses the experts in “social physics”; it baffles the bureaucrats and dumbfounds the secret police, who come to see that you can shoot or imprison as many people as you wish, but the truth is bulletproof. Indeed, some truths are written on our hearts, and as long as human hearts beat, these truths will flow in our veins.
One of those truths is solidarity, the debt of respect that each of us owes every other person that forbids us from using him as merely a means to an end; even in the most pragmatic, urgent endeavor (like fighting a fire or waging a war), we must feel in our guts the fact that each man is an end in himself – a creature of real and transcendent dignity of equal worth to ourselves and each of our loved ones. Because our wills are fallen and our resources limited, it is all too tempting to lie to ourselves, to live in denial of the inconvenient truth that forbids this moral shortcut or that crass compromise. Those barbarians, or Indians, or Africans, aren’t really human in the same sense as me and my kids – surely, we can find a rationale for enslaving them. Those enemy civilians have made themselves complicit by failing to rise up against their tyrant; that means it’s moral to carpet-bomb them so we can shorten the war and save our soldiers. Those land-hungry peasants or disobedient workers are retarding our progress toward a perfect, classless utopia; the voice of history tells us to remove them. And so on, through the centuries.
So each era needs prophets of solidarity to rise up and outrage the powers that be by pointing out the nakedness of the emperor – or rather, by laying bare the truth that the emperor and the naked, bedraggled beggar are of equal human value. We’re all in this together. In the sixteenth century, Fr. Bartolomé de las Casas awakened the Spanish Crown about the savage abuse of Native Americans. In the eighteenth century, William Wilberforce stirred the conscience of the British Empire on the profound evil of slavery. (Thousands of Christian preachers would do the same work in America.) In the nineteenth century, Pope Leo XIII demanded that employers treat their workers as something more than cogs in their machines.
And in the twentieth century, by some strange movement of Providence, it was in Poland that three such prophets arose. A nation that had for centuries been divided by foreign conquerors, Poland would gain its fragile independence in 1917 – and then have to defend it against a Soviet invasion, which if it had succeeded might have spread communism through all of Europe. It was on the Feast of the Assumption in 1920 that Polish armies defending Warsaw rallied, counterattacked, and saved Western Europe from the tender mercies of Lenin’s NKVD. The event has been called the Miracle of the Vistula, and many soldiers later reported seeing Our Lady in the sky above them as they were fighting.
But Poland would not be spared for long; the imperfect, initially democratic regime soon found itself trapped between two aggressive, totalitarian states, each of which denied the human dignity of people who stood in its way. As Yale historian Timothy Snyder documents in Bloodlands, by 1939, Josef Stalin had already shot or starved to death more than 3 million Soviet citizens for the “crime” of owning land or belonging to ethnic minorities whom he distrusted. Hitler’s genocides still lay in the future, but his “Ostplan” for creating a “greater Germany” stretching to the Urals explicitly called for the starvation or expulsion of 40 million Slavs, and the “removal” of every Jew. The Poles were an obstacle to each dictator’s utopia, so Hitler and Stalin allied in 1939 to jointly overrun Poland and carve the country up. Each sent its secret police to murder Polish intellectuals and educators, attempting to “decapitate” the nation and reduce its people to a leaderless mass of timid serfs. Most of the Jews of Europe lived in Poland and western Russia – the historic Kingdom of Poland had welcomed Jews expelled from other European countries. So when Hitler betrayed his ally, it would be on Polish and Byelorussian soil that millions of “subhuman” Jews (along with Gypsies, Slavs, and others) would murdered by einsatzgruppen, starved in ghettos, or gassed in camps. Almost six million Polish civilians – one out of every four people who lived there in 1939 – would be dead by 1945. That is when the Soviets marched in to impose a second totalitarian regime, which aimed (as Anne Applebaum documents in Iron Curtain) at completely absorbing every social institution into the communist party or state.
Against this backdrop of mass murder and tyranny, where human lives seemed as expendable as the bullets used to end them, arose three men whose witness shines like a small, steady node of light in the darkness and silence. The first was St. Maximilian Kolbe, a fervent apostle of Franciscan spirituality and devotion to Our Lady who was also a pioneer of Catholic publishing and radio. So influential was he in prewar Poland that Kolbe was a prime candidate for either one of the totalitarian allies to scoop up and liquidate. The Germans captured him in 1941 and imprisoned him for the crime of sheltering refugees (Jewish and Gentile alike). They sent him, as they would send thousands of other priests, to Auschwitz – which still served, as the time, as a labor and detention camp. (Extermination facilities would only be set up there and elsewhere in 1944.) Kolbe had been in that camp for two months when an escape by three prisoners provoked a savage German reprisal: ten other inmates would be starved to death. It hardly mattered that these prisoners had done nothing to flout the guards’ authority; Poles were interchangeable units of brute slave labor, and the camp could afford to “spend” the lives of ten to better subdue the others. When one of the chosen victims, Franciszek Gajowniczek, cried out, “My wife! My children!” Kolbe bore witness to the truth of solidarity by stepping forth to starve in that prisoner’s place. In a place where human life is given no value, sometimes the only way to assert the truth is by offering up one’s own. Through two weeks with neither food nor water, Kolbe celebrated Mass and led the prisoners in prayer and in singing hymns until only he was left alive. The guards “humanely” killed him through lethal injection and cremated his body on August 15, the Feast of the Assumption.
The story of the second prophet of solidarity, Karol Wojtyła (Bl. Pope John Paul II) is too well-known to need much retelling. During the Nazi occupation, while he worked as a manual laborer, Wojtyła strove against the Nazi effort to lobotomize Polish culture – for instance, risking a death sentence by running an underground theater troupe, staging plays that reminded viewers of humane values that seemed to be forever disappearing around them. He also helped numerous Jewish citizens escape from deportation to Nazi death camps, all the while pursuing his studies for the priesthood at an underground, illegal seminary. It was his experience of what he called the “bestiality” of the Nazi regime and the subsequent, suffocating Soviet puppet state imposed on the Poles by Stalin that would drive Wojtyła to explore in his philosophical and theological work the central importance of human dignity and freedom; indeed, at Vatican II, Wojtyła would be one of the critical voices raised in favor of Dignitatis Humanæ, the document in which the Church recognized religious liberty as a fundamental human right. His writings on the dignity of labor (Laborem Exercens) and the need for humane values to inform even profit-making enterprises (Centesimus Annus) have reshaped Catholic social teaching.
Most famously, it was the choice of Wojtyła as pope, a veteran of countless struggles with communist authorities in Poland on behalf of workers’ rights and religious freedom, that gave courage and hope to the founders of the first independent trade union in the Soviet bloc, which was named for the principle it embodied: solidarity. Instead of the class struggle preached by Marxist determinism and materialism, aimed at an earthly utopia of economic efficiency, Catholic social teaching prizes individuality, variety, private property and initiative, and the fruitful, willing cooperation of rich and poor in building the common good. These values, which cannot thrive under any coercive system such as socialism, emerge from the organic connections that unite men in society – family, friendship, church, and even work – when those relationships are guided by principles of justice, and when men treat each other with proper human respect. It was such respect that Polish workers did not receive from their employers or their rulers, and which the solidarity movement was founded to demand.
It took the third prophet of solidarity to keep that movement alive in its deadliest crisis, and offer his own life as a testimony to the truths on which it was founded. While John Paul II could provide enormous moral support, he was no longer present in Poland to offer guidance, to help the workers negotiate, or answer their daily concerns. This role fell to Father Jerzy Popiełuszko, a young priest whose health had been ruined by cruel treatment during his mandatory military service, imposed because he refused to take off his rosary.
As Filip Mazurczak wrote in First Things:
As Messenger of the Truth documents, those rebroadcasts by President Reagan’s Radio Free Europe turned a local phenomenon into an international sensation. The sermons were broadcast not just in Polish but in all the local languages of Eastern Europe, and they awakened workers and citizens of other captive nations to the fact that resistance was possible. In fact, it was happening – month after month after month – and Fr. Jerzy was still alive and speaking. His weren’t sermons urging terrorism, or even angry calls for political resistance, but profoundly Christian statements about the proper dignity of man and what is owed him, delivered in the context of the Eucharist. Fr. Jerzy’s sermons thus reached back behind the 70 years of barbarism and brutalist ideologies that had swept the West since 1914, and tapped into the common Christian, humanist heritage of Europe. Workers and intellectuals alike could see that the faith of their grandmothers, scorned by SS eugenicists and quashed by commissars, was still relevant for their own children. Just as the Nazi’s nightmarish utopian project had come to an end, so could the communists’. There was, as Pope John Paul would write in Memory and Identity, a “limit to evil” imposed by human nature itself – the kind of limit that Winston Smith despaired of in Orwell’s 1984 because he did not believe in God.
The grim subhumanism preached by a misguided economist, Karl Marx, inspired few disciples by 1980, especially among those who lived beneath its leaden cloak. Only Western academics, it seemed, were true believers in Marx, and there were fewer of those since The Gulag Archipelago had exposed the slave empire where the Marxist regime disposed of dissidents. But there were tens of thousands of bureaucrats and soldiers whose access to power, to a larger ration of bread and some extra potatoes, depended on the supremacy of lies. There were Soviet armies, under leaders who’d taken part in crushing other dissident movements in Budapest and Prague, who might well march into Poland if things spiraled out of control. And so there were men whose job it was to silence Fr. Jerzy.
This film shows – through detailed, in-depth interviews with major players like Lech Walesa, Cardinal Josef Glemp, former communist functionaries, old friends of Fr. Jerzy, and members of his family – that the ordinary priest, committed to serving his people in the face of mounting harassment and even death threats, provoked an international crisis in the nations of the Warsaw Pact. This became clear when an issue of Russian Pravda specifically named him as an instigator of terrorism. The Soviet’s puppet rulers in Poland knew how to read between the lines; they must silence Fr. Jerzy, or face the consequences.
So on October 19, 1984, three agents of Polish security stopped Fr. Jerzy’s car, beat him to death, and disposed of the body, just as their forerunners in Stalin’s NKVD had disposed of 60,000 Polish officers and intellectuals in 1939. Stalin had gotten away with it, even getting the Western Allies to agree that the crime should be attributed to the Nazis. Surely this “necessary murder” would do its work, and teach the sullen populace that they could not choose their leaders; that anyone who emerged from their midst and tried to resist would be mowed down and forgotten.
But too many minds and hearts had absorbed Fr. Jerzy’s lessons. Millions of Poles saw in his death not simply a crime against a stranger, but a piece of themselves torn away and dumped in the river. As Paul Hensler, who made this film, recounts:
Think of that. In almost 70 years, where tyrannical socialist governments had disposed with impunity with millions of citizens, there had never been a moment’s accountability… until now; until Fr. Jerzy refused to be scared into silence – even refused a kindly offer by Cardinal Glemp to send him to safety in Rome. As an interview with Fr. Jerzy in the film reveals, that priest would have regarded any retreat as turning away from the cross.
What animates a man like Maximilian Kolbe, like Karol Wotyła, like Jerzy Popiełuszko? These were citizens of a nation defeated, occupied, “decapitated,” and enslaved, each of whom found the strength to face down the soldiers of subhumanism, to insist on living with dignity even when the price was likely death. The greatest natural virtue, St. Thomas Aquinas teaches, is magnanimity – greatness of soul. A less awkward word for that, one favored by G. K. Chesterton, is “spiritedness.” A spirited man or woman (think of Fr. Jerzy or St. Joan of Arc) bubbles over with an energetic love for the good things of life. He loves his own life – and other people’s lives – far more than comfort or quiet. He is ready to fight injustice, to suffer but not in silence, to toss back in the teeth of secret police or soldiers the lie that they would impose. And he’s ready to face the consequences. He knows that God is just, that the human soul is constant, impervious to the engineers and experts who seek to trim it down and make it tractable. And deep in that heart is the knowledge that all men are brothers – each of us is a kind of miracle – and that a man should be ready to die rather than deny it.
Jason Jones is a producer in Hollywood. His films include Bella, Eyes to See, and Crescendo. Learn more about his human rights initiatives at www.iamwholelife.com.
John Zmirak is the author of The Bad Catholics Guide to the Catechism and blogs regularly at The Bad Catholics Bingo Hall. This column is from Jones’ and Zmirak’s upcoming book, The Race to Save Our Century (Crossroads, 2014).
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