Message: Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko illustrates: Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, but put God first.
We have arrived at homily number four in our series: Trust No Matter What. Last week we saw St. John Paul who many call "Man of the Century." This Sunday and next we will see two others from the twentieth century: One a man killed by the Communists, the other a woman murdered by the Nazis.
I begin with the man killed by the communists. He has a name hard to pronounce: Jerzy Popieluszko.* By a coincidence (or maybe a small God-incidence) this Sunday is the thirtieth anniversary of Jerzy's death. His short life shows trust in God - putting God first no matter what. And as you will see, he illustrates what Jesus tells us today about the relationship between God and Caesar.
Jerzy was born in 1947, right after the Communists took over Poland. They rejected God and made the state into the ultimate authority. Jerzy's parents did not accept Communism, but (like most Polish families) they practiced the Catholic faith. After graduating from high school in 1965, Jerzy entered the seminary. The following year he began the required military service.
Sometimes the officers would find him reading from his prayer book and order him to stop. When Jerzy protested they punished him by making his stand at attention in the rain. Once this lasted an entire night. After military service Jerzy had health problems the rest of his life.
Ordained in 1972, Fr. Jerzy served as a parish priest and as a chaplain for medical students. He helped coordinate the voluntary medical service when Pope John Paul visited Poland in 1979. Like many young Poles the pope's visit energized him to nonviolently resist. How did he go about resisting? In his case, simply by being a good priest serving his congregation. St. Paul writes today about "your work of faith and labor of love and endurance in hope." Faith, love and hope marked Fr. Jerzy and the Polish people during those days.
A turning point came on August 31, 1980. The striking steelworkers asked Cardinal Wyszynski to send a priest to celebrate Mass. When the first priest had another commitment, Fr. Jerzy volunteered. Pretty soon he was not only celebrating the outdoor Mass, but also baptizing their children, performing marriages and hearing the men's confessions.
As the outdoor Masses grew, so did government paranoia. Several movies and documentaries have been made about what happened next.** I encourage you to watch one of them to learn about those crucial years. I will move to the conclusion.
On October 19, 1984 Fr. Jerzy and his driver were returning from a Mass when a car overtook them. They made them get out, handcuffed the driver and shoved him into their car. Fr. Jerzy they struck with bats until he fainted. Then they stuffed his body in the trunk. As they drove away, Fr. Jerzy's driver managed to open the door and roll out. He ran for help, alerting people of the kidnapping.
The people of Poland held Masses and vigils praying for Fr. Jerzy's return. Ten days later his body surfaced in the Vistula Water Reservoir. More than a quarter of a million people attended his funeral. In 2010, Cardinal Angelo Amato celebrated his beatification in Warsaw.
What lesson can we draw from Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko? His martyrdom shows great heroism, but he did not seek it. On October 19 he was suffering from fatigue and a bad cold. He could have cancelled the Mass with the seminarians, but he did not. His dedication to the priesthood, his love for Christ and for Christian people made him an easy target for his enemies. Blessed Jerzy Popielusko illustrates what Jesus tells us today: Give to God what belongs to God. And what belongs to Him? (pause) All, everything. Everything belongs to God.
Part of "everything" includes "giving to Caesar." For example, we pay our taxes, we vote, we obey just laws, we pray for our leaders even if we disagree with them. But sometimes Caesar (the state) asks things we cannot give. In today's Gospel the Pharisees show Jesus a Roman coin. It has a picture of Emperor Tiberius with the inscription saying he is son of the divine Augustus. No faithful Jew or Christian can say the Emperor is god. In the first reading God himself says, "I am the Lord and there is no other." So Jesus gives the coin back and says, "Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God."
The relation between the Christian and the state involves a tension, but it can be a creative tension. As I explained in a different homily, from that tension came the Magna Carta - the embryo of our great democratic experiment. As Christians in America we have tensions today. We strive to be good citizens, but we resist when the state tries to take the place of God. The life and death of Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko illustrate that resistance.
Next Sunday I will tell you about a woman who resisted oppression in the most powerful way. With her I will wrap up this homily series. As you will see, I am saving the best till the last. Like Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko, she died for her faith. These martyrs inspire us: Trust no matter what. Trust God no matter what. As Jesus tells us today, yes, give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, but put God first. Give to God what belongs to God. Amen.
*Here's help with pronunciation. In preparation for this homily I have watched three videos (see below) and can attest to a variety of pronunciation, including anglicized to "Jersey" as in the Garden State.
**The ones I watched are: Jerzy Popieluszko: Messenger of Truth (documentary narrated by Martin Sheen), To Kill a Priest starring Ed Harris and Christopher Lambert, and the Polish movie Popieluszko: Freedom is Within Us.
Trust No Matter What Week 1:
Trust No Matter What Week 2:
Trust No Matter What Week 3:
Trust No Matter What Week 4:
Trust No Matter What Week 5:
From Archives (for Twenty-Ninth Ordinary Sunday, Year A):
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Audio Files of Homilies (Simple Catholicism Blog)
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Fr. Brad's Homilies (well worth listening)
Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)
Parish Picture Album
MBC - Mary Bloom Center, Puno, Peru