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Popular Hero and Activist Priest Beatified in Poland

More than 100,000 people gathered Sunday in Warsaw for the beatification of Father Jerzy Popieluszko, an anti-communist Polish priest killed by Poland's communist secret police in 1984. The event highlights the powerful link between Polish patriotism and the Catholic church.

As the Vatican's Archbishop Angelo Amato led a mass in Latin, more than 100,000 people sat, stood or kneeled in a square in central Warsaw to witness the beatification of one of Poland's most beloved figures.

Father Jerzy Popieluszko was a Catholic priest who spoke out against the communist regime in the 1980s holding mass for striking workers and supporting the families of political prisoners.

Radio Free Europe broadcast his sermons across Poland, and for many Poles, he became a symbol of resistance - a symbol that became even more powerful when he was kidnapped, beaten and killed by the Polish secret police in 1984.

Since then, Father Popieluszko has been something of a popular saint. Hundreds of thousands gathered for his funeral in 1984 and an estimated 18 million people have visited his tomb. A movie about his life was one of Poland's highest-grossing films last year.

Political scientist Andrzej Kozicki knew Popieluszko as a child, and explains the priest's enduring appeal. "He is a popular hero because he is from a poor background, and he came into the top. He had to go against the whole machine of the state, especially a totalitarian state, where he was observed all the time, when everything that he said was recorded, when there were several provocations against him. You have an individual going against the whole system," he said.

In Poland, associating political resistance with the Catholic Church is not unusual. The Church is a much stronger presence here than in neighboring countries, and it has often come into conflict with the authorities.

Historian Tadeusz Ruzikowski of the Warsaw-based Institute for National Remembrance says that during the period of martial law in the 1980's, the church became a more potent political force "It was a time when the structures of Solidarity were destroyed, and the church was the only independent power. In this atmosphere, the Church became a place where people had the occasion to express their values and their freedom," he said.

Many Poles associate the Church with resistance against oppression. There are those who feel it was the Polish Pope, John Paul II, who eventually rid the country of communism. As Ruzikowski explains, many people came to see the Church as the true heart of the Polish nation.

"The meaning for ordinary people was that the church was an institution that preserved values - patriotic values, Polish historical values, the tradition of fighting. The church was an institution that made it possible for ordinary people to celebrate not just tradition, but also values that were officially not accepted," he said.

To be beatified, it must be proven that a person was martyred for his or her faith. It is an important step on the road to sainthood.

The ceremony Sunday was as much an expression of patriotism as of religious sentiment. Polish flags mingled with Papal emblems. More than 100 bishops were there, as was Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk. The National Bank issued a commemorative coin in Popieluszko's honor, and the Postal Service put out a stamp.

As one man at the ceremony says, for him Father Popieluszko is a symbol of freedom, and a reminder of all that the country has suffered. "This is very important for people in Poland because Jerzy Popieluszko fought for freedom for Poland. I believe that thanks to Father Popieluszko we are now free and this is very important for all the Polish people," the man said.

After the mass, a procession carried Father Popieluszko's remains - now called relics - to a church in southern Warsaw. They were interred beside a symbolic tomb of Pope John Paul II.