Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, the Archbishop of Prague, is the head of the Roman Catholic Church in the Czech Republic. Under the previous regime, he clashed repeatedly with the communist authorities, who for many years denied him authorization to exercise his ministry. Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, who is 75, has led the Czech Catholic Church since 1991, in what has been a period of transition – and coming to terms with its actions under the totalitarian regime. He has engaged in many disputes with the Czech state over a number of problems, most notably the church’s property restitution claims. For this special Christmas programme, Cardinal Miloslav Vlk spoke to Radio Prague about this and other issues.
“The Catholic Church does not depend so much and so directly on any political changes. The change that came on November 17, 1989, was of course a significant one – the Roman Catholic Church, along with other churches, received freedom. It was necessary, after 50 years, to reconstruct the Church and to revive the system. This was one of the major tasks we faced. Those administrative, outside changes are not as substantial as the changes on the inside. By that I mean increased emphasis on evangelizing; being in touch with the public and bringing them the message of the Gospel. In this particular area, our experience is that it cannot be done with words, because our secular society does not pay much attention to preaching. It does however pay attention to models and examples.”
Another significant change involved lay people and their role in the everyday life of the Church.
“The other change that was needed was to get lay people more involved in the life of the Church. Under communism, the role of laymen in the Church was marginalized. Only priests who were granted so-called state approval could do active work, and lay people could not do anything. This wasn’t easy to do, either, because after 40 years of communism, people were used to being inactive and being guided all the time. This transformation, this revival, was very important.”
The Czechs have a reputation of being perhaps the most atheist nation in Europe, if not in the world. How deep do the roots of Czech secularity go?
“Secularization in our country follows a long history of spiritual division in our nation. Our country was among the first in Europe where the Reformation started. The Hussite movement was the first Reformation phenomenon in Europe, and that was the moment when the single spiritual stream in our nation split in two. Since that period of the 15th century this has been present in our nation to this day. After WWI, the motto was 'Away from Vienna', meaning away from the Habsburgs; another motto said 'Away from Rome'. The Church was blamed for allying itself with the Monarchy, which was in fact not true. The intelligentsia during the First Republic had socialist inclinations and was very left-wing. This perfectly prepared the ground for communism. To sum it up, when you look at our spiritual history, and especially that of the last century, the secularization is perfectly understandable.
One of the controversies between the state and the Czech Catholic Church has erupted over the issue of charities and other organizations established by churches. Currently they need to be approved by the Culture Ministry which is something Cardinal Vlk strongly rejects.
“After the fall of communism, an act was adopted on relations between the Church and the state. This act from 1991 was very broad; it was designed in the euphoria of the time, and it suited us well. But in 2001, the post of the Culture Minister was held by Pavel Dostal, and he was, together with some of his colleagues, a real enemy of the Church. They worked to narrow the freedom of the Church. They prepared this amendment which meant that every organization established by any church had to be approved by the Culture Ministry. We appealed to the Constitutional Court immediately in 2001, and the Court did away with the passages of the act in question. But the government made a new amendment with basically had the same content. This time the Constitutional Court did not cancel anything and denied us our constitutional rights. This is a sign that Czech courts base their judgements on ideology, that they do not respect the law and the constitution. The Constitutional Court not respecting the constitution is a scandal.”
Yet another argument involves St Vitus Cathedral at Prague Castle, the most prominent place of worship in the country. The communists expropriated it, and now the state has no intention of giving it back. That must be something which churchmen outside this country have trouble comprehending.
“I don't think many of them understand that. Around Europe, various cathedrals are run by the state, that’s not the issue. Here the problem is that the communist state 'nationalized' the cathedral. This was done in contrary even to the communist laws of the time. After 1989, courts in Prague confirmed three times that the cathedral belonged to the state. Regarding this issue, we are going to take further steps, and even take the case to the European Court of Human Rights. Because this is a flagrant breach of the constitution and of our rights, and we are going to defend them.”
On the other hand, the Catholic Church has scored one milestone success. This year, a property restitution settlement deal was signed between the Church and the state.
“The proposition was designed by the state and the individual churches, working together. It entails physical restitution of property for Catholic orders and congregations, while our dioceses gave up their claims and will receive financial compensation. The details are still being worked out, but it seems that after 18 years of absence of political will, it might happen in the end.”
Is the Catholic Church ready to stand on its own, independent of the state?
“This is a matter of justice, you know. If something was stolen, it has to be given back. Partially, this will be settled by physical restitution, the other part will be settled by financial compensation. And we would like to use that compensation to establish economic models that will sustain us.”
Czech Catholics, headed by Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, have had to deal with the legacy of their life under the communist regime. The authorities put the Church under constant pressure not to stand up against their rule. One of the tools communists applied was an informal organization of Catholic priests called Pacem in Terris, or Peace on Earth.
“Pacem in Terris was an organization without application forms. Under communism, the head of the district 'National Committee', as the local authorities were called, would summon the priests from his or her district once a year. Everybody who attended was considered to be in. The whole thing was in fact done just to make an impression, and for the media. It was a sort of psychological pressure on everybody who disagreed with the regime – look, even the Catholic Church is in line with the regime. That was the meaning of it. I would not take this cause too seriously because it was all arranged by the state. “
Perhaps more sinister is the fact that some priests collaborated with the communist secret police, known, as the StB, and provided information on their fellow clergymen. Cardinal Miloslav Vlk says the Church has dealt with this issue, too.
“After the fall of communism, in 1992 to be exact, I sent out a community letter to the priests in which I called upon all those who collaborated to come to see me. I talked to them and when they described what was going on. I understood that they were under exceptional pressure. But the nature of collaboration remains in question. What did they do? I believe that people should be really careful when talking about the collaboration with the StB. I would not just go by the list of collaborators. Being on that list does not necessarily mean that the person collaborated. As early as in 1990, we as the Church went on a pilgrimage of repentance to Velehrad, where we distanced ourselves from it, we expressed pity and apologized. In 1992, I wrote pastoral letters in which we distanced ourselves from it again. Which category of people who collaborated in our country – teachers and so on – did the same? None. The Church did the maximum it could have done. It is a stain, no doubt, but is should be judged with justice.”
Christmas, a time of commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, has in modern times turned into a festival of shopping and a celebration of consumption. Does Miloslav Vlk see any sings of the times changing?
“Things don’t change with a swing of a magic wand. It is a matter of a change of the spiritual climate in the society. Such an organic change takes generations. To make it happen, the state and the Church and other institutions have to work together. The lack of a spiritual dimension in society has a very anti-social impact, and the state itself should be interested in helping bring the change about. The outlook for any society without such a spiritual dimension is indeed very problematic.”
And finally, where does Cardinal Vlk go to shop for Christmas presents?
“Of course I don't put on my cassock and go shopping for Christmas presents in the supermarket. That's obvious. My co-workers here help me and they know where to get things.”
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