|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.You became a priest in an eventful age. What led you to make this choice?
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 calling?
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 very valuable. 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 questions?
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 it.
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.