Václav Malý: True to his own conscience
Written by: Anita Lišková & Klára Smolová
Photo by: Petr Poliak
"Humility and truth" has
been this Prague bishop's lifelong motto. Neither suffering under
communism nor popularity during the 1989 revolution lead the former
dissident astray from the path of helping others.
life in numbers
||born on 21 September
at the Litoměřice Theological Seminary of Sts.
Cyril and Methodius
77 in February
a member of the Committee for the Protection of
the Unjustly Persecuted
||clerical administrator of
St. Gabriel's Church in Smíchov, Prague
||served as priest, in 1996
appointed Canon of the Metropolitan Chapter at
St. Vitus, titulary Marcellian Bishop and assistant
Prague Bishop, ordained Bishop in 1997
||received the Class III Order
of T. G. Masaryk from President Václav Havel
You became a priest in an eventful age. What led you to make this
The Prague Spring of 1968 and the self immolation of Jan Palach
in the spring of 1969 had a very powerful effect on me. After Dubček's
dismissal and the onset of "normalization" I was mortified
by the way people began acting completely differently. They became
restrained, they began to feel threatened and reverted to their
hypocritical ways. I said to myself that it wasn't possible that
changed external circumstances could affect people to such a degree.
One must always have certain principles and act according to his
convictions. That was what drove me. I told myself that, yes, I
wanted to help show people the way as a priest.
Shortly after your ordination you signed Charter 77, and you served
as its spokesman in the early '80s. Why did you become so actively
involved in the opposition movement?
I was ordained in 1976, served as chaplain in Vlašim, and then
in Plzeň. At that time political prisoners were confined in the
Bory prison in Plzeň. Quite a few people came to the church there,
and I felt that the atmosphere in the church was different from
the atmosphere in society - fear, hypocrisy, and injustice. I was
excited that I was creating a little island of togetherness while
outside evil things were afoot. I welcomed Charter 77, and by signing
it I felt relieved that I could finally say "no" publicly
to the deformed system.
When you signed Charter 77 did you have any idea of what the consequences
would be? For example, that you wouldn't be able to exercise your
It was not an easy decision, because I knew that I'd lose all chances
of working as a priest in public. Nevertheless, there was no way
I could foresee the specific form of the repression. Of course
I was reproached for jeopardizing my calling, but there was only
one thing I could say: I can't live a double life; proclaiming
ideals on the one hand and keeping quiet about what was going on
around me on the other.
You were in prison at that time. Did these experiences help you
in your later work and in your outlook on the world?
Between 1974 and 1989 I was many times interrogated and harassed
and even incarcerated. This helped me mainly to learn how to
control myself and cleanse myself of hatred. I think this was
And I also learned about how much a human being can bear. Although
I paid a heavy price, it was good spiritual training, and it
was an investment in my future life.
Shortly after the revolution you served in St. Anthony's Church
in Prague, and complained that only a few young people attended.
Do you sense that a change is underway? Because statistics indicate
that ever fewer people profess their faith.
The number of people who profess their faith fails to indicate
how many of them are striving to find their way spiritually. On
the one hand there are complaints that the young generation is
turning to drugs, but on the other hand I'd say that many people
are seeking a spiritual base. In larger parishes, particularly
in cities, each year there are several adults who decide to become
baptized. This is a positive trend, but it isn't a vast trend.
What about the teaching of religion in schools?
Ethical lessons should be on the school curricula, in which the
teachers would be obligated to explain what the Bible is and
what it speaks about, because this is part of a basic education.
It's not a question of forcing anyone, everyone must make his
or her own free choice, but there is an enormous lack of education
in this area.
Does the church have anything to offer people today? And what
is your role as a bishop?
A bishop's job is mainly to support his priests, to visit parishes
- their priests and believers alike. To give direction to the church's
activities within their parochial districts. To coordinate various
activities, not only purely liturgical, but also to work with young
people, charities, and schools, and of course to strive to raise
the consciousness of those who assist the church. And what does
it offer? To lead and encourage people to support responsibility
and freedom, and to realize that human beings aren't the center
of the universe. That one can learn the truth, and that he himself
doesn't constitute the truth, and that the truth isn't necessarily
what he says it is.
Could one say that a certain type of person leans towards the
church? Sometimes it looks like believers are people who don't
know what to do with their lives and need some sort of crutch.
Religion is certainly not a crutch, but the church's mission is
to be understanding and open its arms to the weak. Being a successful
businessman doesn't mean being a mature human being. The church
tries to lead the people in the spirit of the Bible and support
spiritual maturity. We live in a time of great deification of human
performance, yet the value of a person cannot be based on what
he has accomplished. What about people who lie ill in hospitals
and through their inner strength can overcome the adversity of
their illnesses or gradual passing? A human being isn't merely
what he has accomplished, it's also a question of the extent to
which he can build human relationships, show fellowship and share,
and so on.
In the Czech Republic, churches are financed from the state budget,
but restitutions and the relationship between church and state
have yet to be resolved. What is your view of a model for financing?
Do you think that our accession to the EU will help resolve these
Specific solutions for church-state relationships remain within
the purview of the individual EU states. I don't expect Heaven
on Earth, but the political culture and respect for law in this
country is on a low level, and I think that this will rise following
our EU accession. And that can indirectly improve negotiations
between the state and the church. The concept for financing is
the so-called cooperative model. The goal would be for the church
to operate based on its own resources, but in areas where the interests
of the state and the church overlap, they should share the burdens.
It's in no way a question of the church recovering everything that
was taken from it in the past. Unfortunately, the politicians have
no desire to sit and peacefully discuss the issue.
Why do you think that is so?
Sadly, it's a matter of ideology. When you say The Catholic Church,
many people think of Bílá hora, the burning of Jan Hus, condoms.
They think the church is a semi-feudal institution that has no
place in modern times. The politicians know well that society
isn't exerting any pressure, so they are not in a hurry to solve
Last year you traveled to Cuba and Belarus. Do you intend to support
the opposition in those countries?
Yes, I feel a moral obligation to pass on what has helped me to
those who aren't free. Also, because I'm well aware of how the
communist system works, I decided to try to specifically support
strivings for freedom in Cuba and Belarus alike. There is a very
real connection with my experiences in life.
Did these visits and meetings bring any concrete assistance?
I'm the chairman of the Council for Justice and Peace under the
Czech Bishops' Conference, and the council's activities include
monitoring human rights in selected countries. And so I made
the journeys. The Committee for Assisting Cuban Defenders of
Human Rights was established, and I'm a member. This committee's
mission is to shed light on the situation in Cuba and evoke international
solidarity with brave citizens.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
I generally think I'll be serving at the same level as I'm currently
serving. There is still room for improvement. I think that this
service is needed, and I can frankly state it fulfills me completely.
How would you describe yourself in three words?
An introvert - although I might not look it - humorous, and truthful.
How would you like people to remember you?
I'd like it if, when my stay on Earth is over, the people who know
me in some way would say that I was an honorable guy.