Priest who was victim of Poland’s communist regime beatified June 15

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Father Michal Rapacz
Father Michal Rapacz. Public domain

KRAKOW, Poland (OSV News) — Father Michal Rapacz, an early victim of Poland’s communist regime, was beatified in Kraków at the Divine Mercy Shrine on June 15.

While not outspokenly political, his zealous faith and energetic pastoral work proved a threat to the communists, who sought to eliminate religion and reduce man to the material dimension.

On Jan. 24, Pope Francis signed a decree recognizing the martyrdom of Father Rapacz, clearing the way for his beatification. The priest was kidnapped and killed by a group of armed men in 1946 during the communist government’s anti-religious campaign. For a martyr, the Catholic Church does not require a verified miracle through his or her intercession for this step toward sainthood.

Early life and vocation of Father Rapacz

Father Rapacz was born to a farming family in the village of Tenczyn in 1904, near Myslenice, home to a shrine and miraculous image of Our Lady where the future martyr frequently prayed. In 1926, he entered the Kraków seminary and was ordained a priest five years later. In a unique situation in Church history, Father Rapacz’s graduating seminary class included two other blesseds: Father Wladyslaw Bukowinski, a former Gulag inmate who would later spread the Gospel in Soviet-ruled Kazakhstan, and Father Piotr Dankowski, a priest killed in Auschwitz for his work with the wartime Polish resistance.

Father Rapacz’s first assignment as a parish vicar was in the village of Ploki in western Lesser Poland, a working-class community where many locals were employed in mining and industry. During the Great Depression, many of Father Rapacz’s parishioners lost their jobs and turned toward communism.

His response was to share his zealous faith by catechizing particularly among the young. In Ploki, he started a Catholic Association of Male Youths, which tried to spread his own piety. Father Rapacz prayed the stations of the cross daily; he was known to spend entire nights in Eucharistic adoration.

Heroic actions during World War II

In 1933, Father Rapacz was sent to a parish in Rajcza, and in 1937 he became the apostolic administrator of his previous parish, Ploki. While there, World War II, during which Nazi Germany murdered 3,000 Polish priests, broke out. The area around Ploki was directly incorporated into the Reich, the German Nazi state, and harsh restrictions on religious life were imposed. In the first weeks of the war, Father Rapacz was arrested by the Gestapo on false charges of owning firearms but later released.

During the war, Father Rapacz at risk to his life provided shelter to a Polish man from Bydgoszcz whose wife and three children had been killed by the Germans, provided food from his own modest acreage to impoverished parishioners and gave food to Polish partisans. The priest also defied a Nazi order to fly a swastika flag on parish grounds; this act of disobedience endangered execution or deportation to a concentration camp.

Confrontation with Communist ideology

As the Soviet Red Army entered Ploki in the spring of 1945, Father Rapacz would directly experience a new wicked ideology. Unlike other great men and women of the Church who experienced the worst of communism, such as Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko, murdered by the regime in 1984, Father Rapacz did not explicitly or even indirectly speak out against the Marxist-Leninist regime.

Father Pawel Ptasznik, the rector of the Church of St. Stanislaus in Rome and the postulator of the Vatican phase of Father Rapacz’s sainthood cause, told OSV News that the priest did not write down his homilies; however, according to witness testimonies, he never even alluded to political matters.

Additionally, Ploki and its environs were a major hotbed for the communist Polish United Workers’ Party; Father Ptasznik said that local party activists even postulated making Poland the 16th Soviet republic.

“Blessed Michal wasn’t a declared anti-communist,” he explained. “He was simply a good pastor with a deep prayer life who was inclined to help those in need, even if they were indifferent or even hostile towards the church. Without opposing communism directly, he had a positive witness and tried to show people the way, the beauty of life in the church.”

Martyrdom and legacy

This positive witness was too much for Poland’s communists, and probably in April 1946 the Workers’ Party in Trzebinia issued a death warrant for the priest. Some parishioners had gotten wind of this and informed Father Rapacz, but he refused to abandon his parishioners. After all, this was not the first time his life was in jeopardy due to an anti-Christian ideology.

On the night of May 11-12, about 20 men stormed into the presbytery in Ploki, beat and tortured Father Rapacz for about an hour, and led him into a nearby forest, murdering him.

Post-Communist era and beatification process

Devotion to Father Rapacz was and remains strong in Ploki, but for obvious reasons his cause for beatification could not be opened until after the fall of communism in 1989.

In today’s world, Father Ptasznik sees Father Rapacz as a model for priests, who often get little respect in a world increasingly removed from God.

“His example is relevant and can help us priests to notice what is most important in our ministry: rather than fighting against anti-Christian ideologies, we should show a concern for the spiritual needs of those we are sent to serve, for their good conscience and to help them to implement the Christian values embodied in the Gospel,” Father Ptasznik said.

Filip Mazurczak

Filip Mazurczak writes for OSV News from Kraków, Poland.