Jan Chryzostom Cardinal Korec, S.J., was an eyewitness to the 20th century’s most important event: the defeat of Marxism-Leninism in Eastern Europe by the Church established by Jesus Christ. At age 27, Korec was secretly consecra-ted as a bishop in Slovakia, a largely Catholic nation of five million. He led the underground Church after the 1948 communist coup d’etat and was arrested and charged with conspiring against “the People’s Democratic System.” Korec’s indictment read, “As a secret bishop . . . he secretly ordained several seminarians to the priesthood and, until his imprisonment, he directed, led and organized members of the Jesuit religious order.” Sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for his Christian Faith, Korec witnessed human nature in many dimensions, including man’s cruelty to man. Religious were forced to work in dangerous uranium mines and placed in underground cells where food was only provided every third day. Some were martyred. Last September, Pope John Paul II beatified Sr. Zden-ka Schel-in-gova (1916-55), who was hung naked and tortured, and who later died. Many, like Korec, responded to Golgotha by forgiving their persecutors.
Parts of Slovakia, which lies south of Catholic Poland and west of Orthodox Ukraine, were under Ottoman Turk rule in the 17th century. A castle was built to defend Korec’s hometown of Bosany against the Muslims, who were defeated by Polish King Jan Sobieski III at Vienna in 1683. Three centuries later, Christians faced a new challenge: Marxism-Leninism, which tried to erase the thousand-year legacy of Christianity from Slovakia, which traces back to Saints Cyril and Methodius. Slovak communist leader Dr. Gustav Husak explained that “it will be necessary to make drastic interventions in many Catholic institutions, which are the breeding grounds for anti-democratic concepts and influences on the broad masses.”
The Marxist attack on “Vatican imperialism” took many forms. In an attempt to divide the Church from within, agents infiltrated seminaries to study theology. They established a state-controlled church and press staffed by collaborators. These attacks culminated on April 13, 1950, the night of the barbarians, when the Marxists eliminated all Slovak religious orders and their monasteries. Korec writes, “Neither the furious attacks of the Tartars nor the expansion of the Islamic Turkish Empire wreaked as much havoc on Czech and Slovak history as the events of that night.”
Korec’s most critically acclaimed work is The Church in the History Of Slovakia (1994). The son of working-class parents, he wrote an early Slovak critical analysis of Marxist philosophy, “The Philosophic Grounds of Dialectic Materialism” (1947). Despite his proletarian roots, Korec was targeted by a hypocritical Marxist system. “Ironically, when the worker class began to come to power,” Korec writes, “I was blamed for being against the ‘working class.’” He spent the 1950’s employed as a manual worker, librarian, watchman, and elevator repairman while secretly leading the Church. “The ordination to the priesthood under special circumstances is an extremely serious matter, to be handled with responsibility,” he notes. “It would be impossible to allow a bishop to disappear in jail each time an ordination took place.” In 1960, Korec was imprisoned for his secret work. (He spent most of his incarceration in Czechoslovakia’s notorious Valdice prison, full of mukls, men destined for liquidation.) Korec was a “category three prisoner,” the toughest group. As a worker and as a prisoner, he encountered such men as Sullo, an agnostic German machinist and lapsed Lutheran, and Zdeno B., a young man unable to pray the Our Father. A fellow prisoner told him of the fate of collaborationist churchman Holdos, whose usefulness to the regime had ended. “Welcome, red Archbishop!” the prisoners shouted at him.
The book’s greatest contribution is its documentation of the religious persecution undertaken by the Marxist regime in Czechoslovakia. Victims included monks of the Eastern Rite Basilian order; Pavol Peter Gojdic, a martyr of the Byzantine Rite Catholic Church; and the Jesuit priest Zgarbik, who perished in an asthma attack, ignored by prison staff. Octogenarian Slovak Bishop Jan Vojtassak was forced to read a document that termed him a “treacherous bishop.” Vojtassak defiantly wrote in the margin, “Lie!” He was later released but forbidden to return to Slovakia.
The Church responded in a Christian manner:
Life shortened by suffering has much greater value and offers more to souls than a long life and a comfortable position which participates in the destruction of Christ’s work, straining Faith with heresies. This weakened life of Faith would retreat into a position of paganism.
The West should heed this warning. Korec survived interrogations and imprisonment through prayer and scriptural reflection.
[T]he main direction of the life of priests in prison was characterized by a lack of freedom, uncertainty, and the constant fear that we would be attacked, kicked outside, inspected while completely nude, or that they would start screaming at us and force us to work in brigades.
Still, priests viewed prison as part of their pastoral mission and Christ’s special plan for their lives.
Korec’s joy in the face of Marxist persecution is shown in a passage where he describes a package of figs:
As it happens so often in jail, one notices every detail, and I noticed that the place of origin was printed on the little label: “Izmir,” Smyrna. I rejoiced in my spirit! How little one needs to be happy, especially if he has been in jail for so many weeks! How little it takes to make him rejoice! I immediately saw in my mind Saint Polycarp from Smyrna and St. Paul the apostle, who had walked through these places during his apostolic travels. I told myself excitedly, “This fruit I have here in the cell . . . grew on the soil on which these precious men of the first Church walked! The apostle of nations, Paul, and the bishop of Smyrna, Polycarp, who personally knew Saint John the Apostle!
Released from prison in the Prague Spring of 1968, Korec went on pilgrimage to Velehrad and settled in Bratislava. He visited Rome for the first time in 1969 to meet Pope Paul VI, who blessed him, “Con gli auguri.”
“The Czechoslovakian Marxist regime monitored Korec until it fell in 1989. His written work after release is voluminous and includes two other memoirs. Christians in the West can learn much from Cardinal Korec about the Church’s successful struggle against Marxism in Eastern Europe.
[The Night of the Barbarians: Memoirs of the Communist Persecution of the Slovak Cardinal, by Jan Chryzostom Cardinal Korec, S.J. (Wauconda, Illinois: Bolchazy-Carducci) 476 pp., $24.95]
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