Interview with Paul Hensler on Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko | First Things

November 28, 2012

The martyr Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko was born in 1947 to a devout Roman Catholic family in northeastern Poland. The young Jerzy entered the Warsaw seminary in 1965 after graduating from high school and was ordained a priest in 1972.

In 1980, he began serving the St. Stanislaus Kostka parish in the Zoliborz district of Warsaw, just as Poland’s Solidarity labor union started to challenge Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe. During Solidarity’s early success in 1980 and 1981 and the crackdown by General Jaruzelski’s military regime from 1981 to 1983, Fr. Popieluszko held monthly “Masses for the Fatherland” in which he decried the Communist government’s human rights abuses and defended workers’ rights, urging above all nonviolent resistance. He frequently quoted St. Paul, urging his faithful to “defeat evil with good.” Tens of thousands of Poles attended these Masses, including secular dissident intellectuals such as Adam Michnik and Jacek Kuron, and Radio Free Europe regularly broadcast Fr. Popieluszko’s sermons.

The Communist regime’s official media frequently denounced Fr. Popieluszko, and in 1984 three government agents stopped his automobile as he was returning from Bydgoszcz, where he said his last Mass. The police officers beat him to death with a rock, tied his limbs to rocks and heavy bags of sand, and threw his body into the Vistula River. Fr. Popieluszko’s funeral was attended by hundreds of thousands of mourners. Under significant pressure from Poland’s people, the Communist government put Fr. Popieluszko’s assassins on trial and, in an unprecedented move, imprisoned the policemen.

Since Fr. Popieluszko’s death, eighteen million pilgrims have visited his grave in Warsaw, including the Dalai Lama, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (before he was elected to the papacy), and President George H. W. Bush. The Catholic Church beatified Fr. Popieluszko in 2010, at a ceremony in Warsaw attended by 150,000 people, including the martyr priest’s then-ninety-year-old mother, Marianna.

Fr. Popieluszko is the subject of the new documentary Jerzy Popieluszko: Messenger of the Truth, which was screened at the Vatican in October and will be released early in 2013. Paul Hensler served as writer/producer for the documentary. An experienced Hollywood producer and screenwriter, Hensler acted as a military consultant for such films The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now. Filip Mazurczak sat down with him to discuss Fr. Popieluszko’s life and legacy. The interview transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

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