The Czech Republic has lost one of its leading church dignitaries. Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, former head of the Czech Roman Catholic Church, succumbed to cancer at the age of 84. He will be remembered for his unwavering faith, his bravery during the communist years and his utter dedication to every office he held, be it a pastor in an isolated mountain parish or the Archbishop of Prague. In a special in-depth interview for Czech Radio Cardinal Vlk traced his path in life, sharing his innermost thoughts and cherished memories with listeners. In the first part of the interview he recalls his early years in south Bohemia and the struggle to become a priest.
Miloslav Vlk was born in the South Bohemian town of Líšnice in 1932. He had three younger sisters and loving but strict parents to whom he was later grateful for his upbringing, saying they nurtured Christian values in all the children from an early age.
“I love looking back at my childhood days even though my parents were quite strict, especially my mother, but when I look back with hindsight I am extremely grateful to them both. They gave me a good grounding for life. It was not a drill, they led me to understand that they were giving me the best of what they themselves had learnt from experience so that I would be able to find my bearings in life. And they taught me discipline. When my father gave me a task to do he expected it to be done right away and to be done to the best of my abilities.”
Miloslav Vlk recalls growing up in the war years when the family lacked many things. Food was in short supply and meat was a rare treat. All the children had to shoulder responsibilities from an early age and Cardinal Vlk says that being used to hardship made it easier for him to cope in later life when the going got rough.
"In the years after I graduated I did have doubts –was it God’s will that I should become a priest or was I deluding myself?"
“My regular task was to take the animals to pasture so that we would not have to feed them so much. And there were many other tasks around the house, bringing in firewood for the stove and chopping wood when I was old enough or helping my father clean out the stable. I didn’t like it, especially when I saw other children playing in the snow, but there was no arguing and I learnt that responsibilities had to come first. When I later became secretary to Bishop Hlouch he would never omit to say my father would tell me “work first, play later” and it was like hearing my own parents.”
As a young boy Miloslav Vlk dreamed of being a pilot as he watched US military aircraft flying over Southern Bohemia at the end of the war. But later something happened to change his life –though it would be a long time before he could follow his vocation and realize his plans.
“When going to church I noticed a picture on the information board there one day. It was a picture of a small boy looking up at a cross and under it the words Would you like to be a priest too? I couldn’t get that picture out of my head. It was so compelling that sometimes I would enter the church from a side door in order to avoid it. But the picture and the challenge stayed in my heart and sometimes I would hear a voice saying come to me, come to me.”
An unexpected circumstance brought him closer to the Church. His parents wanted him to continue his education at a grammar school in České Budějovice but because of their financial problems he accepted a grant from the local seminary. He later described the years at the seminary as the best years of his life. But 1948 brought the communist coup and an abrupt end to his plans to pursue a theological education. He graduated with straight As but irked the communist authorities by appearing at his final exams dressed in a black suit and tie instead of the obligatory communist youth movement uniform the others wore. As punishment they put “passed” on his certificate, when in fact he had passed with flying colours and consequently he was refused admission to university. So he took a job doing manual work in a car factory. Being a manual worker improved his record with the Communist authorities and so after serving conscript duty in the Czechoslovak Army he could enroll for archival studies at Charles University.
After graduating Vlk worked in several archives and in 1963 headed the archive in the city of České Budějovice. He recalls that this is when he felt a strong urge to change tracks and fulfill his vocation.
"I was greatly amused to hear that the female party comrades had been given the task to try and get me married within a year."
“I was working as head of the archive in České Budějovice, but I felt a strong urge to fulfill my heart’s desire to become a priest. Only I was an employee of the local communist administration so I needed their permission and they did everything they could to dissuade me. I threatened to go into the mines and told them they would lose me anyway and at one meeting where this was discussed I was greatly amused to hear that the female party comrades had been given the task to try and get me married within a year. Of course this is not to say that I did not have questions in my own heart. In the years after I graduated I did have doubts –was it God’s will that I should become a priest or was I deluding myself ? Maybe I was meant to marry and have a family instead …there was a girl who fancied me and that made the doubts worse. But then I remembered the picture in the Church and the way it made me feel and I knew it was God’s will. So I told myself –move on!”
In 1964 Vlk was allowed to continue his theological studies and in 1968 thanks to the Prague Spring reform movement he was finally ordained a priest. He was 36 years old. He spent several happy months working with Bishop Josef Hlouch before this idyllic period was cut short by the occupation.
"One of the parishioners came to me and said - I heard on the radio we’ve been invaded by the Russians.”
“Shortly after came the Soviet-led invasion. I used to walk to the cathedral where I celebrated early morning mass. And one of the parishioners came and said Ï heard on the radio we’ve been invaded by the Russians”. After the mass I was crossing the square back to the bishopric and there was a tank parked on the square. I approached the soldiers and tried to speak to them in Russian but they would not communicate. So I went back to my office where the bishop had already compiled a letter saying the Church condemned the invasion and stood by the Dubcek government. I changed into civilian dress and went to the local radio station to read it out on the air. And that’s how the period of normalization started.”