The Pope before the Czech crust

Artur Stelmasiak

On 26 September 2009 Benedict XVI begins his visit to the Czech Republic, one of the most laicised countries in the world. Why is the nation that has a rich Christian tradition ‘offended’ at God?

The Pope will visit Prague, Brno and Stara Boleslav. ‘In the Czech Republic this pilgrimage will support the Church that is experiencing difficulties’, Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, the Primate of the Czech Church, stresses. In his opinion the visit of the Holy Father is a great ennoblement both for the local Church and the Czech Republic. ‘Since we are the smallest country in the world that Benedict XVI has visited so far’, Cardinal Vlk says.
According to Krzysztof Tomasik, the head of the international department of the Catholic Information Agency, the Czechs have another reason to be proud. ‘Although the Pope was invited to Germany, which would celebrate the fall of the Berlin wall he chose the Czech Republic that were going to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution’, he says. In his opinion, we can expect that during his pilgrimage Benedict XVI will refer to these historical events that the Czechs are proud of. ‘He will stress the significance of the fall of communism and refer to their patron St Wenceslaus’, the journalist thinks.

Bastion of unbelief?

The population of the Czech Republic is 10.2 million. Although historically it was a fully Christian country its present religious reality leaves a lot to be desired. ‘When several years ago I learnt that I would be working in this country I heard from my colleagues in Slovakia: you will have nothing to do there’, recollects Fr Wojciech Zubkowicz, SAC, the editor-in-chief of the Czech paper ‘Apostol Bozego Milosierdzia’ [Apostle of the Divine Mercy]. The Czech Republic is said to be the most atheistic country in Europe and even in the world. Unfortunately, these opinions confirm the statistical data and declarations made during the censuses. As many as 59% of the society of the Czech Republic declare no religion and 49% of them regard themselves as atheists. Only 31% declare to believe in God, the biggest group is Catholics – almost 27 % and then Hussite Protestants – ca. 4%. Unfortunately, the statistics have a very slight reflection in religious practices that are even worse. Since one can see only 5% of Catholics and ca. 1 % of Protestants in Sunday services. ‘Pastoral ministry in the Czech Republic is very hard. The laicisation of this country can be compared to the situation we can see in the former East Germany. However, the whole German Church is rich and thanks to that it has more pastoral possibilities. But the Czech Church lacks everything: believers, priests and money’, says Fr Zenon Hanas, Vice-General of the Pallottines, who visits his fellow brothers dispersed all over the world.
The situation in our southern-western neighbour is worse that in France, which is known for its dislike towards the Church. After all the French have much bigger feeling of their Catholicism. ‘The Czechs are simply religiously indifferent. They are not interested in faith at all’, thinks Fr Zubkowicz, the superior of the Pallottine community working in the Moravian parish of Jama.

Dioceses at the edge of bankruptcy

The Church in the Czech Republic is not uniform. The southern and central Moravian lands have the biggest number of believers and the bastion of laicism is in big cities and the western part of the country. ‘In my village of 400 inhabitants as many as 50 people go to church every Sunday’, says Jan David, a Czech seminarian who has entered the Pallottine Society. In his opinion, religiousness in some parts of the Moravian district does not differ much from the Polish religiousness. But it is only a small part of the country since in the west there are parishes with only 2% of believers. Consequently, the western dioceses cannot provide for their churches, priests and administrative staff they need. Some parish priests must care for their pastoral ministries and necessary restoration of over ten churches and chapels. In many places there are no Masses celebrated on Sundays. ‘No one is surprised to see five people at Mass, which is celebrated only once a month’, says Fr Zubkowicz. The Moravian dioceses, thanks to the support of their faithful, can afford humble standard but in the west of the country the situation is dramatic. The diocese of Pilsno and Litomerice are still functioning at the edge of financial collapse.

Cardinal cleans windows

Apart from the difficult pastoral conditions there is also a tense relationship between the state and the Church, and the media are not favourably disposed towards the Church. The Czech Primate Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, who is responsible for the contacts with the Czech government, does not conceal his disappointment about the bad situation that has lasted since the Velvet Revolution. The Czech Republic has not ratified the concordat and the dioceses are still waiting to regain their properties seized by the communists. ‘We are still financially dependent on the state. The state, like during the communist dictatorship, has almost the whole of the Church’s properties’, Cardinal Vlk stresses and adds, ‘The Pope is our guest and will not talk about these difficult subjects. However, I do not exclude the possibility that the issue of concordat will come up in the talks between the government and the Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.’
The difficult situation of the Czech Church is the aftermath of the strong criminal communist dictatorship. The repressions that afflicted our southern neighbour after the war are not proportional to those that our priests had to struggle against in our country. The adamant attitude of Archbishop Josef Beran during the Stalinist Czechoslovakia faced a strong reaction of the contemporary authorities. As a result the 1950s brought about rigorous repressions. Hundreds of people were persecuted, commencing with the priests sentenced to death and murdered, thousands of the arrested and interned (the majority of bishops met this fate), illegally held in labour camps and monasteries guarded by the police (thousands of monks and nuns) and sent to punitive labour military units, and masses of laymen. When Archbishop Beran went to Rome to receive his cardinal dignity he was not allowed to enter Czechoslovakia again. He had to spend the rest of his life as a refugee.
But the liquidation of the diocesan major seminaries was the most dramatic movement for the Church. Only one seminary for Czechoslovakia and Moravia was left and the qualifying interview was conducted in the party office. The number of admissions was limited to 25 for the whole territory of Czechoslovakia. Each priest working in a parish was subordinate to the party secretary and without his permission he could not even celebrate Mass in the neighbouring parish. Those priests who were too active were moved to the parishes that were almost dead. Other priests lost the possibility to serve as priests. That’s why they served in secret, often celebrating the Eucharist in private flats. Besides, they went to work every day. Cardinal Vlk cleaned windows and Bishop Vaclav Maly was a professional stoker.
Within the forty years of the communist rules the Czech Church lost almost 35% of all priests and those who remained were very old. Just after Czechoslovakia had regained independence in 1993 the average age of priests was 68.

Till death at the altar

Nowadays, 20 years after the fall of communist the situation does not look much better. Although Polish priests have increased the number of the Czech clergy there is a serious shortage of priests. For example, in the Diocese of Prague 64% of the parishes have no priests; in the Diocese of Litomerice, where the situation is worst, there are over 400 parishes and only 90 priests. And although the number of seminarians has increased it is still a drop in the sea of the demand. Priests cannot count to have retirement allowances. They perform their priestly duties until their deaths. According to Fr Zubkowicz the social mood does not favour an increase in vocations. The boys who would like to be altar-boys are exposed to slander and mockery. ‘There is also an image of an average Czech priest who is an old man wearing an old worn-out and slack cassock. And additionally, he lives in an old mouldy parish house. That’s why even believing families discourage their sons to enter a seminary. They say, ‘What will you have from this? Do you want to end like this old man from the neighbourhood?’, a Pallottine priest working in Moravia explains.

History of the Czech laicisation

The genesis of the Czech atheism and aversion towards the Roman Catholic Church is complex. Some blame communism for it. However, there are many reasons. The history of disputes is almost as old as Christianity in the Czech territory. It was in the 9th century that Slavonic Christianity, brought by the Saint Brothers Cyril and Methodius, clashed with the influences of the German Church. The next wave of troubles having religious background occurred at the beginning of the 15th century, evoked by the Rector of the University of Prague Fr John Huss. On the one hand, he created the spelling and punctuation of the Czech language but on the other hand, he was a precursor of the reformation movement in the Church. He criticised indulgencies; demanded Communion under both kinds; wanted to introduce Czech as the language of the liturgy and to abolish the Pope’s authority (let me remind you that it was the time of the western schism when besides the Pope there were two anti-popes arguing about Peter’s See. His demands met with favour and made Huss many followers among the Czech clergy and aristocracy. For most Czech people Hussitism was not only a religious movement but first of all a national one. Since it opposed ideological and political influences of the Catholic Church that was identified with the German domination and their culture and language. When Huss was sentenced to death and burned at the stake for spreading heresy there were riots and then national uprising and long Hussite wars. After the treaty had been signed the protestantizing Hussite Church was the mainstay of culture, especially the Czech literature, for dozen years.

Communism was the final dot

The Hussites were severely repressed when the Czechs were dominated by the Austrian dynasty of Habsburg, supported by the Catholic hierarchy. They influenced forcibly all people to accept Catholicism and the stubborn were expelled. From that time the Catholic Church was the state religion of the partitioner. The Czechs treated the Catholic clergy as part of the foreign apparatus of power. As a result, the policy of the Habsburgs led to almost a complete disappearance of the Czech language. In the 18th century the middle and higher classes were practically Germanised. The feeling of national independence was evoked only after the Spring of Nations. The national awakening was automatically connected with negating Catholicism. After the Czechs had regained independence in 1918 they manifested their freedom and left the Church. ‘You may easily guess that forcing people to accept faith will do more harm than profit. Catholicism was treated in Poland like the Orthodox religion was treated in Poland, i.e. as a religious organ of the partitioner’, stresses Fr Zubkowicz. One can find many analogies between the interwar history of the Czech Republic and Poland. For instance, in Warsaw the Orthodox Church in Saski Square was demolished under the wave of national freedom and similarly, in Prague the column with the statue of Our Lady situated in the Old Market fell to ruin.
According to Dr. Peter Prihoda, the well-known Catholic activist, the Catholic Church has been an alien body in the Czech nation for long. Since the Czechs did not have the possibility to use Catholicism for national reasons. ‘If we compare the history of our Church with the history of the Church in Poland we can see that the enemies of Poles were also the enemies of the Catholic faith. It was the other way round here’, Dr. Prihoda evaluates.
After 1918, the period of religious freedom, the Hussite Church and many other factions of Protestantism were reactivated. Nevertheless, many Czechs departed from any religion. Thus a process of dynamic laicisation began. ‘Speaking about the difficult situation of the Church in the Czech Republic simplification is used more and more and the whole blame is put on communism. But communism was the final dot’, Fr Zubkowicz explains.

The Pope will strengthen the elite

According to some priests, communism paradoxically made the Czechs come closer to Catholicism. The Church was not an enemy but the one that struggled for one cause, together with the Czech nation. The Czechs did not often experience that. In November 1989, in the Prague Cathedral Cardinal Francisek Tomasek uttered the important words, ‘In the decisive moment concerning our fight for the truth and justice the Catholic Church and myself support the nation!’ The period of the Velvet Revolution was the time when the Czechs began acknowledging their adherence to the Church. The number of those who belonged to the Catholic Church increased. However, this enthusiasm quickly weakened and 10 years later the Czechs began to be religiously indifferent again. The intellectual elite of lay Catholics, who was strongly involved in the underground activities, joined the world of universities and politics. ‘The Church was already decimated by decades of persecutions and could not play an important role among the social reformation powers at once. The ‘wearing out’ of the clergy – the old age and tiredness of many priests, their isolation from modern theological trends and new forms of the Church’s life in the world – was revealed’, stresses Fr Tomas Halik, a theologian in Prague and student chaplain. The present religious indifference is the most difficult pastoral barrier that many priests seem not to be able to overcome. ‘In Poland, when a person has small faith he goes to church because other people go there, too. Whereas in the Czech Republic this person does not go to church since no one goes there. That’s why only people of strong, deeply rooted faith go to church; they do not go there out of habit’, thinks the editor of ‘Apostol Bozego Milosierdzia.’ The Czech priests do not expect that the papal visit will make the Czechs wake up from their religious inertia. However, they hope that the Holy Father will strengthen those who are in the Church today. Since they are the elite on which the future of the Czech religiousness should be built.

"Niedziela" 39/2009

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: