Guards were wondering if was appropriate to stand next to someone in a cassock

We were queuing at the airport, there were perhaps 60 priests, me at the end. Everyone was being checked out whereas I was led away for a body search. They detained me, took away the list and eyed my socks. It was about this list. I recalled a saying by Czesław Miłosz: “They looked into the trunks, they looked into the suitcases, they didn’t look into my a..., where I shoved up socialism” – recollects Rev. Jan Sikorski, founder of the Polish Prison Fellowship and the first chaplain of the Polish Prison Chaplaincy, chaplain at the Białołęka Internment Camp during the martial law period.

TVP WEEKLY: Your being a “Solidarity” chaplain under the martial law, a chaplain of the internees at Białołęka, has it influenced you commitment to serving all prisoners after 1989?

How did it all begin? A congress of Catholic prison chaplains from all over the world was held in 1989, in Vienna. It was then that someone from Poland was to go there for the first time. And Bishop Władysław Miziołek suggested that I go there as a representative of the Polish prison chaplaincy, which was almost non-existent, because priests were rather not allowed in prisons. I say – all right, I'll go. And there, for the first time, I saw that this prison pastoral care works in the world with good results and that it is a great work. There, for the first time, I came across the American organization PFI (Prison Fellowship International), which was of great importance for the activities of this pastoral ministry in the world. There were also media from all over the world, and as a curiosity from behind the Iron Curtain, I received many different questions, for example, whether torture was allowed in Poland.

Throughout the congress there had also resounded the role of lay people who evangelized in jail. Coming back to Poland I knew it was worth forming such a group of lay people. Already on the train from Vienna I was arranging in my mind how it might look like in Poland. Later on, I met the French Prison Fellowship. At that meeting an ex-inmate made an impression on me as he had become director of a rehabilitation center and I listened to him with envy. So it became my dream that something alike could happen in Poland.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE Then I thought to myself that such an international prison congress could be organized in Poland. It wasn’t easy though. Where to start here? Everything was missing, e.g. interpreting booths, apparatus, and the translators themselves – all at terrible prices. And I didn’t have a penny for it. Fortunately, the seminary’s rector suggested that we could accommodate our guests in the seminary, especially since it was holidays. It was already something. I invited local bishops and ministerial authorities to this convention. The late Bishop Orszulik donated a few zlotys for this. I was also hoping that the invited guests from the west would throw in some dollars. My parishioners also began to help me organize the reunion. And everything started working out. There were speakers from home and abroad. I invited Paweł Moczydłowski, PhD, from the University of Warsaw to be the main speaker.

Why did you insist on that so much?

I saw with my pastoral eye that such a chaplaincy should be set up in Poland.

But you had some legal “authorization” for this activity and for this congress?

I had nothing! I realized it was a historic moment which had to be benefited from and “take the bull by the horns”, and to involve lay people’s work in particular. I was positive about that. I also felt there was a chance to involve East European countries in that work. I even wrote an invitation to the same bishops so that they send their delegates. I received a pessimistic answer, must have been from the Hungarians: “we don’t have such pastoral care and we don’t plan it”.

And I unleashed this absolute madness, but I liked that kind of thing. People from all around the world came, bishops came, even Card. Jozef Glemp did. All important speeches were recorded. Everything went very well, but there was no hot water in the seminary at that time.

This congress of ours was a breakthrough, the Council of Europe also learnt about it – everything gained momentum. Politically, things were changing in Poland as well, different times were coming. A turning point. A few weeks later, “Gazeta Wyborcza” writes: “Our screw”. Who? Paweł Moczydłowski. The communists let it go and appointed a new director general of prisons. And he gave a very good speech at our congress! I meet him and he asks me: And what, Father, are we doing prison chaplaincy? We are. He gave me a room next to him in the Ministry of Justice – because that’s where his office was. And suddenly I became an official specialist in prison matters. I started going with him to different penitentiaries. The uniformed guards wondered if was appropriate to stand next to someone in a cassock – because it had been very frowned upon so far. They even asked if it was a linden tree or if it really would be now. I said will be, will be. Prisons need chapels, chaplains and lay evangelizers.
Christmas Eve meeting at the Warsaw-Białołęka Prison in 1991. photo. PAP/Janusz Mazur
And the ministry – a priest?

Yes, in the role of the chief chaplain of the Polish prison system. I invited newly appointed chaplains to Popów near Warsaw, to a former center of the Ministry of the Interior, where secret police agents used to go. Dozens of people came. And where until now a priest had not stepped foot and holy water had not been seen – now chaplains gathered, celebrated the Holy Mass, prayed and deliberated. Later, lay volunteers from all over Poland, who were involved in prison chaplaincy, also went to the same place. What had been my dream happened – an almost professional group of prison chaplains and their lay associates was formed.

And at some point the question arose among the bishops, who was this Rev. Sikorski that organized such work, expected certain actions from us and sent invitations to various conventions. In the structures of the episcopate there are positions of “national” priests, e.g. responsible for doctors, workers, farmers, the police, the army. But there was no one responsible for prisons.

I must admit, I overlooked this formal aspect. I was occupied with parish, pastoral, construction and administrative work and had no time to sit down and formally put these things together. I enjoyed the facts. And suddenly – the question that they don’t know who that is, some guy is messing with pastoral matters. What is it about? There’s no nomination. In addition, the title of chief chaplain was awarded to me by the Minister of Justice. On ecclesiastical grounds, this was a serious mistake. After all, someone who holds a church function cannot be appointed by secular authorities.

So you got into trouble then?

The Soviets marched in... Should they be greeted with rifles or cigarettes, when even Churchill explains that they had to?

Trust ended for Polish officers with bullets in the back of their heads.

see more
I did, and how! During communism, I learned the rule: don’t ask, just do your thing, and when you ask, there are always doubts. Fortunately, there stood up for me Bishop Damian Zimoń, who was responsible for all chaplaincies on behalf of the Polish Episcopate and knew our efforts well, and the formal side was dealt with. I became the national prison chaplain. Today I see that it was an unbelievable blunder, against the Canon Law, because I pulled ahead. And I named myself. The work drew me in, and titles were no longer important.

Such were the transitional times then that no one knew anything until the end. And those in the prison system took me for the first secretary then. They telephoned in matters of conflict - well, because they saw me together with director Moczydłowski... I had to straighten out that I am on the pastoral side and not on anything else. Prisons are like the army – everybody stands to attention. This is how my function was perceived.

You also established an association of evangelical aid to prisoners, the Prison Fellowship. It is still working?

The Fellowship exists in some factories, though it has gone through various struggles. My dream was to create a home for former prisoners. There were problems with it. However, in my parish I established such a so-called “dom chłopa” (peasant’s house).

The police once detained one and asked: where do you live? – At “dom chłopa”. And Dom Chłopa used to be one of the best hotels in Warsaw.

I received ex-prisoners there, but also those who slept in the church at night. Because the church was open in my parish day and night. They were dirty, they smelled, so I say - you can bathe them, but what next... I can give them something. Well, here you go, here is a peasant's house. Two rooms, a bathroom, fairly good conditions, I couldn’t afford any care, but you have your own home here, look after yourself, and if something goes wrong, I shall expel everyone. Watch out, no vodka, no alcohol. And they had a house there.

Currently, the Fellowship in Bydgoszcz is working great. There was a wonderful woman, an extraordinary person – she was able to do everything, arrange everything, nothing was impossible for her, the fellowship was developing splendidly and suddenly, unexpectedly, she died – Anna Stranz from the “Samaritania” Prison Fellowship. She was the initiator of various causes. Thanks to her, the Day of the Prisoner / Penitent Thief was established (in 2009, March 26 was established by the Polish Episcopal Conference as the Liturgical Remembrance of the Penitent Thief and the Day of Prayer for Prisoners – editorial note). Just before her death, she organized a writing contest for prisoners about John Paul II. It was poetry and stories about how prisoners live their relationship with our pope. The result of this contest was a book in which you can find really valuable work.

The Polish Prison Fellowship has been admitted to the world organization Prison Fellowship International, established by a person with an extraordinary life story.

Yes, by Chuck Colson, former adviser to President Nixon. He was one of his most important advisers, and he was imprisoned for his involvement in the Watergate scandal. He converted in prison. He became a very popular preacher and evangelizer. He has published many popular books. He knew the biography of Father Jerzy Popiełuszko and, of course, the activities of the Polish Pope and wrote about them. He came to Poland, he was at the grave of Father Jerzy. We kept in touch and thanks to him I met people, organizations and volunteers who work in many countries around the world. When we joined this organization, 120 countries already belonged to it.

Conversions happen in prison?

It happens. Our fraternity includes former prisoners who now go to prisons to preach catechesis. I was with John Paul II during his visit to the Prison in Płock in 1991. There are photos of the pope standing in a crowd of prisoners – the prisoners had tears in their eyes, I saw their emotion. Ten years later, one of the prisoners told me that the Pope’s visit, his cordiality and openness had such an impact on him that he changed his life.
We started our conversation by mentioning that you were chaplain of the internees imprisoned in Białołęka after General Jaruzelski introduced martial law. After all, this is how the whole history with your prison chaplaincy began. Did the internees also look for support from John Paul II at that time, through him they wanted to encourage themselves?

I will bring up only one incident. Former internees announced that they would not drink alcohol for some time in the intention of the Homeland. More than 100 people joined the list. At that time I was going to Rome, leading a group of priests from all over Poland by reason of the Holy Year (1983). I took this list to hand it to the Pope. I made a copy just in case. We were queuing at the airport, there were perhaps 60 priests, me at the end. Everyone was being checked out whereas I was led away for a body search. They detained me, took away the list and eyed my socks. At that time, the priests began to shout what was happening to me and threatened that they wouldn’t go without me. They ended up taking me to the plane in a separate car. It was about this list. I recalled a saying by Czesław Miłosz: “They looked into the trunks, they looked into the suitcases, they didn’t look into my a..., where I shoved up socialism”.

On the plane, I immediately announced that I had a letter for the Pope and that they had taken it. There was noise. During the audience with the Pope, I introduced myself to the Holy Father, talking about the “Solidarity” movement and the internees. The Pope shook my hand saying: “Tell them that I pray every day for <>”. There was a photo that I copied and passed on with the inscription: “I pray for Solidarity every day”.

The original letter survived because it was transported by someone else – less followed by the Security Service than me.

On my way back to Poland, I found out that the letter was confiscated because it contained anti-state content or something of this kind. Well, I think to myself, a text that someone will not drink vodka is an anti-state text – I was laughing at it. Then those from the security apparatus sent me a second message that yet, the letter was all right and I could come and pick it up. Of course, I didn’t. They sent it to me themselves.

Your life was in danger in those years, were you aware of that?

Not at that time. It wasn’t until later that I found out I was on their elimination list. The first was Rev. Jerzy Popiełuszko. I was in third place.

– Interviewed by Grażyna Raszkowska
– Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

Protonotary apostolic Jan Sikorski, doctor of theological sciences, former parish priest of the parish of St. Joseph in Koło, Warsaw, chaplain at the Białołęka Internment Camp during the martial law period, Honorary Protonotary of His Holiness. Fr. Sikorski combines his responsibilities of a parish priest with activities for the pastoral care of prisoners. In the years 1990–2001 he was the Supreme Prison Chaplain of the Republic of Poland. He is a co-founder of the Prison Fellowship – a group dealing with religious and material assistance to prisoners and their families.

On November 11, 2022, on Independence Day, Rev. Jan Sikorski was awarded by the President of Poland with the Grand Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta for outstanding merits in activities for the anti-communist opposition under communism, for his involvement in pastoral care of prisoners in Poland and social activity. A day later he celebrated his 87th birthday.
Main photo: Father Jan Sikorski (in the middle) was awarded the Cross of Freedom and Solidarity in 2019. Photo: PAP/Jakub Kamiński
See more
Interviews Previous issue
Archaeoastronomy is not looking for an ancient UFO
In archaeology, there are so-called black swans - at a given historical moment they should not have occurred, but they did.
Interviews Previous issue
The nation must make a choice, it must cast it die
Trust me, in Georgia, we all still remember Mr. Lech Kaczynski! Who can forget him arriving, alongside the Ukrainian president and the leaders of the Baltic states, in the midst of our war against Russia? - says prof. Alexander Mikaberidze.
Interviews wydanie 10.03.2023 – 17.03.2023
Gladiators: a bloody pastime
The symbol of Rome's fall is... pants.
Interviews wydanie 3.03.2023 – 10.03.2023
The rise and fall of a Russian political technologist
An intellectual and professional cynic. Putin's former spin doctor Gleb Pavlovsky has died.
Interviews wydanie 3.03.2023 – 10.03.2023
Putin has a financial cushion for now
The scenarios assuming a collapse of the Russian economy have not materialized so far, says Dr. Lukasz Rachel, a Polish economist from the so-called Stanford Group.