By Eva-Maria Kolmann
NEW YORK—Cardinal Miroslav Vlk, who greatly suffered, but prevailed as he guided the Church in the former Czechoslovakia through decades of communist repression, died March 18, 2017.
“Cardinal Vlk was a beacon of faith in a country tested by communism, a country in which today the ties that link people to the faith are the weakest in all of Europe,” said Father Martin Barta, who serves as the International Ecclesiastical Assistant for international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).
The former archbishop of Prague, capital of the Czech Republic, had to work for years as a window cleaner after he was ordained due to the anticlerical policies of the communist government. He served as a priest in secret and, said Father Barta, “decisively influenced many people by faithfully bearing priestly witness under the most difficult conditions.
The priest added that the cardinal eventually became an “iconic figure of the faith in a society that had to rediscover the path to God” in the wake of the country’s Velvet Revolution that dismantled communist rule.
Cardinal Vlk was also “a long-standing friend of our charity,” Father Barta said, adding that the prelate returned the aid given to him to rebuild the Church in his Archdiocese of Prague “in a different currency—that of prayer,” as the cardinal repeatedly told ACN officials.
In an interview with ACN the occasion of his 75th birthday in 2007, the cardinal said: “Persecution helped us to be more faithful to God. Who else could have helped us otherwise? At the beginning, when the communists seized power, many people in Czechoslovakia still thought that the Americans would intervene. But that was just an illusion.
“God alone was our light. During the persecution, there was no literature, no funds. One could only choose and look for God. For me, this was a great mercy”
However, Cardinal Miroslav Vlk also expressed deep concern about the deterioration of the fundamental values in Czech society—a lack of respect for other people, and for life, plus a disappearing sense of honor, a spreading self-centeredness. He charged: “A society cannot be built on selfishness, but instead it is a part of our human identity to be open to one another. Above all, the Church must bear witness, for living witness evokes respect and can trigger a response in the human heart.”
The cardinal leaves behind “a precious legacy that we will carry in our hearts,” Father Barta said, adding: “We hope and pray that even after his death, his example will continue to lead people to find the faith that was radically destroyed under communism and that is only now gently beginning to blossom again.”
In 1950, 76 percent of the population living in what was then still Czechoslovakia was Catholic; today—in the Czech Republic—that figure stands at just 10.4 percent. Another 11 percent belong to other Christian denominations. With 34 percent unaffiliated with any religion as well as another 44 percent who do not specify their religious affiliation at all, the Czech Republic is the European country most marked by atheism.
In communist times, the former Czechoslovakia was one of the countries in which the Catholic Church suffered the some of the worst persecution.