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Summer Books

Ordained a priest in a catacombs church


By Miriam Therese Winter
Crossroad Publishing, 172 pages, $19.95


In this slim volume, Miriam Therese Winter depicts Ludmila Javorova as an extraordinary and courageous woman. Winter carefully unfolds the times and the secret Javorova lived with for 30 years: her ordination into the Roman Catholic priesthood.

Born into a fervent Catholic family on 31 January 1932, Javorova -- the fifth of Frantisek Javora and Javorova Vrlova’s 10 children -- grew up in Brno, a city 120 miles southeast of Prague. The family also included a sympathetic blind aunt who lived with them in the half of the house that they shared with another family. All 20 members of the two families remained in that house until the end of World War II.

Regular attendance at Mass in the parish church and evening prayer in the home helped form Javorova and her eight brothers and one sister in the faith. Their close-knit family inspired great love and respect for one another. Winter writes, “The parents formed a partnership that was a model for their children. ‘I felt secure in my mother’s faith and in her simple trust,’ says Javorova. ‘My father deepened my thirst for knowledge. Those formative years sowed the seeds I would harvest for a lifetime.’ ”

During these tender years, she felt inclined toward the priesthood, although she never allowed herself to presume a call.

Life during the war years had robbed children of a sense of personal security and freedom: “When Javorova was a child she was afraid of the war, afraid of the bombs, afraid of losing the ones she loved,” writes Winter. Food was scarce, and “the sound of exploding shrapnel could be heard throughout the greater part of Javorova’s formative years.” The Germans held Russian captives in the half of her school that functioned as a prison: “This site,” says the author, “was chosen intentionally to use the children as shields.”

It proved to be more an incentive than a deterrent, because they often bombed the school. In these grim circumstances, friends, neighbors, family and an abiding faith in God provided the only hope.

One such friend and neighbor, Felix Davidek, would change the course of Javorova’s life. Eleven years her senior, Felix aspired to be a missionary after his ordination as a Roman Catholic priest in 1945, the year World War II ended. During his seminary years, he developed a friendship with Javorova’s father and brothers and made their house his second home. Felix’s quick mind and voracious appetite for learning enabled him to become competent in many areas, including medicine, politics and theology.

Javorova admired him for his intelligence as well as his inner freedom: “Felix Maria Davidek,” Javorova said, “was truly not typical -- a free spirit, spontaneous, unpredictable, with a charismatic zest for life. He intended to live out his priesthood independently, in his own way. It was really of no concern to him if what he felt was worth doing had never been done before.” As a Catholic bishop he certainly would do something no one, as far as is known, had ever done before: ordain a woman -- Javorova.

Meanwhile, Javorova’s own spiritual life flourished. She made her first retreat at the age of 15. “From that moment on my spiritual life really began to develop. I was completely absorbed in it. I felt a flame burning deep within.” She felt a call to enter the convent, but her mother refused to allow it.

By 1948, Czechoslovakia was firmly under communist control. One outcome, in Winter’s words, “was the relentless and brutal persecution of the church. All denominations suffered. The Roman Catholic church, with its tightly woven infrastructure and opposing philosophy, was a prime objective for the communist regime.” Religious life, however, established itself underground.

Undaunted by the governmental control, Felix founded the Atheneum, an underground university that functioned from 1948-1950. Following its demise, he was arrested by the secret police but managed to escape before they could incarcerate him. Shortly after, however, he was arrested again, detained for 11 months in a maximum security prison and sentenced to prison for 24 years for “plotting against the state to undermine its educational system, with founding the university where Davidek trained students to turn against the state, and with conspiracy.” News of his fate devastated his family, friends, and parishioners.

By this time Javorova herself was under surveillance. Winter notes that “her father was a political activist, who was known to disagree with the state. Her brothers were considered troublemakers. They too had to be watched. They were friends with certain people, for instance, Davidek, and others already in prison, and they were deeply religious.” It would be a long time before Javorova and Felix would work together.

In the meantime, moving from one meaningless job to another and always thirsting to deepen her relationship with God, Javorova never found an acceptable relationship with a man or a convent that would suit her. “From the moment of her spiritual awakening,” writes Winter, “she could feel the force of a direction but lacked a destination.” Javorova commented to Winter that “women had very few spiritual opportunities before 1965. We were not considered independent.” Her unsatiated restlessness grew.

After 14 years in prison, Davidek was finally released. Upon reaching Brno, life for his friends and family changed abruptly. Javorova and Davidek embarked upon a partnership to prepare a small group that included Javorova for ordination as underground priests. This was a dangerous life, a modern version of the catacombs church with communists instead of Romans.

For Davidek and other priests, contact with each other, with those outside the country, with Rome, bordered on the impossible. Travel was restricted, everyone was watched. Davidek and those who saw to it he was ordained bishop, and worked with him, had to make serious decisions if they wanted to keep the church alive in Czechoslovakia.

Always living on the edge, for “the surveillance of Felix by the secret police never ended,” Jovorova reported. Davidek began to teach Javorova and others the subjects essential to ordination. His and Javorova’s partnership would last until his death.

Davidek, in a group he called Koinotes, meaning community, when possible conducted evening seminars for future priests of the underground and others in his small room, or wherever else he could, while he remained on the run. Ever interested in politics, “every seminar began with Mass [followed by] an analysis of the political situation and also the situation of the church all over the world,” Winter writes. While the participants learned from Davidek, Javorova “was responsible for all organizational aspects of the seminars, their setup and implementation, the facilitation of the sessions and issues of security.”

Other women participated in these seminars as well. The goal, Javorova told Winter, was to become “a community of believers, a genuine koinonia, which he called the local church.”

Naturally, those bound for ordained ministry had to be ordained by a bishop beyond the group who was willing to take the risk. It became clear that Koinotes needed its own bishop. Davidek was consecrated in secret on Oct. 27, 1967, by Bishop Jan Blaha. As a bishop, Davidek’s talk of ordaining Javorova split Koinotes apart.

Javorova recalls, “I had entered into the Koinotes fellowship with my whole being, because I could not do it any other way. When it split because of me, a woman, that was such a blow to me.” She had to live her life as a priest in secret. “Felix told her not to talk about her ordination, so she did not tell anyone, which meant she could not practice her priesthood openly, even within Koinotes,” Winter writes.

Although Javorova experienced intense pain and loneliness as a result of this imposed silence, she knew that her priestly identity remained permanent: “Once I lay claim to my identity as a priest, I could not be separated from it. Just like in motherhood, that connection is forever,” she told Winter.

Winter tells simply how Javorova, who never received permission to function as a priest in public, suffered rejection at the hands of the other priests. “Sometimes I concelebrated with other members of Koinotes who knew about my priesthood and supported me. I have never understood why not one of them ever invited me to preside.”

Her beloved Davidek died Aug. 16, 1988, and the communist regime fell in 1989, thus ending the need for an underground church. The decades of war, fear, and secrecy that formed Javorova and fostered her vocation to the priesthood drew to a close.

Since then, Javorova has respected the right of the Vatican to refuse her faculties, while never abandoning the reality of her ordained ministry. Winter’s sensitive telling leaves the reader admiring the author as well as the priest. The book grows in power as its story of human triumphs and struggles is laid bare in a compelling way. There is much tension in this tightly told account. I highly recommend it.

Moni McIntyre is assistant professor in the Graduate Center for Social and Public Policy at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. A former Roman Catholic, McIntyre is a priest in the Episcopal church. Her most recent book is Light Burdens, Heavy Blessings (Franciscan 2000), co-edited with School Sister of Notre Dame Mary Heather MacKinnon and Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Mary Ellen Sheehan.

National Catholic Reporter, May 11, 2001