The underground Catholic Church in Czechoslovakia in Communist times ordained married men and a woman vicar-general. The aim was to bring the sacraments to those who otherwise would have to do without. Our Vienna correspondent has been reading a new biography of Ludmila Javorova.
SHORTLY before Christmas last year I was asked if I would like to meet the author of the first authorised biography of Ludmila Javorova, the woman who was clandestinely ordained a Catholic priest in Czechoslovakia under the Communist regime. I automatically assumed that the author was Czech and was just about to say that I, unfortunately, did not speak the language when I learnt that the biography was by Miriam Therese Winter, an American Medical Mission sister, who has a PhD from Princeton and is professor of liturgy at Hartford. She was passing through Vienna on her way back to the United States after a final interview with Javorova in Brno.
I was most curious to meet anyone who was prepared to undertake such a formidable task, especially someone who was not a native Czech speaker. Winter told me over dinner that she had flown to Cleveland to meet Javorova when she visited the United States two years previously. After returning to Hartford she had bumped into her again unexpectedly a few days later. They found themselves sitting opposite one another on a train that was passing through Connecticut on its way to New York. Later that week Winter woke up in the middle of the night knowing that she had to write Javorova?s story.
She was fully aware from the outset that she had set herself a Herculean task, she said. She knew no Czech and thus had to work through interpreters. And she was confronted with a world that she, and indeed very few people in the West (even in Vienna, which is only a few hours? drive from Moravia) know much about. But she persevered. It took her two years to complete the biography, during which time she made several visits to Javorova in Brno. The result, Out of the Depths ? the story of Ludmila Javorova ordained Roman Catholic priest, was published by Crossroad in May.
The author traces Javorova?s happy childhood in a large Catholic family (she was the only girl and had seven brothers), her increasing withdrawal into herself when her plans to enter a religious order as an adolescent were thwarted, and her thirst for learning, espe- cially theological scholarship. The inner calling she felt from a very early age to dedicate her whole life to God comes out very clearly.
When Fr Felix Davidek, a charismatic local priest, returned to Javorova?s neighbourhood after a long spell in prison and asked her to help him find candidates for the clandestine priesthood and to organise secret meetings to discuss theological issues and the Second Vatican Council, she was overjoyed and became his right hand. From here on the story inevitably also becomes the story of Felix Davidek.
The book recounts Javorova?s complicated and delicate relationship with Davidek, who had a brilliant mind and audacious plans for the Church?s clandestine survival under the Communist regime. He was soon able to gather many committed Catholics around him. They called their group Koinotes (derived from koinonia, the Greek word meaning community) and met regularly in secret at night as it was compulsory to have a job in the daytime.
Davidek held lectures and seminars. In 1967 he was clandestinely consecrated bishop by Jan Blaha, who had in his turn been clandestinely consecrated by the Slovak Bishop Peter Dubovsky, a Jesuit. Dubovsky was made auxiliary bishop of Banska Bystrica in Slovakia in 1991 and retired in 1996. Blaha, who is celibate, and whose consecration has been declared valid by the Vatican, declined an episcopal office after the demise of Communism.
After he had been consecrated a bishop, Davidek began to ordain priests, including married men, as they came under less suspicion from the Communists who expected Catholic priests to be celibate. In this way Koinotes was able to spread all over Czechoslovakia. During his years in prison Davidek realised that while male prisoners could at least sometimes receive the sacraments clandestinely from one of the many priests who had been imprisoned by the Communists, the hundreds of nuns and other Catholic women prisoners who languished in Communist jails could not: they were not allowed male visitors. In these exceptional circumstances Davidek was convinced that the clandestine Church needed women priests to visit women in prison and administer the sacraments to them secretly.
In one of the most important chapters of the book, Winter describes the synod held by Davidek in 1970 to discuss the issue of women?s ordination. It split Koinotes. Half the bishops and priests rejected women?s ordination and broke away to form a separate group. Immediately afterwards Davidek ordained Javorova, who later also became his vicar-general. But the schism appalled Davidek, and from then onwards he lost some of his initial verve. Ludmila found herself rejected by many of her fellow priests, and sometimes was publicly and cruelly insulted by them.
She withdrew into herself and only said Mass alone, although she continued to accompany Davidek on his pastoral visits as his vicar-general. When he became bed-ridden after a serious fall, she and a few of his closest friends nursed him until he died in 1988, one year before the demise of Communism.
I read Out of the Depths in one go, pencil in hand, scribbling notes and questions in the blank pages at the back as I read through the night. The material was only too familiar, as the former underground Church in Czechoslovakia was part of my Tablet assignment in the years immediately after the Iron Curtain fell. I still have that first fax I received from London marked URGENT, which requested: Please find out more about reports that hundreds of priests ? including married men and at least five women ? were clandestinely ordained in Czechoslovakia under the Communist regime. The first reports we obtained actually spoke of 600 to 700 priests including married men and some women but these numbers turned out to be wildly exaggerated.
Events moved fast in those early heady days of 1990. The staff at the Czechoslovak embassy around the corner from where I live in Vienna were completely replaced after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Charming, friendly and hospitable former dissidents, several of whom were friends of Vaclav Havel?s, took the place of the grim-faced and taciturn embassy employees we had been used to in Communist times. I had already made friends with some of them and a few days after receiving that fateful fax they whisked me off to Czechoslovakia to meet my first former underground priest. I have since got to know several former underground priests well and some, like Bishop Jan Blaha, who consecrated Davidek, have become trusted friends.
Felix Davidek, the bishop who ordained Ludmila, is the key figure in her story. His enemies suggest that he was unbalanced and had mad ideas, and as proof they say that he smoked 30 cigarettes a day and was terribly nervous. I have had all his writings that have been published in Czech painstakingly translated and can see no signs of madness. His arguments in favour of ordaining married men and ordaining women to the priesthood are lucid and quite in line with those of normal theologians. And I fully believe the testimony of Blaha, who was very close to him until his death, that Davidek was not in any way mentally ill.
But there are many unanswered questions. I would dearly like to hear more about how Javorova thinks women should practise their priesthood. Davidek forbade her to say Mass in public, she had no congregation and no one, not even her bishop, with whom to discuss her situation. What conclusions did she come to? And did she never discuss the issue with Davidek again?
There are several interesting parallels between Javorova and Florence Tim Oi Li, the first woman Anglican priest who was ordained in Macao during the Second World War. Both were much beloved daughters who grew up in committed Christian families and from a very early age felt they had a special calling to dedicate their entire lives to God and the Church. Both were ordained priests in exceptional circumstances, expressly to administer the full sacraments to people who would not otherwise have been able to receive them. And both were ordained by bishops who foresaw the need to ordain women in special circumstances.
Please be sure, Bishop Ronald Hall, who ordained Florence Tim Oi Li, wrote to the then Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, in 1944, that my reason was not theoretical views of equality of men and women but the needs of my people for the sacraments. Davidek?s explanation to the Pope, had he lived, would perhaps have been similar.
After finishing Winter?s book, I got out the first film on the underground Church shown on Austrian television in 1991. It was made by an Austrian state television team in Czechoslovakia for Orientierung, a weekly religious affairs programme. It opens dramatically with close-up shots of a church being razed to the ground by the Communists in the 1950s to the accompaniment of that soul-moving Kyrie from the Missa Universalis by Eela Craig. The film is full of hope that Rome will solve the issue of the clandestinely ordained priests positively and, seen in hindsight, is uncannily optimistic for the future of the Czech Church. Hundreds of young men are flocking to the seminaries, the comment-ator tells us, and we are shown Javorova putting flowers on Davidek?s grave and saying that when the time is ripe the whole truth about him will become known.
Ten years later we are wiser. The Czech Republic is one of the most secularised countries in Eastern Europe, it suffers from an even more acute shortage of priests than other European countries, and the average age of its priests is even higher. And the whole truth about Davidek is still not known, to the detriment of the former clandestine Church.
I was surprised that the situation of the Catholic Church in the Czech Republic today was in no way discussed in Winter?s book. Davidek?s main message was that the Church must always read the signs of the times and that local Churches must share the current challenges being faced by the people around them. I would have loved to hear Javorova?s ideas on how the Church should cope with today?s problems. Does she think that if the Vatican had allowed the former underground Church to become a prelature, as many of its members hoped, there would be more committed Catholics in the Czech Republic today? Would more people, especially the young, be interested in the Catholic Church if there were married priests and women priests? Only a few years ago she said in an interview that, in Central Europe, society was not yet prepared to accept women priests. Does she still think so?
I would also have been curious to know what happened to all the committed Catholics in the former clandestine Church, and in Koinotes in particular, and whether, like Blaha and Javorova, most of them are still committed Catholics today. They risked so much for their faith and for the survival of the Church. Were they able to pass their commitment on?
Ludmila?s story is not yet finished. Maybe she herself, together with Bishop Blaha, could conclude the story soon? Surely they have nothing to lose now?