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Secret Women Priests


by Joseph Dunn

From No Vipers in the Vatican.(The Columba Press, 1996), pp235-251; here reprinted with permission from the publisher.

The underground church in Czechoslovakia, where bishops and priests were married, and women ordained to the priesthood.

I often feel that to make a memorable television documentary one needs good luck as well as good preparation.

We were on safari through Austria, Germany and Czechoslovakia gathering material for a series on Christianity in Europe approaching the second millennium of the Christian era. We had arranged to do a programme about the church in Czechoslovakia after the collapse of communism. However I was clear that the most interesting and dramatic story in Czechoslovakia was the story of the so called ‘underground church’ with its married priests and bishops. Our problem was that we had no contact with them. Given that their tradition as an underground church was to shun publicity, it seemed very unlikely that they would open their souls to us, especially when we didn’t speak one word of their language.

Our German film was about the generosity of German Christians to the less fortunate in the Third World, which brought us one day to a convent outside Munich where refugees from the Yugoslav conflict were being housed and fed. Having finished the shooting a little earlier than usual and checking the route back to Munich, we noticed on the map that the monastery of Gars was reasonably close by. Gars is the big Redemptorist monastery where Fr Bernard Häring, the famous theologian, lives, with whom we had made a programme two years earlier. We hadn’t met him since, so we thought we’d see if he was home, and ask him how he liked the programme.

Häring was at home and seemed genuinely pleased to see us and interested in what we were doing. I mentioned the matter of the underground church. He told us that he had been recently in Czechoslovakia and had met a number of the priests and bishops involved and would be happy to put us in touch with them. He gave us telephone numbers and a letter of introduction. Now the group in Prague trusted Häring, who had tried to help them, and because they trusted Häring, they trusted us. And so a chance trip to Gars smoothed over the difficulties, and made a programme possible which it seems to me in retrospect, might otherwise have been impossible.

A house Mass in Prague

Eva Sharp, our guide and friend in Czechoslovakia, made the explanations and phone calls. We were asked to be at a certain address at nine o’clock on Pentecost Sunday morning. Our meeting place proved to be a terraced house in an elegant square where the trees were fresh with the leaves of a new spring. The houses looked run down - like much of the housing in Prague at the time. We were ten minutes early, and waited round the corner by the car. We tried the bell on the stroke of nine, but there was no reply. Thirty minutes later the locked door still stared at us, and I was beginning to think that we had been led a dance, or worse, made a mistake about the address. At last a man in his early fifties arrived, and apologised he had to come some distance and the tram had broken down.

We were led to a room on the first floor, looking out on the square, with a very large mahogany table. There were several people already there and more arrived, including a husband, wife and three children. We were introduced to an elderly man, presumably a priest, in a dark brown suit, to whom the others deferred. Another of the men opened a case and set out the chalice, candles, bread and wine for Mass. An elderly lady hovered in the background, but we were not introduced to her. I asked timidly could we film the Mass, and got the impression that this was what they expected. So we set up the camera. The elderly man looked for a nod from us, and then began Mass which he offered with devotion and reverence.

It was only after Mass that I was made aware that the celebrant, Karel Chytil, was in fact a bishop.

We had already briefed our Czech friend, interviewer, and interpreter as to what we wanted to learn about the underground church and the part these men played in it. Being an experienced broadcaster who had worked for the BBC overseas service, I felt confident in letting her proceed and not waste time translating anything more than the very salient points for us. Which meant of course that I did not know at the time exactly what was being said. In fact it was only a month or two later, when all the material had been translated and typed, that I could appreciate the nuances of the interviews.

Before going further, however, perhaps I should set out the history of the underground church as we understood it at the time, before coming to what these former leaders had to add.

The beginnings of an underground church

The story began in 1948 with the communist take-over of Czechoslovakia. Soon after the putsch all the bishops and many of the priests were put into prison, and all religious houses and convents closed and their property confiscated by the state. Before being expelled from Czechoslovakia in 1949, the papal nuncio, Archbishop Gennaro Verolino, went around the country carrying permission from Pius XII for each bishop to choose and secretly consecrate a successor, so that if and when he was arrested or eliminated, there would be someone left to continue his work. This procedure wasn’t novel - it had been followed during the persecution in Mexico in the 1920s.

Two Jesuits in their late twenties, Jan Korec and Pavel Hnilica, were ordained bishops in 1951 according to this mandate. Korec became a bishop less than a year after his priestly ordination. Hnilica soon left Czechoslovakia, and spent the rest of his life promoting devotion to Our Lady of Fatima in Rome. (His story, by the way, reminds one of what became a problem in Ireland during the penal days. Some bishops ordained for Irish dioceses preferred the comforts of France, Spain, or Italy to the perilous life of a bishop in Ireland, and there are many letters in the Roman archives written to try to persuade or pressurise bishops to give up the soft option.) Bishop Jan Korec chose to remain throughout the difficult times and, after the collapse of communism, was appointed Bishop of Nitra in Slovakia in 1990, and one year later Cardinal.

Korec received instructions from Rome to follow the practice of having one active and one hidden bishop. In 1956 he secretly consecrated a fellow Jesuit, Dominic Kalata. Later on, secret ordinations to the episcopacy began to increase. Kalata consecrated Peter Dubovsky in 1961. Dubovsky consecrated Jan Blaha in 1967 in Augsburg, and Blaha consecrated Felix Maria Davidek, who is the pivotal figure in the present story. Blaha remained celibate, and his ordination to the episcopacy was declared valid by the Vatican. So there would seem no question of the validity of Davidek’s ordination.

Vaclav Vasko is a former director of the Catholic publishing house Zvon, in Prague. He gave us his personal impressions of Felix Davidek whom he knew well in prison:

I spent about four years in the prison at Mírov with Felix Davidek. He was one of the people who organised university studies in the prison. In fact one of the reasons he was put in prison was because he tried to organise a Catholic university in Moravia. When students were not allowed to complete their baccalaureate studies for religous or political reasons, Davidek developed and directed a sort of underground school, offering courses at university level with the help of professors thrown out of universities. I considered him a man of genius, a graduate of three or four faculties. He was an excellent musician and also a poet. He was in very poor health. He was an extremely ill-disciplined prisoner and forever in trouble. He was a deeply spiritual man - I had several conversations with him during our walks, and he meditated with me on the Way of the Cross and it was one of the most beautiful meditations I have ever known.

In 1960, when preparations for a general amnesty got under way, we were individually called to interrogations. Each of us had to write down a sort of curriculum vitae and our attitude to the regime. Felix Davidek typically, wrote down: ‘My name is Felix Davidek. I was born on such and such a day, was ordained priest on such and such a day. The communist state security arrested me on such and such a day. These facts, that I am a priest, that I was arrested and held in prison by the communist regime, have given me sufficient insight into present day reality. I therefore expect nothing of you and am ready to die any time. Signed, Felix Davidek.’ So of course he was not amnestied and stayed on in prison - God knows how long.

Later I met him once more in Brno. I ran into him and asked him whether it was true that he had been consecrated bishop. ‘Yes it is.’ ‘And is it true that you ordain women?’ ‘Nonsense, that’s slander, not true!’ Felix was rather undisciplined. I think he was a neurotic and I wonder whether that genius of his may not have contained an element of mental disorder. For instance, he totally disregarded canon law - he did not give a damn. He himself was totally convinced that what he was doing was absolutely correct of course none of us could have foreseen that communism would collapse - and he wished the church to be preserved and able to function even in the worst situations of persecution.

The underground church came to be under such men as Felix Davidek who were tortured and persecuted for their faith, and who believed that under communism, the church might have to face even worse in the future.

The officially tolerated, or’overground’ church

Having put the bishops and the active priests under lock and key, and closed most of the seminaries, the communists decided to pay salaries to co-operative clergy, provided they were prepared to toe the party line in public, and keep their ministry to the sacristy. They were forbidden, however, to engage in social work or teach the young about religion. Now many of these priests were genuinely convinced that co-operation with the government was right and necessary in order to provide Mass and the sacraments for believers. Some others probably found the life easy and comfortable apart from their sacramental duties there was little work to do, while the state paid them a salary. Others could see no viable alternative to going on the run, or to prison. But Bishop Davidek for one, deeply distrusted any priest who took the shilling from a communist government.

The Vatican seeks accommodation with the state

Rome doesn’t like underground churches because by definition they cannot be supervised properly, or controlled. So when it became quite clear after the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 that communism wasn’t going to go away soon, the Vatican changed its policy and sought an accommodation with the government in Prague. Cardinal Casaroli was the brains and active agent in this ‘Ostpolitik,’ which led up to the public ordination of three bishops in Nitra in March 1973, and a fourth at Olomuc in Moravia the following day. The government also permitted the re-opening of two seminaries. Archbishop, later Cardinal Tomasek was the recognised leader of this overground church. Continuing discussions between the Vatican and the government meant that Vatican officials had oportunities to travel back and forth to Czechoslovakia, and keep in contact with Tomasek.

The two underground churches

After 1968 one really has to talk of two underground churches. As well as the group which formed around Bishop Davidek, there was another entirely celibate and perhaps less obsessively secretive underground church. This consisted of older priests who returned from prison and were never given licence to minister, as well as younger men who were ordained in East Germany or Poland but had no permission from the state to carry out their priestly duties, and still other priests who for one reason or another had fallen foul of the government, or who did not wish to work in a state sponsored church. Like all underground priests, these men worked at secular occupations and ministered secretly in houses, apartments and holiday camps, but, unlike the Davidek group, they always tried to keep in touch with the Vatican through Archbishop Tomasek.

Mission in the underground church

Fr Vaclav Maly, a celibate priest, described his work as a secret priest:

I was very involved in the work of the so-called underground church. I lectured, I organised biblical lessons, I instructed people in their religion. I prepared couples for weddings, I said holy Masses. All the things that were impossible to do in churches I did in somebody’s apartment. At the same time I had a manual job, and it helped me to live the normal life of an ordinary citizen. I had to get up in the morning to take the tram to work. Living like this helped me to understand better the thinking and behaviour of ordinary citizens. And it forced me to express my faith in a very civil way.

Fr Miloslav Fiala, now spokesman for the Czech Bishops’ Conference, remembers the difficult times with some nostalgia:

It was a very interesting and adventurous life. One had to be very cautious and on one’s guard against the police and the authorities while, on the other hand, meeting people whom one could instruct in the faith and who accepted it gratefully. This I considered a great school of life and we remember those times fondly. We had fun even at work. We were, of course, constantly followed. Police interrogations were, especially at certain periods, fairly frequent. I underwent about fifteen of varying degrees of intensity, but thank God I have never been subjected to physical violence except when I was in prison in Prague in 1949...

Bishop Davidek’s underground church

The other part of the underground church of which Bishop Davidek was the leader, generally distrusted the clergy of the officially tolerated church, who, they feared, had made a pact with the devil for which the church as a whole must ultimately suffer. Davidek seems to have believed that some day the Kremlin would move in and carry off all the clergy to Siberia, as had happened in Russia in the 1920s. The Soviet invasion in 1968 confirmed these premonitions Davidek felt that security had been too lax in the early days of the underground church, with the result that the state knew too much about what was going on. So after 1968, Davidek set about ordaining bishops and priests in total secrecy, not even retaining documentary evidence of ordination. It is thought that he ordained about 600 priests and maybe a dozen, or even perhaps as many as twenty, bishops. Some of the latter were married men.

In retrospect, one can see some logic in Davidek’s distrust of a church which could merit communist acquiescence. The Stasi files show that he was right in thinking that the seminary was infiltrated by the secret police. And records show that some official priests collaborated with the government to the extent of denouncing fellow clergy.

A married clergy

Davidek ordained perhaps 200 or more married men to the priesthood. This was done legally through a loophole he made, or perhaps we should say found, in canon law. Slovakia had a Greek Uniate church, that is a Greek-rite church united with Rome. The Greeks of course permit married men to be ordained, so Davidek ordained men under the Uniate Greek rite as bi-ritual, that is able to say Mass in either the Greek or the Roman rite. There was an ancient tradition in parts of Slovakia for priests to say Mass if necessary in another rite so that Uniates and Romans could help each other. But as there were no Uniates in Davidek’s diocese the priests were in practice working only in the Roman rite. Whatever the theological and canonical niceties, ordaining married men made a lot of common sense. The secret police expected priests to be celibate, so married men were much less likely to arouse attention However, ordaining married men as bishops was a different matter. This would appear to be against both the Greek and the Roman tradition, both of whom require all bishops to be celibate.

Women priests

Two of the married men ordained bishops by Davidek were Jan Krett and Fridolin Zahradnik. Zahradnik said publicly at a press conference that Krett, then deceased, had ordained at least two women. We were told off the record that Davidek himself had ordained women, and that one of these was Ludmila Javorová, who is also said to have been Davidek’s wife! She denied both of these statements at the time we made the programme. What she did not deny, but rather found a source of pride, is that she was for many years Davidek’s Vicar General, and played a big part herself in recruiting priests for the underground church. Having a young woman as Vicar General was perhaps a typical Davidek move to throw the secret police off the scent. Establishing the facts about the alleged ordination of women was complicated by the fact that the enemies of this underground church, which includes strange bedfellows, would like to use the issue of women’s ordination to discredit it. Some of the underground priests believe that the secret police, for instance, encouraged talk about the ordination of women to damage the underground church in the eyes of Rome. Others believe that elements in Rome itself also use this allegation to weaken the credibility of the underground church. However, the issue came into clearer focus in November 1995 when the Tablet reported that Ms Javorová changed her story. Bishop Davidek, she now said, had held a Synod in 1970 which discussed the issue of women’s ordination, decided in favour, and shortly after he ordained the first women, including Ms Javorová herself. She also claimed to know the names and addresses of other women who were ordained.

A summary of Davidek’s policies

Davidek died in a Brno hospital in August 1988 aged 67. When he first set up his underground church, there were no bishops in circulation that he felt he could trust, and contact with the Vatican was at least difficult. The church faced a very determined regime whose clear intention was to wipe out religion in a generation or two. His plan for survival had much merit in the early days of the persecution. But then things changed and he did not take the changes into account. After 1968, for instance, communications with Rome became much easier, yet Davidek continued to run his affairs as if contact with Rome was still impossible.

The problems that remained after the Velvet Revolution in 1989

There are many aspects of Bishop Davidek’s underground church which the authorities in Rome found difficult to accept.

Distaste in Rome for married clergy

Rome doesn’t like married priests in a Catholic community. They tend to weaken the case against a married clergy, and Rome is very anxious for a number of different reasons to hold the line firmly on celibacy. Converted Protestant ministers are a special case and merit exceptional treatment, and don’t therefore pose a threat. Neither Rome nor Constantinople tolerate married bishops.

Secret ordinations

Bishop Davidek was undoubtedly what is sometimes called ‘a loose canon’. Even at a time when he could have opened channels with Rome, he neglected to do so, and went on ordaining priests and even bishops in the 1970s without reference to Roman authorities. Some too have questioned his balance or even his sanity - and therefore by implication the validity of his ordinations. His defenders however get very angry when any doubts are raised in this area.

Absence of paperwork

Officialdom likes paperwork to establish happenings and facts. Davidek ordained bishops and priests without drawing up papers to enshrine his actions because he deeply distrusted the communist state, and knew that papers could all too easily fall into the hands of the Stasi, and lead to harassment and imprisonment. The absence of records means that there are more priests and possibly bishops in the community who have not yet come forward, but have decided to wait and see what Rome is going to do - if anything - before declaring their hand. If Rome does not offer them what they consider an honourable and satisfactory future within the structure, they may well intend to remain in their jobs and keep hidden the fact that they were ever ordained. One professional married man with a good job and a comfortable income, whom we met, admitted to being a priest in the former underground church. Off the record others told us he was in fact a bishop, although I have never seen this mentioned in print.

Working outside the parish struture

Priests in the underground church were not integrated into a structure like a parish. They were worker priests, doing a normal job, and in the course of that job - as also in their leisure time - they pursued a pastoral ministry. In practice this made them very similar to the worker priests in France - who were condemned by Rome in 1954. This suppression was reaffirmed in 1959, but revoked by Paul VI in 1965, moved perhaps by the spirit of the Vatican Council. But the more conservative elements in the Vatican Curia, and, I believe, within the Czech hierarchy, are unsympathetic, to say the least, to the concept of worker priests. Some of these former underground priests would like to continue their ministry today outside any formal parish structure - partly because that is the way they are used to working, and partly because they genuinely believe that much re-evangelisation is necessary in their post-communist society, and re-evangelisation is less likely to happen within the normal parish.

Conditional re-ordination

When it comes to ordination, church authorities rightly want to exclude any doubts about validity. So once any doubt is introduced, Rome tends to look for conditional re-ordination, the condition being that ordination is only now intended if it wasn’t valid the first time. Men, however, who feel they know as a fact they were correctly ordained, and who for many years have practised as priest or bishop, get very resentful when the validity of their ministry is anyway challenged.

Poor information in Rome

When the church is persecuted in a country, some clergy stay with their flocks and some leave. Some of those who left Czechoslovakia ended up in Rome, in the Holy Office for instance, which has been taking the decisions, or not taking the decisions, about the position of those who stayed. People like Bishop Chytil feel very strongly that ‘shepherds who left the flock when the wolf came’ - to use his own words - should not be making decisions about those who remained.

The biological solution

The unsatisfactory limbo situation in which many of the former underground priests find themselves appears to continue. According to the Tablet of 5 August 1995, Josef Rabas, a Czech, and former professor of Pastoral Theology in Wurzburg, Germany, suggested publicly that the best solution for the problem of the clandestine clergy was to let them die out. One of the clandestine bishops, Jan Blaha, who now works as a secondary school teacher in Brno and as a priest at weekends, spoke out publicly for the first time, saying that although he knew Rabas’s views were shared by many, such a ‘biological solution’ was both unacceptable and defamatory, reminiscent of former communist thinking and terminology, and took no account of what the clergy in the underground church had suffered. The Tablet incidentally notes that, for whatever reason, Jan Blaha is the one and only clandestine bishop who has never been asked to sign a declaration renouncing his rights as a bishop - for instance the right to ordain, or use the title and insignia of a bishop.

The views of the underground clergy we interviewed

Dr Karel Chytil, the celebrant of the Mass we filmed, fled from Czechoslovakia to Italy when the Nazis came, and there he studied philosophy and theology. Later he made his way to England where he served for two years in the RAF. After the war he returned to study in Prague. Then came the communist coup which, with his history, ended any chance of a professional career in Czechoslovakia. He told us that he did all the most menial jobs imaginable under communism, but the one job which was forbidden to him was intellectual work. Chytil was consecrated as a bishop by Bishop Davidek in 1977. He began to weep when he spoke to us after Mass about his family.

I have a wife and two sons - but here again, an important point. True to the apostolic tradition, when I was consecrated I subsequently made the promise of celibacy (weeping). You understand. I came to an understanding with my wife that we should discontinue our married life. We would continue to live together, but not in marriage. And that is a great problem for the official church. When I tell them they smile a little, they cannot understand it, and yet it was quite common in apostolic times. Many bishops were married - take Gregory of Nazianzus. The bishop had a wife, had children. In Erfurt there is the tomb of a bishop, Saint Joachim. Next to him rests a holy woman, his wife, and next to them is buried their holy daughter. That was normal in the church and they simply won’t understand it.

Bishop Chytil finds it hard to accept that there should be a shortage of priests to undertake the ministry, and at the same time there are several hundred priests from the underground church wishing to re-assume their ministry and for one reason or another, find it impossible.

It is utterly incomprehensible to me - and here again I speak as a pastor - if I were faced with the dilemma of there being many believers with no priests to minister to them, and also of having at my disposal a group of priests, I would call them, even if they do not fulfil all the official requirements of the contemporary church - I would send them, even press them into service ...

He also argues that celibacy is a charism needing a special calling, different from priesthood. Whether or not one agrees with him, one senses that he is being unwise in propounding such arguments. This is what Rome fears most of all - that allowing married clergy to operate as if it were normal would be the thin end of the wedge which would weaken the hold on celibacy.

Frequently, celibacy is considered a precondition for priesthood. This is in contradiction to the gospels. The apostles once asked Jesus whether it was admissible to repudiate a wife, and he said ‘No’. On this subject he also says that if a man takes another wife, a divorced woman, or even if he looks at a woman with lust, he is guilty of adultery. And the apostles tell him, if such is the relationship between man and woman it is better not to get married. And Jesus replies, ‘Not everybody understands this. Only those to whom it has been given’. So Christ is saying that a special calling is needed even for celibacy which is understood only by those to whom it has been given. And that’s why I believe that there is a great misunderstanding between the church at present and Christ, in so far as the church requires celibacy as an absolute precondition of priesthood. That contradicts Christ. I must have a calling for celibacy, and if it has not been given me, then these are things I do not understand ...

Sometimes it is suggested to us that the church could adopt the so called Anglican solution. Like those married Anglican priests who have joined the Catholic church and receive a dispensation which allows them to serve as Catholic priests. This is not a good solution. We are not asking for a dispensation. We wish the church to accept the validity of the two ways to God - the way of marriage and the celibate way. They are two ways to God, both willed by God, both requiring a special divine calling.

Bishop Chytil was consecrated by Bishop Davidek. He gets angry when he thinks of all the attempts to malign Davidek. He himself took pains to investigate Davidek’s credentials.

I am the only one who has known Bishop Davídek such as he really was before God. I was an intimate friend of his at a time when all the others had scorned him. Suddenly in 1982 we received a circular letter from the official church casting doubt on Bishop Davidek, saying that he was a dubious priest illegitimately passing himself off as bishop. I was appointed by our community to find out whether he was competent to ordain priests. I visited him in 1982 and established that he was a properly consecrated bishop with the apostolic succession. And I recommended to my superior to contact Archbishop Meisner of Berlin who already, even in those days of communism, paid regular visits to the Vatican as a close friend of the present Pope. I suggested that he should make enquiries in Rome. We have nothing - all that I have is God’s calling but no piece of paper. To keep a documentary proof of my being a priest or a bishop was very dangerous. For me it would have meant prison, and prison for the whole family because in my case they would not only have jailed me, they would have jailed my wife and destroyed my children. So everything was done on the basis of trust. But to get back to Bishop Davidek: Archbishop Meisner happened to be going to Rome and he came back with the information that Bishop Davidek was listed as a bishop in the Vatican yearbook. There could not have been a more conclusive proof - from the Vatican itself! There were other proofs, but at the time this one was decisive for us. It was not all the same to us whether we were ordained by an illegitimate bishop, we wanted to know. I used to say, ‘I don’t care about the permission for my ordination, but I do care about its validity’. Because here, practically nothing was permitted. But I wanted to be a valid priest before God. And we were told that he figures as bishop in the papal yearbook. And by the way, this is typical of the Vatican diplomacy. They would print in the Vatican yearbook a piece of information that for us was a matter of life and death and yet everybody knew that the first people to read it would be the secret police!

Fr Vaclav Ventura

One of the priests at the Mass, Fr Vaclav Ventura, was of the opinion that the problems of the underground church began when the Vatican and the Czech communist government began talking in the early 70s:

Suddenly problems started when the Vatican, represented by Archbishop Casaroli began co-operating with our communist government. And we have to ask why? Much information must be contained in the archives of the Communist Party’s Central Committee. The then boss of their Department for Religious Affairs, a man by the name of Cinódr, laid down a precondition for the negotiations with the Vatican which was mainly about the appointment of bishops. This precondition was the banning and suppression of the underground church. And of course, it was difficult for the state security and for the communists to define what that underground church was. So they concentrated on the group around Bishop Davidek. And from that moment in the negotiations between the communists and the Vatican, the problems for the underground church began.

Of course they then invented the worst slander about the person of Bishop Davidek and his activities, typical state security slander - that he is a fraud, that he is mentally unbalanced, that he is an agent of state security - none of which was true.

Fr Jiri Kvapil, forbidden to work as a priest

The poignant situation of the undergound priests who now find themselves out of a job is perhaps best illustrated by one of the married priests, Fr Jiri Kvapil:

I worked a lot with children and young people, teenagers, and with a community of married people. The bishop has now forbidden me to undertake these activities without giving me any reason - and the new generations of young children are not being given all the spiritual attention they require. And as for the community of married people, I am not allowed to help them either. I would not mind if the bishops here would allow me to soldier on as I did before - not very much in the open. Nobody needs to know. One meets in daily life so many people who are unhappy, needy, looking for something - which offers priests a special opportunity to serve.

Fr Stejkozová, unemployed, married with seven children

Fr Stejkozová was a married man when he was encouraged to become a priest by the present Cardinal Archbishop of Prague, Miloslav Vlk, then parish priest in Rozmitál. He seems to believe finance is a critical problem.

In the meantime, while I was preparing myself for priesthood, five children were born to me and my wife, and Bishop Davidek ordained me according to the Eastern Rite. I was active as a secret priest for ten years. In 1989 I reported to Archbishop Vlk with a petition to be integrated into the work of the church, according to whatever was possible. But the Archdiocese of Prague has no conception, no scheme for using ordained and married men and I would sum it up in one word - the reasons are financial. ‘We are unable to secure the livelihood of a family, of a priest who has children, so as to enable him to carry on as a priest.’ That is the root of the problem.

Mrs Stejkozová was present at the Mass with three of their children. She helped to bring home to us the fact that when a man accepted ordination under communism, the whole family risked their future in the same way as he did.

I had to agree to my husband’s ordination and I was aware all along what it meant. The whole family was involved in that service, risking even physical liquidation. He had a job, and had many pupils, people he taught, formed spiritually and all that, which meant involving the whole family - we have seven children altogether.

Now, after long years, I myself have taken up a job and the situation in the family has been reversed in a way - my husband is at home, unemployed, and I go out to work. But I am grateful to the Lord - even now I view my work as service. I am a social worker in a prison for violent juvenile delinquents, age fifteen to eighteen. But it pains me to see that there are people who need spiritual guidance and that others are being shamefully prevented from giving them that guidance.

Dr Jan Konzal, married priest, engineer, vehemently opposes conditional re-ordination

Dr Jan Konzal is a telecommunications engineer with a degree in cybernetics. He has a good job, with international travel involved. He talked about his time as a secret priest.

We defined our task as private pastoral care for people who for one reason or another cannot publicly go to church. Either because they were afraid for their jobs, or because the public church is not their cup of tea. There’s no point in arguing with them whether this is right or wrong, they simply won’t enter a church. They thirsted for the gospel, they longed to live among Christians, so we tried to mediate the possibility for them to get there unofficially, somehow.

I think that our form of pastoral care is still needed in the church, as one of many. Not as the only one, but one of many. And I think that it would be a pity to throw away the experience we have gained, often at a considerable cost to ourselves, and by trial and error. That is our main argument why we should be taken seriously. I think that the church, for its own good, should be able to reach people who are unconventional, and whose numbers are ever growing. For instance in my place of work, among the several hundred of my colleagues only perhaps two find it acceptable to go to church. And yet these are first rate people.

As a married man, Konzal was ordained according to the Eastern Rite, but expected to be transfered to the Roman Rite.

The transfer to the Roman Rite was done merely verbally and with the promise that the then bishop, Jan Hirko, would arrange for us to be given the appropriate documents should circumstances ever permit it. After 1989, we asked him to do this. He received the lists of names and took them to Rome. He subsequently told us he wanted to prepare the documents for this transfer, but it was forbidden him in Rome, so he returned home and has had no more dealings with us.

Dr Konzal spoke of the conditions put to him for resumption of his priesthood.

Formally the conditions are two - to undergo a theological examination, which presents no problem for us, speaking in all modesty. And they have no doubts in this respect, which is why they entrusted us with running various theological courses. The second condition, which presents an insurmountable obstacle to me and my friends, is re-ordination. Because we have not been released from the bond of the diocese. It is unfair. And so I cannot accept this condition. Can not!

Some others did accept this condition - how many it is difficult to say. Our Ordinarius, who is celibate and recognised as bishop although not allowed to function as such, has a list of about 160 priests secretly ordained. Of these about one third seek service in the public church. A good third would like to be active in the non-public pastoral care, incognito, till the moment when the person concerned feels the need to receive a sacrament - this may take six months, a year or may never happen. Such people need friends rather than a service. And the final third have taken up a wait-and-see position and I do not know what they think.

According to Dr Konzal, the Vatican offered two options:

The Vatican offered two alternatives to the Czech Bishops’ Conference. One was a Secular Institute - this we would have preferred because we believe that this form of pastoral care should not become extinct, and we need fresh blood. But the Conference accepted the second alternative which requires priests to become integrated in the parish structure, the structure of the public church. At the same time I have heard many a bishop say, ‘But we want you precisely as you are!’ So that is the big dilemma of the Bishops’ Conference - some of the bishops are adamant in insisting on the classical form of pastoral care and will not permit any exceptions.

Fr Jaroslav Duka, OP

Fr Jaroslav Duka is Provincial of the Dominican order, and became friendly with President Havel when they were both in Pilsen prison together. He is highly respected, and influential in affairs of both church and state, and anxious to help resolve the problems of the former undergound bishops and priests, but even he did not seem to be able to make much progress.

We must not forget that we have not always been sufficiently strict with those who, as collaborators with the communist regime, had discredited the church. And now those other people who had really suffered for the church sometimes tend to be viewed as if they had done her harm. That is not a good solution. I have personally discussed it more than once with Archbishop Vlk and once with Cardinal Ratzinger - they have promised that a solution acceptable to both sides will be found. But it is a fact that the question has been complicated not only by the excessive caution of the Vatican negotiators but also by the excessive zeal or lack of caution of some members of the Bishop Davidek group.

The present situation

And so the talk goes on and on. But even now, in the spring of 1996, my information is that little has changed. It is the kind of problem that a Pope with humanity and flexibility like Paul VI would sort out in no time - just like he sorted out the French Worker Priests. But the present powers-that-be in Rome are not of that ilk. However if blame is to be attached for this sad situation, some of it must rest with the local hierarchy and it’s leadership. As Dr Konzal mentioned, Cardinal Ratzinger did propose the option of forming a Secular Institute to the Bishops’ Conference. Such an institute would have a certain independence which would permit it to incorporate different kinds of ministry and would have been acceptable to many of the former underground priests. Unfortunately the Bishops’ Conference - especially, it is said, the Slovak bishops - showed no enthusiasm for this solution. For them it is integration in the parish structure of the public church or nothing. So, if I had to guess what will happen, I would say on the evidence so far, very little, and that many of the bishops and priests of the former underground church - and particularly the married men - will be let die off in a terrestrial limbo, their offer of service spurned and rejected. But nothing would make me happier than to be proved wrong!

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Six options for Catholic women who feel called to the priesthood?

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