In a strange paradox, even as a stunned Poland awaits the funeral of the Rev. Jerzy Popieluszko, there is now an atmosphere of greater hope for social peace than perhaps at any previous moment in the turbulent years of crisis since 1980.
In March 1981 - only six months after the formation of the now-banned trade union Solidarity - violent action by the Bydgoszcz police against Rural Solidarity came dangerously near to provoking nationwide civil strife.
But this time, something most Poles would perceive as vastly more sinister - the murder of a priest who had continued to speak out for union rights and other civil liberties - has had the opposite effect. The killing has brought the communist authorities, the Roman Catholic Church, and the still-powerful Solidarity movement to a common sense of outrage and national purpose.
Poles at large reacted similarly. Tuesday evening, thousands at a mass at Fr. Popieluszko's parish church in Warsaw were told of the retrieval of his body from a water reservoir on the Vistula River, 90 miles from the capital. They wept, lit votive candles, and sang a favorite hymn about freedom. Then they went quietly home. And Warsaw remained calm with no unusual police presence and no hint of the disorders that even minor incidents had provoked hitherto.
Popieluszko's fate has brought Solidarity back into the picture in the most meaningful way since the lifting of martial law and the subsequent political amnesty.
The union's former chairman, Lech Walesa, has spoken out openly and forthrightly since the priest's abduction Oct. 19 without any effort by the authorities to decry his words or to prevent him from exercising his old role as a national figure.
Mr. Walesa alluded to the implication found in all official statements on the killing: the probability that there were individuals involved who were more highly placed than the three police officers being held in the case - a captain and two lieutenants.
These higher-level people, presumably party hard-liners opposed to the moderate policies of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, wanted not only to liquidate Popieluszko, Walesa said, but also ''to kill hope that it is possible to avoid force in political life'' in Poland.
When Walesa talks of a desire to avoid exacerbating feelings and to set up a dialogue, it makes it difficult indeed for the authorities to continue to ignore him.
Their own concern was evident from the way in which Jerzy Urban, the government spokesman, reacted to penetrating questions from Western reporters at his news conference Tuesday and later in television's presentation of the final, tragic news.
Both reflected the air of growing rapprochement between church and state authorities that has been apparent since the kidnapping became publicly known. There has been ''constant contact'' between them, the TV an nouncement was careful to stress, and this would continue.
Without waiting for the question uppermost in all minds, Mr. Urban himself raised the ''great importance'' of establishing the identity of others who it is suspected were probably ''behind the deed.'' He seemed to indicate that the authorities already knew more than they felt able to disclose at this point; that they do, in fact, have reason to look for more ''influential'' (Urban's word) elements within the party establishment than the three police officers.
A questioner noted that the Communist Party's Central Committee had declared full support for the Interior Ministry and its chief, Gen. Czeslaw Kiszczak. But it had made no similar allusion to Miroslaw Milewski, the senior party official who was his predecessor.
Mr. Milewski became interior minister in 1981, and gave up the Cabinet post only when he was placed on the Politburo. He has consistently been identified with the conservative group in the top leadership - three, possibly four of its members - who are seen as obstructing the reformist course of General Jaruzelski.
Urban sidestepped a specific allusion by name but again stressed the support expressed for General Kiszczak and the Central Committee's call for an investigation.
The calm that all three major Polish institutions - church, state, and Solidarity - are urging will undoubtedly prevail through the week. Popieluszko's funeral will be a massive, dignified and - as Urban acknowledged - public occasion.
After that must come the question everyone is asking: Will - can - Jaruzelski capitalize on the improved image for himself and his leadership that has resulted from his handling of this crisis?
It is a sensitive challenge in which the vast majority of Poles will be looking to him to liquidate the opposition to reform within his own party and to undertake, with the church, the new political initiatives without which this new-found peace in Poland will not last.