Czech cardinal: Coronavirus crisis is drawing people to the Catholic Church

DkD_u_stolu_v_saku Cardinal Dominik Duka. Photo credits: Archdiocese of Prague.

The coronavirus pandemic has inspired many people in the Czech Republic to rediscover the Catholic Church, according to Cardinal Dominik Duka.

In an email interview with CNA, the archbishop of Prague said that when the coronavirus crisis struck, the Czech population responded with expressions of solidarity not seen since the Velvet Revolution of 1989.

He also credited young priests with showing creativity when faced with tight restrictions on attendance at Masses. 

Duka was appointed to lead the Catholic Church in the Czech capital by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010. He brought a remarkable personal history with him.

After his ordination as a Dominican priest in 1970, he clashed with the communist government of Czechoslovakia. In 1975, the authorities withdrew his authorization to serve as a cleric, so he worked in a Škoda factory while continuing to minister in secret. 

When his priestly activities were discovered, along with his role in publishing dissident literature, he was sent to Bory Prison in Plzeň, where fellow inmates included future Czech President Václav Havel. Duka celebrated Mass for the prisoners under the guise of a chess club. 

Now 77, he recently hit the headlines when his Twitter account was suspended. When it was reactivated, he compared today's online censorship with that of communist times.

In the interview, he took issue with the common description of the Czech Republic as one of the world's least religious nations and spoke about an extraordinary flowering of the Church in past 30 years. 

You can read the full CNA interview with Cardinal Dominik Duka below: 

Do you think the coronavirus crisis will leave the Church in Prague stronger or weaker?

The atmosphere of the coronavirus crisis is getting somehow prolonged. In its first spring phase, the crisis created a similar atmosphere as we know it too well from the time of the Velvet Revolution that happened 30 years ago, in which various social and political components got interconnected in order to cooperate with each other. And with this, I do not mean only the enthusiasm with which people embarked on domestic production of hygiene needs, such as masks made of fabric, disinfectants, but also the willingness with which society helped the elderly and others who needed their help. Regular communities, theologians, and individual facilities like Caritas Czech Republic were also significantly involved in the assistance provided. In addition to the help that was needed, they also organized hospital visits so that people have access to some spiritual care and the sacraments in this difficult situation as well.

Our churches remained open to the public, but the number of worshipers was severely limited. Young priests came up with a lot of ways to transfer services to the web and social networks, and should be praised a lot for that. Some of them also began to create video pastoral programs. We truly entered a new online environment that can complement our spiritual lives, but not fully replacing it, because the tabernacle with the Holy Communion in the name of Christ remains the central and pivotal moment of our faith, regardless of the virus crisis.

Later, of course, the feeling of solidarity subsided, the political representation returned to its traditional pitfalls, but I still have to say that I felt a lot of good energy from that wave of rising solidarity, which tells me that if we want, we can be very cohesive as a nation.

Would you say that Czechs became more interested in spiritual life in this time of crisis?

The effects of coronavirus are definitely not only about [bodily] health, but also about its psychological effects on people. Here, experts state that this situation creates a kind of helplessness in people, but also the loss of the meaning of the world, the meaning of society, and then of the individual. On one hand, we can perceive this as a danger but, on the other hand, as a Church, we must see space to be addressed, to offer the Good News.

The Church could attenuate this whole experience the moment we become accustomed to a limited regime, or if we replace the Eucharist with spiritual lectures, as is happening now everywhere. In a way, I must say that many people have found contact with the Church and worship, many even after decades of disinterest. I also saw a greater interest in a common family religious life, such as family prayer, common catechesis, and an interest in Christianity in general. So I am optimistic in this regard.

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The Czech Republic is sometimes described as one of the world's least religious countries. Do you agree with that description?

I personally consider these statistics to be very inaccurate or biased. It is true that in the Czech nation there is historically a high level of distrust in any institution, not only the religious ones. This is due to the Nazi and communist occupations of the country.

The number of baptized people has decreased by about 35% since the beginning of the century, but this is a consequence of other phenomena than the said communist atheism. Between the wars, a national church was formed, which is now almost extinct. After World War II, we lost almost three million German-speaking people as a result of war losses and subsequent population transfers. Further migrations followed the communist coup in 1948 and the invasion of Warsaw Pact troops in the year 1968. Intense atheization of society, coupled with a certain bullying of believers, imprisonment of clergy, and violent re-education in schools, also definitely played a role in excluding religious life from the society.

Now I see that we have built dozens of new churches and spiritual centers, and several hundred chapels in the last three decades. The Church has been accepted as part of the academic environment, it is admitted into healthcare, primary education, the army, and prisons.

The Marian Column returned to Prague's main square, which was torn down by the crowd as a supposed symbol of Austrian Catholicism at the founding of the republic more than a hundred years ago, and its restoration was met with a favorable reaction from the society. At a time when similar religious monuments around the world are being programmatically destroyed, this is a real uniqueness. All this only confirms to me that we are not an atheistic country in the true sense of the word, that we cannot claim our country to be atheistic in the sense of the word a-theos, that is, against God.

What do you think is the best way to evangelize highly secular societies?

Our main task was and remains pastoral care and evangelization. Here, too, we should be well aware that society is in constant motion and that we must reflect on our activities in order to be on the level of time. We cannot offer formulas to today's man. We must do evangelism in a spirit of deep humility and an invitation to dialogue. Let's discuss, let's talk, let's look.

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The principles of the Gospel that we proclaim are also the principles of our civilization, which grew out of ancient Jewish heritage, but which was also enriched by Germanic, Celtic and Slavic influence. The new technologies -- microphones, phones, televisions, the internet and others that today's times have to offer -- must be used, but also with caution. Let us not encourage propaganda and ultimate expressions. These are just elements of the time that we need to address society so that it can somehow understand us. The new is not the essence, but the approach in reality is.

In a secularized society, we then face the question of how, on the one hand, not to sell off all the values we have and, on the other hand, not to close ourselves and say that culture ended in the 17th or 18th century. We are in the 21st century, in the middle of globalization. And so not only the Catholic Church but also the whole Christian world has to rethink how to share the message of Christ to the future generations. 

At the same time, we should also realize that Christianity is not a declining religion. This may seem to be reality to us in Europe, but it is not the reality worldwide, as the number of Christians has almost doubled in the last century. Today, European Catholics make up only a quarter of the Catholic Church, and the Church's focus shifts to the countries of the so-called Third World, i.e. Asia, Africa, and South America.

Your Twitter account was suspended recently. When it was reactivated, you drew a comparison between online censorship today and communist repression in the 1980s. Do you consider tech censorship a serious threat to Christians?

I consider freedom of speech to be one of the basic pillars of real democracy. But censorship is not just a matter of communist time of repressive normalization or undemocratic regimes. It doesn't even come to us from abroad. Nevertheless, we see it today and every day in the form of self-censorship, hidden behind correctness. It is also a question of choosing partners to debate, avoiding certain topics. We are prevented from speaking on certain topics, or we can speak, but then a media lynch follows, embarrassing, refuting, and ridiculing the spoken, or even the speaker. I have experienced that certain Christian themes are excluded from society, such as the protection of human life or the traditional family as the union of man and woman. Or let's ask who is the most persecuted group in the world and only those who deal with this topic will give you answers.

I see the whole problem in the tendency to relativize values. According to this thesis, the truth does not exist, that is, apart from the truth of those who believe that whoever does not sing a song according to their melody should be silenced, because they cannot be right. Subsequently, the person receives a sticker to make it clear that it is not appropriate to talk to people with similar views. At the same time, it should serve as a warning to others. In this regard, I perceive the concentration of media power to several technology companies as a threat. As a result, we will stop looking for the truth, because it will be given to us. However, not as a result of Revelation, the encounter of God with Man, and long centuries of contemplation and discussion of its content, but the ill-considered decision of corporate management.

Is there anything that is happening in the Church in Prague that you would like to share with other parts of the Catholic world?

I would like to tell the Catholic world not to be afraid of its tradition. We have a certain part of the Christian faith that we must agree on, whether we are in Southeast Asia, South America or Europe. At the same time, however, each country has its own specifics, its culture and traditions growing out of it. To this day, I have in my heart a pilgrimage to Mexico to the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe and a song that reads "Guadalupana era Mexicana, Mexicana."

We in the Czech Republic have recently managed to restore some ancient pilgrimages, whether I mention Navalis in honor of St. John of Nepomuk, or a pilgrimage to the national patron, St. Wenceslas, in which the office of the President of the Czech Republic also participates, or the return of the Marian Column on [Prague's] Old Town Square. In that all is the strength of our faith and real hope for the future. Christian values are universal and take shape when the people identify with them. 

I would like to wish all the readers of the Catholic News Agency a blessed experience regarding the rest of the Advent season, the Christmas joy of a newborn baby named Yeshua, translated as the one that is our salvation and our future. Let us remember this promise of God, especially in the coming year of 2021, which will be marked by our common struggle against a tiny microorganism, originating from somewhere in distant China, but which has managed to overturn everything we have until recently considered to be certain in our society.

In a newborn baby, little Jesus, we gain the hope that our Heavenly Father will never leave us. So let us look beyond the horizon of 2021, which will be -- true -- the year of the accumulation of damage after the deadly epidemic of coronavirus, but at the same time, it can also be an impulse for our society to ask why this all had to happen. Weren't we as humanity too proud and confident? Have we not pushed God out of our lives? Have we not forgotten the source of Love, solidarity, and mutual respect? In the coming year, we will certainly have enough time to allow everyone to answer these questions honestly.

The full text of Cardinal Duka's interview in Czech can be found here

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