e-mail us
Cardinal’s live shaped by Slovakia’s troubles

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Nitra, Slovakia

In a high-ceilinged room, bedecked with potted plants and Persian carpets, a silver-haired priest gazes into the distance from behind his oak-paneled desk. Windows look out through tangled branches over a walled courtyard and on across a fog-damp landscape of uneven roofs and alleyways.

From the safety of his hilltop fastness overlooking this Slovak city, Cardinal Ján Chryzostom Korec reflects on the twists and turns of his remarkable life.

Secretly consecrated as the world’s youngest bishop half a century ago, Korec was jailed and harassed under communism, before being made a cardinal and showered with belated honors.

Few East European Catholics are better qualified than Korec, 75, to judge the changes in the decade since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, signaling the end of the communist era. He sees multiple challenges, from carving out a public role for the church to dealing with the historical ghosts that five decades of communist oppression had kept at bay.

Born into a Slovakian worker family in 1924, Korec joined the Jesuits in 1939. He was ordained underground in 1950 as Klement Gottwald’s ruling communists declared war on the Catholic church.

“The regime launched a frontal assault,” Korec said. “It liquidated diocesan seminaries, publishing houses, associations and schools, arresting bishops and harassing laypeople. These were humiliating, demeaning times.”

A secret bishop

Korec was just 27 when he was secretly made a bishop on Aug. 24, 1951, by a special dispensation from Pope Pius XII. The exceptional gesture was designed to provide for church leadership if other bishops were killed or jailed. The consecrating bishop, Pavol Hnilica, a fellow Jesuit who fled abroad later the same year, was said to have faked illness to gain access to the hospital where Korec was lying sick.

Since the state refused him the license it required priests to possess, Korec had to minister secretly. His official job was as a manual laborer at a chemical factory in the capital, Bratislava.

In 1959 he was arrested and sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment. He’d served eight when the 1968 Prague Spring reform movement brought him exoneration, and he was allowed to go to Rome to receive his episcopal insignia from Paul VI.

Once back, he worked as a hospital chaplain until 1973, when the new hard-line regime barred him from priestly duties again. He then went back to ministering in secret, while working as an elevator repairman.

Korec’s prefab apartment in Bratislava’s industrial suburb was watched and bugged by the secret police. But he calculates he received 60,000 visitors over two decades anyway. He also wrote over 60 samizdat, or “underground,” books and ordained 120 priests. For the better part of two decades, Korec faced constant harassment because of his refusal to go along with the regime’s religious policies.

The Polish pope

The 1978 election of a Polish pope changed the atmosphere. By 1989, visitors to Slovakia were routinely referred to Korec as the only church leader untainted by collaboration. Though some dissidents faded into obscurity when communist rule collapsed, Korec successfully made the switch from underground to aboveground life.

Under Korec’s leadership, recovery came to the Slovak church. The local seminary was reopened, monastic orders revived, books and newspapers printed. Korec set about dedicating the first of 50 new churches.

For all the progress, the Jesuit cardinal admits he’s deeply dissatisfied.

No one foresaw, he said, the “flood of bad influences” that would engulf Slovakia as post-communist consumer mentalities took root.

“Freedom, however vulnerable and imperfect, is a thousand times better than slavery. This has been our crucial experience since the fall of communism,” Korec told NCR.

“Yet freedom has also opened the way to evil, demoralizing tendencies. The liberty of the individual has been foolishly overemphasized, transposed into a morality without limits. People have surrendered to egoism, to the urge for ruthless enrichment.”

To this, Korec adds “superficiality” in religious life and the lack of progress over a promised concordat with the Vatican, as well as the failure of Slovak Christians to “find their voice” in politics.

“Many people, non-believers included, were struck by the tenacity of Christians in resisting communism -- often at the cost of their freedom, sometimes at the cost of their lives. So it was widely expected they would be the ones who came up with initiatives for creating a just and healthy life,” Korec said.

“But we’ve been left behind, as believers, largely because of our own disunity. After four decades of enforced atheism, we’ve lost our sense of what the common good and the conscience really mean.”

There are other sources of resentment.

One is domination by the neighboring Czechs, from whom Slovaks separated to form their own state in January 1993.

In 1990, three-quarters of Slovakia’s 5 million inhabitants declared themselves Christians, he points out. By contrast, atheists made up more than half the population in the Czech lands and were particularly assertive among the professions.

“They would have smothered us,” is Korec’s verdict.

“We have friendly contacts with the Czech church and we’re ready to help it. But their atheists would have done more damage here than anyone else.”

The same goes for Slovakia’s ill-fated six years of Nazi-dominated independence during World War II, when its president was a Catholic priest, Fr. Josef Tiso.

Tiso led Slovakia from 1938 to 1944, when most of its Jewish minority was wiped out in Hitler’s concentration camps. Repatriated from nearby Austria at the war’s end by U.S. troops, Tiso was hanged for war crimes on April 18, 1947.

Debate over Tiso

Since Tiso was a priest from the Nitra diocese, Korec feels responsible for clearing Tiso’s name. Korec believes Tiso, far from being a war criminal, fell victim to “impossible circumstances” and has since had his role obscured by a conspiracy of silence.

“Slovakia had to become independent. Hitler gave it no choice, after threatening to have it divided up,” Korec said, his voice growing tense.

Though 250 death sentences were carried out in Slovakia under communist leaders from 1949 to ’53, the cardinal claims, Tiso didn’t sign any death sentences during the war and enraged Berlin by issuing 30,000 exemptions to Jews facing deportation.

Korec said the priest’s execution was a profound injustice. And in 1997, Korec made his point by celebrating a memorial Mass on the 50th anniversary of Tiso’s death.

Not all Slovaks approve.

“Tiso’s Slovak republic used the principle of common ‘racist responsibility’ toward Jews. Unlike other Nazi-occupied states, it did nothing to stop this minority’s physical liquidation,” said Slovak historian Ivo Samson.

“Nor is it even possible to claim that the republic accepted this reluctantly by bowing to Hitler’s pressure. Just the opposite -- it played an active role in these actions.”

Korec sees the record differently. He thinks the conspiracy of silence extends further, into a general imbalance in attitudes to Nazi and communist crimes.

Both used “satanic methods” to persecute the church, Korec points out. But whereas Nazism lasted just six years, communism endured for four decades. Its “subtle cruelty” recalled the potestas tenebrarum, or “power of darkness,” spoken of by St. Paul, Korec said.

“I’m not justifying Nazi crimes: But why is no one talking about the much more extensive brutalities perpetrated under communism, when I myself did the rounds of prisons and factories?” Korec continued. “The communists’ deliberate devastation of the church represented a ferocious battle of evil against God’s work.”

Come what may, Korec looks set to soldier on.

He remembers how he used to joke with the martyred Bishop Jan Vojtassak (1877-1965), now a candidate for beatification, about how they would still be serving jail terms when dead. He remembers a nun, Zdenka Schelingova (1916-1955), who died after being imprisoned, hanged naked and beaten, and how his own brother’s teeth were knocked out during interrogation in 1950, the year of his ordination.

Christian experiences under communism, the Jesuit cardinal believes, should be preserved as a “family treasure of the entire church.”

“Those who cannot put themselves in our shoes will never have a true picture of communism,” Korec said, “nor of the strength and holiness of the church.”

National Catholic Reporter, December 17, 1999