Relations between Czechs and the Catholic Church have been strained for hundreds of years. One of the factors was undoubtedly the burning of the religious reformer Jan Hus at the stake 600 years ago. Now Pope Francis has spoken of the Catholic Church’s need to seek forgiveness for the killing in what some are seeing as the biggest step towards reconciliation so far.
Pope Francis at an official event at the Vatican on Friday commented on the speech he was preparing for a ceremony of religious reconciliation and forgiveness that will be taking place on Monday afternoon at the Nepomuk Papal College in Rome.
The pope said that Hus’ burning at the stake after refusing to recant his alleged heresy was an injury to the church itself and the church should ask forgiveness for it, like all the acts in history when killings had been committed in the name of God. He referred specifically to the 30 years wars which in particular devastated the Czech lands and much of the rest of Europe in the 17th century.
The comments and the tone have been taken as a significant step forward in the Catholic Church’s moves. Monsignor František Radkovský is the bishop of Plzeň. He has this to say about what could be seen as the Papal trailer for Monday’s service: “For me, what the Pope said resonated a lot. What he said was very significant in that he described this as something which hurt a family. That is to say that he regards different Christian denominations as part of one bigger family and this was an injury to that family. I would say this is a very important perspective in that it sees Christians as one family.”
Representatives of Czech political, academic, and religious life have been invited to Monday afternoon’s service and audience with Pope Francis will follow. Some expect that Pope Francis might go even further than his comments on Friday.
Of course, the steps to rehabilitate Jan Hus in the eyes of the Catholic Church have been going on for some time. John Paul the Second asked for forgiveness for the church’s past wrongs on visits to the Czech Republic in 1995 and 1997. Earlier, he had said that Christians could all share and unite in the values that Jan Hus espoused, his integrity, commitment to education, and moral values, rather than be divided by them.
The era when Hus, often seen as a forerunner to the more famous Martin Luther, was automatically cast by Catholics as a heretic and blasphemer are obviously long gone. One of those who is credited with helping build bridges between the Vatican and Czech Republic over Jan Hus is former Prague archbishop Miloslav Vlk. He was the first prominent Catholic to attend a memorial to Hus’ death and headed an academic commission into Hus’’ life and legacy. Suitably enough, he will be among Monday’s Czech delegation at the Vatican.
On the other side of the longtime barrier, it is perhaps too early to say whether the latest comments from the Vatican will dent the common Czech perception that Hus was a sort of resistance hero, one ‘one of us against them,’ them being the Catholic Church
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