Polish Church leaders have welcomed renewed calls for the beatification of a popular priest, Father Franciszek Blachnicki (1921-1987), following official confirmation that he was killed by communist secret police agents.
"Most Poles still feel a sense of unfulfilled justice, and the murder of priests forms part of this – particularly when attempts to uncover the truth still face impediments," said Father Piotr Mazurkiewicz, former secretary-general of COMECE, the Commission of the Bishops' Conferences of the European Union.
"If Father Blachnicki is beatified, it will be a sign that the Church in Poland remains dynamic and vivacious, even though Western secularizing processes are at work here. For people of faith, it will also show that saints and witnesses are still living among us," he said.
The priest, who teaches social sciences at Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski's University in Warsaw, spoke after confirmation by Poland's judicial authorities that Father Blachnicki died from poisoning while exiled in neighboring Germany. He was a founder of the international Oasis, or Light-Life youth movement, which gained 2 million members under communist rule between 1964-1989.
In an OSV News interview, Father Mazurkiewicz said "proper investigations" into Father Blachnicki's death had been driven by the current prominence of former Light-Life members in Polish public life, as well as by widespread belief that previous inquiries had been deliberately hampered.
Meanwhile, a leading Polish Church historian said he hoped charges would be brought against former agents involved in the murder, and investigations relaunched into the killing of other Catholic clergy in the final stages of communist rule.
"Father Blachnicki was a patriotic Polish Church figure, but also a personality of the universal Church, which remains grateful for his great evangelical work for the upbringing of a young generation," Jan Zaryn, professor of history and director of Warsaw's Institute for the Legacy of Polish National Thought, explained.
"But we are also dealing with an unresolved communist crime – even 36 years later, we should expect those involved to be unmasked and face justice."
Blachnicki, who survived the Auschwitz concentration camp after resisting the 1939 German invasion, converted to the Catholic faith after having a 1942 guillotine sentence commuted to hard labor under Nazi occupation, and was placed under tight surveillance by Poland's post-war communist rulers following his 1950 ordination.
Despite constant harassment, he founded a nationwide Catholic Temperance Crusade in 1957 while serving as a parish priest, as well as the Light-Life youth movement, which promoted renewal after the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council, while teaching theology in the 1970s at the Catholic University of Lublin.
Avoiding an arrest order by remaining in West Germany after Poland's Solidarity union was crushed by the December 1981 imposition of martial law, he set up a Marian institute in Carlsberg, as well as Christian Service for the Liberation of Nations, but died suddenly in mysterious circumstances Feb. 27, 1987.
A beatification process for Father Blachnicki, who was posthumously awarded state honors after the collapse of communist rule, was launched in 1995. On Sept. 30, 2015, Pope Francis signed a decree recognizing the priest's heroic virtues, giving him the title "Venerable."
In October 2020, Poland's Katowice Diocese said it had approved the exhumation of the priest's remains from the parish Church of Christ the Good Shepherd in Kroscienko, where he was reburied in April 2000, for forensic and toxicology tests, after Poland's National Remembrance Institute (IPN) reported suspicions that the priest had been poisoned by communist agents among his Catholic followers.
Speaking at a March 14 Warsaw press conference, Poland's Justice Minister and General Prosecutor Zbigniew Ziobro said scientific tests and witness interviews in several countries under a European investigation order had now confirmed that Father Blachnicki died of poisoning.
Welcoming the ruling, Archbishop Marek Jedraszewski of Krakow said in a March 15 homily that Father Blachnicki had fought "for Christ and a new Polish society, free not just politically, but above all spiritually," encouraging young people during Light-Life retreats "not to give in to communist power demands."
Meanwhile, Archbishop Wiktor Skworc of Katowice, the priest's former diocese, said IPN's investigation had opened the way to Father Blachnicki's formal recognition and beatification as a martyr, by removing the need for proof of a miracle resulting from his intercession. (In general, for a sainthood candidate who is not a martyr a verified miracle through his or her intercession is required for beatification and a second such miracle is needed for canonization.)
A historian working on the case, Andrzej Grajewski, told Poland's Catholic Information Agency (KAI) March 17 a married couple, Jolanta and Andrzej Gontarczyk, had "crept skillfully" into Father Blachnicki's trusted inner circle while working as Interior Ministry agents codenamed "Yon" and "Panna," and had been named by the IPN as prime suspects in his murder.
He added that Father Blachnicki had been warned about the couple by Solidarity militants in February 1987, shortly before signing for a substantial aid donation from a U.S. Protestant organization, and had died unexpectedly after visiting Andrzej Gontarczyk, who headed the priest's Maximilianeum printing house.
The couple had fled to Yugoslavia a year later, Grajewski said, later separating after their return to Poland, where Jolanta Gontarczyk held an Interior Ministry post under an ex-communist premier, Leszek Miller, and currently, as Jolanta Lange, heads a gay campaign group.
"Blachnicki was treated by the communists as one of their most dangerous enemies because he had broken one of their core systemic monopolies – the atheistic upbringing of youth," Grajewski told KAI.
Father Blachnicki, who was praised by St. John Paul II as an "ardent apostle of inner renewal and conversion," was one of several Solidarity-linked Polish clergy murdered in the 1980s whose cases have never been fully resolved, the best known of whom, Father Jerzy Popieluszko (1947-1984), was beatified as a martyr in June 2010.
Father Stanislaw Suchowolec (1958-1989) died of alleged gas poisoning at his parish rectory near Bialystok, while Father Stefan Niedzielak (1914-1989) was killed by a suspected karate blow at Warsaw's St. Charles Borromeo Parish and Father Sylwester Zych (1950-1989) found dead later the same year at Krynica Morska.
In his OSV News interview, Father Mazurkiewicz said the continued presence of one-time agents and collaborators in Polish public life indicated "the difficulty of finally shaking off communism," and raised "questions about historical memory."
He added that Father Blachnicki's Light-Life Movement, with its call for "free people first and then a free state," had drawn thousands of youngsters into unauthorized activities, and had alarmed other communist regimes when it threatened to become international in scope.
Meanwhile, Zaryn said the priest's youth activities had amounted to one of the Church's "most important communist-era activities," adding that his own heroic life story made him a symbol "for those defending Europe against ideological captivity and lifestyles far removed from Christian values."
"Father Blachnicki is a universal figure not just for his contribution to Eastern Europe's liberation from communism, but also for the new methods of evangelization he used in bringing young people to God under modern conditions," the Church historian told OSV News.
"But he was a victim of communism himself, and it's through his life story that we can better understand this system, which until its final days was still murdering people and seeking to bar us from achieving independence."