Czech cardinal once washed windows, has led European bishops

By Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Ten years as a "hidden priest" in Czechoslovakia, washing the windows of government buildings, might have left Cardinal Miloslav Vlk unprepared for the international spotlight.

Cardinal Miloslav Vlk is archbishop of Prague, Czech Republic. (CNS file photo)

But since his 1994 appointment to the College of Cardinals, the 72-year-old archbishop of Prague has adapted to a leadership role among European bishops.

As the first East European president of the Council of European Bishops' Conferences, 1993-2001, he has worked on issues dear to Pope John Paul II's heart -- in the East, rebuilding church and society after communism, and in the West, defending Christian values in the face of secularism, materialism and moral collapse.

But rebuilding the church after communism in the Czech Republic has not been without its difficulties.

He appealed for constitutional arbitration in February 2002 after a new law gave the government the right to approve the opening of places of worship. The following year he sharply criticized the Czech Parliament's refusal to ratify a treaty with the Vatican.

In May 2004, after the country's admission to the European Union, Cardinal Vlk accused the government of persecuting the church by persistently blocking attempts to return church properties seized under communism and failing to codify the church's legal rights.

In July 2004, Cardinal Vlk agreed to give up church demands for property and land restitutions and to seek financial compensation instead. Although this was widely believed to have brought an overall church-state agreement closer, the Czech Republic remains the only East European country still lacking a formal legal framework for church activities.

Meanwhile, census figures showed that church membership in the Czech Republic was dropping in the post-communist era. The country is currently regarded as one of Europe's least religious territories, with 60 percent of its 10.5 million citizens disclaiming any religious affiliation. About 27 percent of the people are Catholic.

Cardinal Vlk has been a strong supporter of Catholic lay movements, and during the 1999 European synod he said their impact has been "amazing," and they should be given room to grow. Like religious orders in past centuries, lay movements today express the "needs of our time," he said in an interview.

The highlighting of the laity's role may even be a hidden benefit of the priest shortage, he said. While the lack of clergy has serious implications for sacramental life, "the life of the church is not only the sacraments," he said.

The most important thing is to genuinely "live the life of the Gospel," he said.

Gray-haired and robust, Cardinal Vlk speaks with conviction and a smile, sometimes tapping a table or lectern for emphasis. Candid by nature, he does not shy away from delicate topics, as when he told a Czech interviewer that while barred from ordination by communist authorities he pondered whether to marry and start a family.

"Various girls swirled around me, and one fell in love with me. But I recognized my vocation -- I knew I wouldn't have been happy in marriage and wouldn't have made the woman happy," he said.

He added that he had always accepted celibacy as part of his priesthood.

"This doesn't mean, of course, that I don't miss sexual, bodily contact; but I know that there are deeper and more important things," he said.

Born May 17, 1932, in Lisnice, Czechoslovakia, he studied history at Prague's Charles University before enrolling in a seminary. He was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Ceske Budejovice June 23, 1968.

In the early years of his priesthood, he was secretary to the bishop and worked with youths and intellectuals. He also earned a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Prague.

Under communism, Cardinal Vlk had to work with severe restrictions. When his license to engage in priestly ministry was revoked for 10 years in 1978, then-Father Vlk ministered secretly, maintaining contacts with students and dissident groups.

"The will of God can be different in different moments of our life," he said in 1991. "Sometimes it is his will that I wash the windows and other times to be archbishop."

In the years following his 1988 return to open ministry as a priest, Father Vlk and his homeland faced many changes.

After massive anti-government protests in 1989, the Communist Party leadership in Czechoslovakia resigned. A few months later, when Father Vlk was pastor of a parish in Cachrov, he was named bishop of Ceske Budejovice.

Pope John Paul appointed him archbishop of Prague March 27, 1991. In 1993, when Czechoslovakia became two countries -- the Czech Republic and Slovakia -- he became primate of the Czech church.

In the post-communist era, Cardinal Vlk has had to work to "neutralize the prejudice" caused by anti-church stereotypes.

"If the church wishes to offer a spiritual sign, it must exist in the public sphere, but without descending to the level of party politics," he said in 1996.

Internally, the post-communist church had to cope with a shortage of trained clergy and laity, a lack of churches and other buildings caused by government confiscation of church property, and problems arising from the clandestine ordination of married men and, in at least one case, a woman.

At a 1996 Rome meeting, Cardinal Vlk said that soon after communism ended government officials published the names of people they said collaborated with the communists. Among the names were some Catholic priests from the Archdiocese of Prague.

Although the officials intended the list mainly as a way to sow division among the Czech people, Cardinal Vlk sent a personal letter to each named priest, inviting him to meet with him and discuss why his name was on the list.

Cardinal Vlk said such an invitation to dialogue and repentance was essential for moving forward in the future.

"Penance is a force which creates new things; it is not a bomb which destroys," he said. "Without repentance, there is no way to open the door to reconciliation."

In 2002 President Vaclav Havel awarded Cardinal Vlk the Czech Republic's senior Masaryk Prize in recognition of his work for democracy and human rights.

 

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