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Markus Bauer {*}

Difficult Mission Country

On the Situation of the Catholic Church in the Czech Republic before the Pope's Visit


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 9/2009, P. 443-447
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    The pastoral visit of Benedict XVI at the end of September in the Czech Republic could rightly be described as a missionary visit. The reasons for the extremely difficult situation of the Catholic Church in the Czech Republic are far in the past. The repression by the Communists was unique in Central and Eastern Europe. Many hopes for a religious renaissance after the turnaround seem nowadays evaporated.


When Benedict XVI from 26 to 28 September in his first visit to the Czech Republic in Bohemia and Moravia dwells, he will meet there a church and religious situation that the Vicar General of the Diocese of Pilsen, Robert Falkenauer (somewhat exaggerated) describes with the following short and succinct sentence: "It is no vineyard but a quarry!" What are the reasons for such a statement twenty years after the Velvet Revolution of autumn 1989 in which many hopes were also set on the Catholic Church? Today, there is no longer much felt of that. In the run-up to his visit the German Pope has rather to deal, among other things, with the question whether he is allowed during the three days here or there to speak also German.

The German or Austrian-Hapsburg past is a piece of a jigsaw in the explanation of the currently less favourable situation of the Catholic Church in the Czech Republic. It is often associated with the former Hapsburg domination. The proportion of Catholics to the total population is, with a decreasing trend, only about 26 to 27 per cent (according to the baptismal certificate), of course, with significant regional differences. In Moravia, for instance, the bonds to the Catholic Church are significantly stronger than in Bohemia. In reality, however, even church circles speak of only five per cent of the population confessing the Roman Catholic faith.



However, another reason for the difficult situation of the Catholic Church, namely the huge degree of secularization goes far back in history. Today about 70 per cent of Czechs have a feeling of belonging to no denomination - this is only comparable with the new federal states in Germany. The secularisation of Czech society goes back to the first half of the 19th century. The Czech national movement with its nationalist-liberal principles deliberately dissociated itself from the Roman Catholic Church, which in the 17th and 18 century was successful in recatholicizing above all large parts of Bohemia and Moravia. An anti-Catholic affect existed already at that time.

All in all, a more differentiated picture comes out. In the Czech national movement members of the lower clergy, too, were active. In Moravia members of the Austrian nobility represented the Church in important positions, but there were nationally oriented priests there, too. At the end of the 19th century social and later political groups were established in order to enforce Catholic interests, and so a relatively closed milieu formed - including a Catholic political and socio-cultural. This led to a self-isolation of the church. Due to its minority position it took up politically a defensive attitude and was at the beginning of the 20th century in the Czech national society - especially in Bohemia - increasingly seen as an alien element.

After the founding of the Czechoslovak state in 1918 the secularization further strengthened. The Catholics less and less appeared as an integral part of society; an anti-Catholic sentiment was increasingly articulated. Mass resignations from the Catholic Church and the founding of the Czechoslovak Hussite Church (January 1920) and the "Away from Rome" atmosphere did the rest. Between 1918 and 1939 the situation improved slightly, which was also due to the Catholic Czechoslovak People's Party. All in all the Catholic Church in the First Republic rather adopted a defensive position and was never accepted as a serious constituent part of Czech society.

From the late forties to the mid-sixties in the now communist Czechoslovakia with its atheistic ideology the hardest persecution of the Church throughout Central and Eastern Europe took place: bishops, active priests and lay people got collared and most of the orders and congregations were eliminated. All activities of the Catholic Church were controlled by the State or had to be approved by it. Vacant bishoprics could not be filled for years. Believers were subject to violent repressions - university education was denied to their children, for example, or they were not even allowed to get a regular school-leaving qualification.

There were also compromises or collaboration with the regime. Only in the second half of the sixties almost all the prisoners from the ranks of the Catholic clergy and laity were released from prison. After the Prague Spring, in the seventies and eighties, the situation of the Catholic Church again worsened enormously.


The Religious Foundations are Often Totally Buried

In the eighties the official church policy sometimes acted in concert with Catholic dissidents. Before the radical change in November 1989 and in the following months the Catholic Church was appreciated as one of the main opposition forces. Many expectations were also linked to it: for example, it could contribute its expertise to solve social problems such as racial discrimination, environmental pollution, disarmament, or unemployment. In those days confidence in the church and its power of integration was extremely high, high expectations were cherished.

That even affected - temporarily - the religious practice. The affirmation of atheistic positions decreased significantly after 1989. But this was only of short duration. The church attendance rate has already dropped again between 1990 and 2000 from 13 to 11 per cent. Between 1997 and 2007 the proportion of those who believe in God also strongly decreased. The proportion of people who consider religion as important to their lives is smaller and slightly declining. But the churches are still the most important representatives of the religious element in the population.

But just this - the religious element - is to a great extent buried in people's life, because of the nearly two centuries-long developments and especially because of the particularly severe persecution of the Catholic Church from 1949 to 1989. "Young people have no idea of Christianity", the employees, e.g. of the Pilsen Salesian Youth Centre tell us. That's why they with their offers make no distinction between believing and not believing children and adolescents. "We are sent to all" is the motto. At the educational events of the Salesians the young participants often come for the first time in contact with religious issues and topics. This is then deepened - in case of interest - in a special religious education.

"Today the church can work completely freely, although some things are still unresolved", Tomáš Halík, the President of the Prague "Czech Christian Academy" summed up in his lecture in late March in Munich.



The "Unresolved" he above all referred to property issues or to the public representation of church work. With regard to religion he described three types: desert and need of missionary work in border areas and Central Bohemia; regions in which the people's church has survived but where also a mentality similar to that of sects or in a besieged fortress is prevailing (against free societies and the corrupt West); areas with younger, more educated people, sympathizers of the communist era in which religious attitudes were associated with political opinions but where today partly critical people or converts are resident.

Halík describes this third type as a "perspectively important group that can gain influence." But he also points to the problem of very few competent priests who are adequately sophisticated and can meet the demands of this clientele. To solve this problem there are corresponding offers at Prague's Charles University, the Christian Academy and also in cooperation with the Ackermann community. Apart from the offers for regular churchgoers Halik sees inculturation as a task of evangelization in his country, which means the linkage with the identity and the Czech Republic's history, especially since in the past here in many localities and regions a great devotion prevailed. In summary, it can be stated that "Communism has admittedly decimated the church but has also contributed to the survival of the faith," Halik says in his lecture.

How, then do the pastors deal with this very different situation? The Pilsen Vicar General Falkenauer advises first of all not to sit and wait until people come but purposefully to approach those people. As the Salesians, he sees Bible lessons as starting point of the religious work. "We can expect nothing at all and must have patience. The people are not bound to the church but have interest in religious and church issues," Falkenauer describes his experiences. He therefore refuses to accept that especially young people are a priori declared to be atheists.


Many Issues are Unsettled in the Relationship between Church and State

Jan Baxant, who in November last year was appointed bishop of Leitmeritz, sees it similarly. At a church service in the context of the 31st federal meeting of the Ackermann community in early August in Plzen he emphasized, "The North Bohemian diocese has been regarded as risky, totally neglected and atheistic. To me it's a challenge. At the beginning the Spirit of God was hovering over the wilderness and desert."

The last day of Benedict XVI's pastoral visit in the Czech Republic falls on the anniversary of St. Wenceslas, and thus on the Czech national holiday. The Pope certainly means something in doing so. Well now, how is the relationship between state / society and the Church in the Czech Republic? The Catholic Church can carry out its activities in the Czech Republic today; the state even supports it in certain areas.



But for President Václav Klaus it is clear that religion is not to meddle in the state's and society's affairs.

For a good 20 years the issue of returning the immense church property or of a financial compensation has been anything but popular. An advance with this goal failed early in the year 2008 in the Prague Parliament and was then shifted on a parliamentary commission. Base would be a sum of 270 billion korunas (ten billion euros) - two thirds in real estate and one third by financial transfers, spread over 60 years. The Catholic dioceses and religious congregations would benefit of 83 per cent of it.

In other words, the Czech state still bears the consequences of the suppression of the Church begun in 1949. For the state the maintenance of architecturally valuable religious buildings goes sky high, almost 300 churches in the country are exposed to decay. And the salaries of the personnel of the 17 recognized religious communities burden the state budget with annually about one billion korunas. But the cities and towns, too, suffer from the unresolved question of restitution.

For almost 20 years building on the former church land is prohibited. And since the early nineties the St. Vitus Cathedral on the Hradcany in Prague is a bone of contention between the State ("The cathedral belongs to the people!") and the Catholic Church. Similarly, a contract that could clear the relations between the state and the Roman Catholic Church is missing to this day.


Partnerships between Czech and German Dioceses and Parishes

At present the Catholic Church in the Czech Republic is organized in the ecclesiastical provinces of Bohemia (with the Archdiocese Prague and the dioceses of Ceske Budejovice, Hradec Kralove, Leitmeritz and Pilsen) and Moravia (with the Archdiocese of Olomouc, Brno and Ostrava-Opava). According to official Czech information about 2.7 million inhabitants avow themselves to belong to the Roman Catholic Church. In the nineties the spiritual care of prisoners and the military chaplaincy was organized. After 1989, the dioceses have been restructured or - as in the case of Pilsen - completely re-established in order to enable a more efficient management and a greater closeness between priests and faithful. The study of theology was also reformed in order better to prepare the priests for the socially relevant issues and social responsibilities.

The "Czech Christian Academy" was brought into being to promote the exchange between the elites of the country. The church school system was founded, the Caritas work intensified. In addition, Catholic associations and the church youth and adult education were set going, Catholic publishing houses, magazines and media were founded and laity activities encouraged. Some undertakings have developed well, but many never got beyond the early stages. A significantly smaller proportion of the population than at the beginning of the nineties now sees the Catholic Church as a factor that can contribute to solving the social and human problems.

In the educational field by now, for example, the Episcopal grammar school maintained by the Diocese of Pilsen enjoys an extremely good reputation. It is the only of its kind in West Bohemia and in the Diocese of Pilsen. More than 90 per cent of the graduates each year successfully take the entrance examinations at universities and technical colleges. It has 500 pupils in the eight-year daily study [Tagesstudium] and approximately 60 students in the four-year correspondence course. In the school chapel Masses and ecumenical services take place regularly and are a contribution to forming the students' character.

The Caritas, too, has been present in the Czech Republic since the turnaround. After the state it is today the second largest institution for social and medical services. The Caritas admittedly existed already before 1989, but at that time its scope for action was rather small. The Caritas is administered by the Catholic Bishops' Conference. People are cared for who alone are no longer getting along at home. The Caritas runs nursing homes, hospices, homes for mothers with children and hostels for the homeless. For parents with disabled children a large number of counseling centres was established. Their assistance projects are financed by the Caritas from a variety of revenue sources. In addition to the grants of ministries and social welfare benefits, mainly private donations and grants enable its work.

There are therefore many tasks and points of contact - not only for Benedict XVI during his pastoral, not to say missionary visit to the Czech Republic. Those responsible on the spot are aware of the problems, and they face them full of commitment and enthusiasm. It seems important that the Catholics in the western Czech neighbouring countries are also aware of the problems and help the neighbouring church with words and above all with deeds.

Apart from church institutions and organizations (for example, Ackermann community, the Catholic Sudeten German community [Gesinnungsgemeinschaft der katholischen Sudetendeutschen] with its Czech sister organization, the Sdružení Ackermann community) there are now quite a few partnerships between German and Czech dioceses and parishes, some of which have been existing for many years and are vibrant.



On the occasion of mutual visits and joint activities elements of the Czech church find entrance into the parishes and dioceses in Germany and vice versa. Partnerships also provide a good chance to establish on each side a pilgrim community of groups and circles lasting over several years. And the participants learn much from each other - for the secularization with which the Czech Republic has been dealing for two centuries is now also in Germany a non-negligible issue.


Further Reading
- Thomas Bremer, Jennifer Wasmuth: Gott und die Welt. Kirche und Religion in Osteuropa
- Petr Fiala: Labor der Säkularisierung. Kirche und Religion in Tschechien.
Both in : Osteuropa, volume 59 (2009), issue 6, 7 et sequ. and 93 et sequ.


    {*} Freelance journalist Markus Bauer (born in 1961) worked from 1988 to 1997 among others things in the political education of young people in the Ackermann community in Munich. Issues of Germany's neighbourhood with its Central European neighbours are one of his professional focuses.
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