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“Messenger of the Truth”: The Inspiring Story of the Polish Martyr Fr. Jerzy Popieluszk

Film Review: Messeneger of the Truth

Messeneger of the Truth

David Ives - published on 04/24/14

A little dry like most documentaries, but still a story worth telling.

Look, I’ll be honest, the Lenten period we just passed through was kind of a rough one for me and my family. I’ll spare you all the gory details, suffice to say we got the full-on desert experience this time around. Now, I realize that throughout the history of Christianity, the desert imagery associated with Lent has had positive connotations as well as negative ones, but right now we’re still reeling from all the blows we took over those 40 days, so it’s hard to see the ultimate good in it just yet. The circumstances of life just kicked our butts… hard.

What in the world does any of that have to do with movies, you might be asking? Well, because there are times as a movie reviewer when you have to admit that you’re simply not in the right frame of mind to give certain films a fair shot. So when I looked at the two new big releases coming out this week, The Quiet Ones and The Other Woman, I knew it was one of those times. After the mental beating I took during Lent, especially the week before Easter, there was just no way I could sit through another drab looking horror effort or a sleazed-up version of The First Wives Club and possibly give either film an objective review. See, I couldn’t even be nice to them in that sentence. So, rather than take out my frustrations on those movies, I decided to pass on what the big studios were offering this week and look around for a small, uplifting film instead.

Fortunately, I just so happened to have recently received a screener of Messenger of the Truth, so I didn’t have to search for too long. Based on the book The Priest and The Policeman, Messenger of the Truth is a prize winning documentary which explores the rise to prominence and eventual assassination of Poland’s Father Jerzy Popieluszko during the early 1980s. I know, I know, a story detailing the brutal murder of a priest doesn’t sound like it would be the feel good pick-me-up I was looking for, but bear with me, we’ll get there.

Now, to my shame, I have to confess I knew little of Father Jerzy going into this film. Back in August 1980 while Poland’s Solidarity movement was being formed, I had only been a member of the Catholic Church for about a year and was busy getting ready to enter high school, so I can’t say I was paying too much attention to anything happening outside the confines of my own little world. But as Messenger of The Truth makes abundantly clear in its first few minutes, there was a heck of a lot going on at that time, especially over in communist controlled Poland. Considering how important it is to the story being told, the documentary spends surprisingly little time detailing the rise of the Marxist State in Poland after World War II, taking for granted that the viewer understands how that was not exactly a good thing. Still, if you don’t come to the film with an encyclopedic knowledge of the state of politics in Poland during the latter half of the 20th century, don’t worry, the events chronicled in Messenger of the Truth will be more than enough to convince you who the bad guys were.

As was often (and still is) the case in communist ruled countries, one of the chief antagonists of the government in Poland at that time was the Catholic Church. Beginning as far back as 1949, when the Vatican confirmed the excommunication of Catholic members of The Polish People’s Republic, the Church had routinely criticized the communist leadership. In retaliation, the powers that be constantly tried to stir up anti-clerical sentiment through the use of State run media, not an easy task in a country that was 95% Catholic. For decades though, everything seemed to be in a stalemate, with the government controlling the goods and services and the Church holding on to the hearts of the people. But everything changed in 1978 with the election of Poland’s Cardinal Karol Wojtyla to the papacy. Pope John Paul II was a game changer for the country, and his return visit to his homeland in 1979 ignited a spark that would eventually grow into the Solidarity movement. As one interviewee in Messenger of the Truth put it, those few days JPII spent in Poland provided the country with its first week without communism since 1945. The Poles had gotten a taste of freedom and wanted more.

However, as impossible as it is to understate the importance of John Paul II’s support of the Polish people during this time period, Messenger of the Truth isn’t his story. Like all Popes, JPII had a whole world to shepherd, and so he had to go back to Rome. What the people needed was someone inside the country to whom they could look to on a daily basis for spiritual guidance and comfort, and on August 31, 1980, they received that someone in the form of a rather unassuming young priest. After protesting workers seized control of a State run steelworks, they requested the Church send them a priest so they might hold a mass inside the factory. With the local head pastor too busy with his parish’s own masses, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński made the decision to send in the 33 year old Father Jerzy Popieluszko.

Just as it chose to do with the political situation in Poland, Messenger of the Truth doesn’t spend a whole lot of time detailing the life of Father Jerzy before 1980. It makes note that he wasn’t considered the brightest kid growing up, but was nevertheless a determined and pious student. It also makes mention of his time spent in the military, an obligation the State forced on seminarians in hopes it would indoctrinate them in the ways of Marxism. Other than that, though, Messenger of the Truth concentrates mostly on the years between 1980 and 1984, on Father Jerzy’s growing connection to the workers and his work on their behalf. Featuring interviews with people who were there, excerpts from Father Jerzy’s personal journal, and film clips of the man himself, the documentary shows how the young priest and his “Masses for The Homeland” quickly became a sign of hope for the Polish people, especially during the years when the government began to crack down hard on the Solidarity movement. Along with his anti-communist homilies, Father Jerzy also helped train workers how to interact with the media and allowed his parish to become an unofficial headquarters for the resistance where they could keep track of the growing number of political prisoners.

Of course, such actions didn’t go unnoticed. As one interviewee put it, it wasn’t long before the State considered Father Jerzy “the most dangerous man in Poland.” So when they found they couldn’t discredit or intimidate him, plans began to be made to murder the priest. The interviews with some of the former communist leaders during this part of the documentary are chilling in a way. As with some of the subjects in last year’s The Act of Killing, there is no sense of remorse on the part of those who worked for the government during this time. They were, after all, just doing their duty. Maybe it’s just me, but I often find that kind of indifferent evil more frightening than the blatantly malicious acts of obvious villains. Whatever their private motivations, on October 13, 1984, three members of the Security Police kidnapped Father Jerzy, beat him to death, and dumped his body into the Vistula Water Reservoir.

“To live in truth is the basic minimum of human dignity” Father Jerzy once said, “even if the price to defend the truth could be costly.” And in the end, he was willing to pay the cost. However, though Father Jerzy’s life ended in horrific violence, his story wasn’t quite over. The true heart of the documentary, and perhaps its most moving moments, lies in what occurred after the priest’s death. Now, you can call me weird (it’s not like you’d be the first), but one of the things which came to my mind while watching scenes from Father Jerzy’s funeral procession was The Hunger Games. I had always wondered why, despite some of the sillier moments in those films, the scenes in which the residents of the twelve districts saluted Jennifer Lawrence’s character always seemed oddly effective. Well, I finally got my answer in Messenger of The Truth, because here it was in real life.

As Father Jerzy’s casket proceeded through the streets, thousands of people bowed their heads and silently raised their hands in the sign of the V for victory. Though Father Jerzy’s murder could easily have led to violence, the nation instead reacted as he had so often instructed them to during his homilies. There was no riots or other acts of violence. Rather the people, inspired by the words of their beloved priest, bore the atrocity with silent grace and continued on in hope. Quite simply, it was beautiful.

There’s no denying that the stories of martyrs are always tragic. With good reason, the Church calls them “the archives of truth written in letters of blood.” But they are also strangely uplifting in a way that’s sometimes hard to put a finger on. Maybe it’s because, as Pope Francis said recently, folks like Father Jerzy show us “there is no such thing as love in installments, no such thing as portions of love. Total love: and when we love, we love till the end.” And while most of us, by the grace of God, will never have to face an end like that of Blessed Father Jerzy, stories like his can inspire us in our own little mundane day-to-day martyrdoms (like say, a particularly hard Lenten season). They help us realize, as Pope Francis explained, “we must always die a little in order to come out of ourselves, of our selfishness, of our well-being, of our laziness, of our sadnesses, and open up to God, to others, especially those who need it most.”

At least that’s what I got out of this documentary. If you had a better Holy Week than I did, you may simply find it an interesting piece of history. Either way, though Messenger of the Truth starts out a little dry as most expository-style documentaries often do, by the end, it tells a tale worth hearing.

In a world he didn’t create, in a time he didn’t choose, one man looks for signs of God in the world by… watching movies. When he’s not reviewing new releases for Aleteia, David Ives spends his time exploring the intersection of low-budget/cult cinema and Catholicism at The B-Movie Catechism.

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