To what Czech Republic will the Pope come?
Piotr Chmielinski talks to Fr Stanislaw Tasiemski, a Dominican, who worked in the Czech Republic for several years.
Piotr Chmielinski: – The Czech Republic is one of the most laicised countries in Europe. Very few people go to church there.
Fr Stanislaw Tasiemski, OP: – Indeed, not many. A lot of people do not declare any religion. Those who declare to be Catholics constitute ca. 31 % of the Czech society, but the number of those who regularly practice their faith is dramatically small.
– How many?
– The worst situation is in northern-western part of the Czech Republic, even less than 1 % of inhabitants. In the remaining territories 2-3 % of people regularly go to church; in Prague it is almost 2 %. The best situation is in the Moravian province and Czech Silesia since 8% of the population there go to Sunday Mass. However, one must remember that in the Czech Republic the decision to practice one’s faith costs a lot. It demands believers to oppose the trend, overcome many difficulties, question the attitudes that are domineering in the society, That’s why if someone decides to go to church one must assume that his/her faith is conscious and deep. You can call these people the elite of the nation. Many of them decided to receive Baptism as adults. For example, one of my fellow brothers was brought up in a Hussite family and another was a member of the synod of the evangelical Church. The phenomenon of conversion is normal in the Czech Church. Many non-baptised people come to Masses celebrated by Fr Tomasz Hlaik, a famous students’ chaplain in Prague who himself was baptised as an adult. You must teach and evangelise these people, and prepare them to receive the sacraments.
– What processes led to such a deep laicisation? After all the Czech Catholicism used to be a leading one in Europe.
– One can say about a few processes. The first one was Hussitism in the 15th century. Then the society was diversified as far as religion was concerned. The second one was the Reformation and the opposition against various wrong activities connected with the treatment of indulgencies. Another factor was the time of the partitions, the period of the Habsburgs’ rules. There was a union between the throne and the altar and unfortunately, the priests were not the mediators between God and people but between the authorities and the believers. They did not only register civil acts but also inform the society about the decisions of the authorities; they were obliged to inform the rulers about any riots, etc. The Catholic Church was seen as the representative of Vienna although many priests played important roles in the Czech national revival in the 19th century. Those who had the domineering positions in the independence circles did not favour Catholicism or were even its enemies. That’s why after World War I the Czech awareness was created in opposition to the Catholic Church.
It is worth mentioning a certain symbolic event. One of the first public acts in the Czech Republic after World War I, in October 1918, was the destruction of the statue of the Mother of God, which was located in the market of the Old Town in Prague. It was an expression of truly deeply hatred towards Catholicism. By the way, it is said that the Czech independence was based on the Free Masonic circles.
– Then Communism did a lot of harm…
– The Communists systematically destroyed the Church. The Catholic publishing houses and schools were closed; religious instruction was removed from school and finally, in 1950, the major seminaries were closed. The Church properties were nationalised, depriving the Church of its independence. The state ensured the Church that it would provide for the priests but at the same time it usurped the right to define which priest could minister in parishes. And a priest who conducted his pastoral duties without a permit of the state could be sent to prison. The religious congregations were also closed. In 1950 during one night all monks were transported to internment camps created in some monasteries. Many religious were sent to labour camps and prison. Thus it was a very painful period. And on the other hand, it was a time of beautiful testimony of faith given by many religious.
– What is the situation of the Catholic Church in the Czech Republic like?
– After the velvet revolution there prevailed great optimism and hope. For example, a symbol of the changes was the sale of postcards with a monk, by the way, a Dominican, walking over the Charles Bridge. Earlier something like that was unthinkable. The Church in Poland helped very much to rebuild the Czech Church, for instance the particular Polish dioceses, at the request of the Czech bishops, sent priests to work in Czech dioceses. Moreover, the Polish congregations were strongly involved in pastoral centres and formation of the religious in the Czech Republic. The Polish experience was very important to rebuild the structures of the Church. Today over 10% of the clergy in the Czech Church are Poles, e.g. the rector of the Major Seminary in Prague is a Pole – Fr Artur Matuszek from the Diocese of Opole. Of course, after the period of great enthusiasm it turned out that certain matters must be corrected, e.g. the Church realised that the formation conducted in secret lacked certain elements but it was much worse in the conditions of freedom. Some vocations were unsuccessful; some priests left their priesthood. But stabilisation was slowly established.
– But a concordat has not been signed yet and the cathedral in Prague still belongs to the state. Why?
– The cathedral has belonged to the state by virtue of the decision of the communist government (in 1954). Then it was stated that the cathedral would remain the property of the whole nation. We should remember that the Church in the Czech Republic still depends on the state, e.g. receives funds from the state budget. On the basis of the communist law from 1949 particular curias receive money that is spent in most cases on salaries for priests and laymen who work in the diocesan curias. Since many clerks in the Czech curias are laymen.
– What will Benedict XVI tell the Czechs?
– He will certainly encourage them to endure in faith. He will express his gratitude for the testimony of faith in spite of great difficulties. There will also be an ecumenical meeting with the world of culture. And it is the people of culture that the Pope will warn against relativism; he will encourage them to use freedom properly. Families in the Czech Republic, although they receive more legal support than in Poland, are in bad conditions. There are many divorces. The Pope will certainly call to endure in marital faithfulness and confidence in Christ.