A Short Sigh of Relief



After the end of World War II, Jesuit activity in Czechoslovakia began in earnest once more. The residency at St. Ignatius was given back, but the college in Benešov near Prague and the building of the Archbishop’s Grammar School, with the hall of residence, in Prague-Bubeneč, were not. The Czech Province received back the houses and works in Bohosudov and Děčín and the retreat house under process of construction in Podmokly. In Moravia, Czech Jesuits were given back the residence in Opava. The houses in Doupov and Český Těšín remained unrestored because of a lack of members.

After provisionally functioning in Velehrad and in Brno, a place for the Philosophical Institute was found in Děčín. In Velehrad and Bohosudov the grammar schools with the halls of residence were re-established. The Czech Grammar School, with the hall of residence, in Prague-Bubeneč, was replaced by the grammar school in Bohosudov. The Society again took over the grammar school with the hall of residence in Brno, which was built by the Brno diocese. The press apostolate was renewed. Jesuits provided editors for “Katolík” (The Catholic), a weekly periodical for more discerning Christians, and for “Rozsévač” (The Sower), a weekly aimed at more typical worshippers. The Province again began to publish the periodicals “Posel Božského Srdce Páně,” “Ve službách Královny,” “Hlasy svatohostýnské,” and “Velehradské zprávy.” The Marian Sodalities started up too. The Jesuits also began to give spiritual retreats at Velehrad and at St. Hostýn. The priests of the Province carried out many popular missions in the country parishes. The increasing number of people finding vocations both in the priesthood and for life in the fraternity was also hopeful. All these activities were headed and inspired by a new young Father Provincial, František Šilhan, who took on this role in 1945.

In 1946 the communists seized parliamentary power through an election that surprised the whole nation. Already in 1947 the government had on its programme the banning of all church schools, but at this time nothing was done to put it into force.

But there were signs that a new totalitarianism was just around the corner and that the dominance, even the dictatorship of the proletariat would soon begin. This happened by means of a putsch on 25 February 1948. This day became a painful date not only in the history of the Czech nation, but also in the history of the Church and the Society of Jesus.

After this brief history of the life and work of the Jesuits in the Czech regions we are coming to the period of persecution under communist totalitarianism. It was a time of violence which affected human lives inhumanly and cruelly. It was a period when the Communist Party, and the Czechoslovak government headed by it, did not reject violence, leading even to death and ruining the lives of many people, especially intellectuals. It was a period notable for the existence of mindless people in the Security Services, who were, on the other hand, obedient party members. These people followed party instructions and treated prisoners in ways which deprived them of any human dignity. By means of physical and psychological violence, and by other means which are not common in a civilised society, they prepared the investigated men in ways which led to the gallows or to sentencing for the punishments prescribed according to the wishes of the communist leaders.

Jesuits were afflicted by this fierce oppression too.

The Czech Society of Jesus Province, from the Communist Seizure of Power to the Break-up of Orders in 1950

All the members of the Czech Province understood that the time was approaching when it was no longer a case of praying “O Lord, take all my freedom,” but that it was in fact necessary to face the loss of freedom. The admirable Provincial of the time, a brave man with a wonderful vision, was a brilliant example for all. This Provincial has already been mentioned; Father František Šilhan, who also assisted the Vatican embassy in Prague (especially when the embassy employees—foreigners—had one by one left the Republic as undesirables).

The critical year for the Church in Czechoslovakia, and certainly for the Jesuits and other orders, was 1949. In this year negotiations went on between state authorities and bishops. The state managed these negotiations extremely skilfully, and a compromise was not possible. The state consented to passing the Churches Security Act, confiscated all Church property and, through paying wages to the priests, made the priests state employees. On the basis of this the priests were called upon to swear an oath of loyalty to the Republic. The bishops decided that the priests could swear the oath if they added a proviso in the text saying that they would observe the state laws only if they did not contradict natural and Church laws. The state benevolently permitted this but disregarded it anyway. If a priest coming into conflict with the state quoted the proviso, he was simply eliminated through the taking away of state approval needed for working as a priest, though firstly by means of arrest and lengthy imprisonment. In June 1949 the bishops addressed a pastoral letter to worshippers in which they completely openly judged the attitude of the State to the Church. They refuted in this letter the lies in the press and radio which claimed that there was freedom of worship. At this time also the decree of excommunication against Communist party members who actively promoted atheistic communism was drawn up. The state initiated the establishment of an association and gave it the name that had been used since the time of Pope Pius XI for active laypeople—assistants in pastoral care and the work of salvation. The universally respected name—Catholic Action—was abused. The aim of this was to confound simple priests and worshippers and produce the appearance that the state wanted to look after the welfare of the Church. This devil’s work was also affected by the decree of excommunication in this year. Division among people certainly occurred, especially among the priests. This was also contributed to by state intervention when, in one night, state representatives penetrated all the republic’s consistories and gave authorities the ability to easily classify all priests, ideally on the basis of the personal data held in consistories. This cunning deed was of crucial importance for the state’s policy of dealing with the priests as individuals. In many cases it resulted in a decision to dispose of the committed and determined priests. On the base of these materials it was also possible to identify the weak and to blackmail them. A few priests even became members of the Communist Party. The others were gained as willing tools for communist interests. A wave of arrests took place. Some show trials were carried out and also many trials when the punishments were prescribed by the Communist Party Central Committee. The priests were not sentenced to years but to decades. Among the arrested we find bishops, priests of all dioceses, male and female religious, and many faithful and active laypeople.

In 1949 the first Jesuits were arrested—one priest in Opava and two grammar school teachers in Bohosudov. The first was sentenced to seven years, the others received relatively small punishments—two years of strict imprisonment. The arrest of the St. Hostýn superior who would not allow Mass to be celebrated by a priest who had not submitted to the latest “celebration” was wholly unusual. After this, the priest was appointed to St. Hostýn by state military force—the State Security. The priest in question was well-known as a mere instrument for state policy regarding Church matters in Ostrava. The Father Superior was sentenced to ten years, which he spent in various prisons all over Czechoslovakia.

Towards the end of the year the persecution of a very enthusiastic Jesuit, the rector of Velehrad, began. The parishioners protected him and even wanted to hide him with a family in a nearby village. But the priest, whose name was Father Vašíček, did not stay there and gave himself up to the police: “When so many souls are going to prison, the Lord sends priests to prison too.” This fully corresponded with his desire for self-sacrifice, something he had prepared himself for during his training for the missions in China. At first he was sentenced to four years and six months. But after his release he was taken away again for another term of imprisonment that lasted two years. This imprisonment was very tough and resulted in his developing pulmonary disease. The second court sentenced him to another eighteen years, so he was to stay in prison for twenty two years in total. In the end he spent twelve years in prison as in 1962 he was released after the second amnesty for political prisoners was declared.

Other arrested Jesuits came from the Prague house. They were kept in custody awaiting the show trials with the members of the orders, which were to precede the general raid on the members of the orders (and then against the female members of orders). Firstly, the two prominent editors, Father Kajpr and Father Mikulášek, were arrested. The first edited the journal “Katolík” (The Catholic), the second a periodical for young people called “Dorost” (The Young). Also Father Provincial Šilhan was to be arrested on 14 March 1950. It was only because he had not been present at the house when the others were arrested that he had not been taken away at that time. The State Security patrol kept watch on the gate of the St. Ignatius residency and awaited the Father Provincial. There is one nice detail in all of this. Father Šilhan came and showed them his identity card. But the policemen were waiting for the Provincial, not for some Mr. Šilhan, and so they let him walk in and went on waiting. After a consultation with a few Fathers the provincial procurator let Father Šilhan leave through the church in Prague advising him to try to flee abroad. The Fathers decided to do this because Father Šilhan knew too much and it was difficult to guess how much he was able to endure in prison. However his attempt to flee failed as he was betrayed, and was arrested near the Austrian border, taken to Prague, imprisoned and quickly prepared for the planned trial with the members of the orders. The authorities wanted the trial to be over by Easter. After this they wanted to move against all orders as soon as possible. At this show trial, where spectators—deputies from the Prague factories were present—the three Jesuits were sentenced as follows: Father Šilhan was (after an initial sentence of capital punishment), sentenced to twenty five years imprisonment. He served fifteen years and was released after the third amnesty for political prisoners in May 1965. Father Adolf Kajpr, who experienced almost five years in the Mauthausen and Dachau Nazi concentration camps, was sentenced to twelve years imprisonment. He served only nine years and a number of months. On 17 September 1959 he died a saint’s death in the tough Leopoldov prison. Father Mikulášek was sentenced to nine years imprisonment. He served the whole term.

The state authorities speeded up the trials—imprisonment before trial was therefore in some cases unusually short. A long period of pre-trial imprisonment meant that the accused could be better manipulated and schooled in how to answer questions. All the religious in this show trial, ten in total (three Jesuits, three Premonstratensians, two Redemptorists, one Franciscan and one Dominican) were kept in strict isolation in Valdice prison after the trial. They could not write home nor receive a letter from their families. The public believed that they were already dead. After a year and three months of this additional imprisonment, they were sent to the high security prison in Leopoldov, Slovakia.

What was the aim of this show trial? First of all, justification for the Vatican embassy’s dissolution. The last Vatican representative, Monsignor Ottavio de Liva, had to leave Prague on 18 April 1950. The second aim was justification for operation “K”—the elimination of the male orders on the night of 13 to 14 April 1950 through the intervention of State Security institutions. Finally, it enabled the state to steal all the property of the orders.

Operation “K” certainly affected the Jesuits of the Czech Province too, as we will see in the following chapter.