Fertile Seeds in Bohemian Ground
After the years of Communism and persecution, the Church in what is now the Czech Republic is slowly regaining vigor. The presence of Fr Stefano, who was ordained to the priesthood on June 21st at the hands of Cardinal Ruini, along with other companions from the seminary
by Pilo Rodari
Prague can be visited as a tourist, and everything is beautiful, almost like a museum. It is like being in a fairy tale, and once you have come out of the city, you feel like a child who has been to an amusement park. And yet, to the close observer, the city speaks of a reality quite different from its overwhelming beauty.
We know that when Hitler invaded Prague in 1938, a large part of the Jewish intelligentsia was slaughtered in the concentration camps; the years that followed World War II, including those of the Soviet regime up to the not-so-distant 1989, were not able to fill this void. It meant the tragic disappearance of a cultural world that for centuries had radiated inventiveness and creativity.
The Czech people, after surviving the German genocide and the Soviet deportations, had to live for years under the constant threat of a harsh and severe regime, and the final result was a widespread feeling of fear, terror, and insecurity.
Like pioneers on a journey
This was probably the situation that met the eyes of the first Milanese CL university students who, in the 1960s and 1970s, like pioneers on a journey to a distant unknown world, left to bring hope to the humiliated Church in Czechoslovakia. Some people, including several priests, remember in particular detail a vacation in Hungary in the early 1970s, during which the CL young people met some Czech Catholics. The CL youth were astonished at the silence and the mixture of fear and discretion of the Czechs, an indelible sign of a reality very different from that of the West. On one side were the young Italians sent by the Movement to bring the joy of their faith, renewed and reinvigorated by the encounter with Fr Giussani, and on the other was a people whose origins and traditions were constantly censured, and for whom faith was the last, secret bulwark against the intrusions of those in power, a faith to be lived in silence, in constant fear of informers and betrayal.
Basically from 1938 to 1989, the Czech Church did not have the right to exist. During the years of the Communist regime, two-thirds of the priests had to enroll in “Pacem in terris,” an association created by the Communist establishment with the purpose of controlling all the clergy. Those who did not join were forced to flee or go into hiding, or to work accepting the burdensome limitations on their liberty imposed by the regime. Fr Vladimir Vyhlidka, for example, one of the first “safe” contacts for the Movement in the 1970s, was one of these. He left the country by taking advantage of a ten-day permit to visit Austria, and sought refuge in Rome, where he prepared for the priesthood in the Nepomucene College. After ordination, he asked to return to his homeland (certainly not a common choice in those days). He obtained permission, but was not authorized to exercise his ministry. Therefore, he worked for three years in a city hospital. Finally, the regime granted him the right to live “as a priest,” but under heavy restrictions. Thus Fr Vladimir became the secretary of Cardinal Tomacek, who–even though a semi-recluse in the Bishop’s Palace, which he had strenuously defended from confiscation–had become the “voice” of the Catholic resistance to the barbarities of the Communists.
Years of suffering and persecution
Cardinal Vlk, too, went through years of suffering and persecution; the regime’s constant threats forced him to live in hiding. For years, he washed windows on the streets of Prague, and while he washed the windows of the shops, he listened to confessions and helped people. “Faith accompanied me with its peace even during my new job as a window-washer on the streets of Prague,” he said during a talk at the Meeting in Rimini in 1997. “For almost ten years I went up and down those streets, in the heat and the cold, sustained by faith and love.”
When, in January 1993, Prague became the capital of the Czech Republic, the situation changed radically. Democracy came into the country, and the return to freedom brought new wealth. Thanks to foreign financial resources, the boom in tourism, and a solid industrial base, the country is still today enjoying promising frontiers of development and growth. Unemployment is very low, the stores are full, and many cities are being restored. To be sure, there are also negative notes, such as the lack of affordable housing, the dizzying increase in the crime rate, and the worsening of the health care system, but, in general, the new democracy and its radical economic transformation seem to be working and are pushing the small republic toward entrance into the European Union.
For atheistic and nihilistic Europe
Cardinal Vlk sees in the entrance into the Union a great opportunity for the witness his Church can offer to a Europe that is by now atheistic and nihilistic. “The task of the Catholic Church,” he said in his farewell address as President of the Council of European Episcopal Conferences, “will be to show that in the night of Europe, dawn is breaking, the dawn of the spirit.”
The current presence of the Movement in the Czech Republic wants to be a part of this dawn.
How can the Catholic people be helped to find itself again, to rediscover its Catholic tradition and its missionary thrust?
One answer is the School of Community that a little group of people in Prague does weekly with Marco Annoni, an architect from Gallarate, Italy, who moved to Prague after his marriage. Another sign is the young people of Brno, who meet to read Fr Giussani together, after being invited on a vacation organized by Beppe Meroni, and who are visited monthly by university students in the Movement in Vienna.
Little seeds grow
For a year now, a missionary from the Fraternity of Saint Charles Borromeo, Stefano Pasquero, a graduate in architecture from Turin, has also been in Prague. One of his main concerns, besides studying the Czech language, has been to seek out contacts with Prague’s Catholics. Sometimes it takes very little, a phone call or meeting for coffee in a downtown coffee shop, for a new relationship to get started and for a small Catholic people to rediscover its identity. An example is a little group of young people, met in a university classroom after reading a note on a bulletin board signed Student Voice for Christ, with the invitation to participate in Bible reading, or the friendship with the university chorus after its weekly practice, which led to an evening in a beer hall.
These are little seeds of an experience that is destined to continue. This is the hope of the Archbishop of Prague, who appointed Fr Stefano parish priest of the university campus at Suchdol, on the edge of the city, where 5,000 students live and study.
In September, Andrea Barbero, also from Turin, will join Fr Stefano in Prague. With him, the first house of the Fraternity of St Charles in Bohemia will take shape.
Now, more than ever, it is Europe that needs testimonials of faith, people who dedicate their lives to witnessing Christ within their everyday life. In some ways, this is like a return to the time of Peter and Paul in Rome, when a few groups of real Christians lived their daily life for Christ in a totally pagan world.
Today, Europe thirsts for testimonials like this.