Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the Czech Republic at the weekend may have been a success but the occasion nevertheless prompted some to take a hard look at their own careers in the Church. Speaking to Czech Television on Sunday, Cardinal Miloslav Vlk – whose mandate ends in the autumn – cast a harsh eye on his 20 years in office, saying he had achieved very little. Not for a lack of trying, he suggested, but often because of a difficult political climate.
Almost none – that is how Cardinal Vlk, Prague's archbishop, assessed his number of successes in office over the last twenty years or so. When first appointed, back in 1991, a much younger Miloslav Vlk questioned whether he would have enough strength for the tasks ahead, tasks which remain unresolved to this day.
Which are they?
One, the restitution of church assets from the state which remains undecided, although the church and previous government agreed on a return of one-third of property confiscated by the Communists in 1948, along with 270 billion crowns in damages. Two, also unresolved, ownership of Prague’s St Vitus cathedral – still disputed after 17 years in court. And three, no treaty signed between the Czech Republic and the Vatican –making the Czech Republic the last country in Europe without one. In an interview with Czech TV’s Václav Moravec on Sunday, the cardinal, otherwise in good spirits over Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the Czech Republic, admitted, this was his worst “nightmare” realised:
“This is what weighs most heavily on my conscience because de facto after 20 years say on the Czech ecclesiastic-political level I achieved next to nothing… Property restitution has been put on hold, an amendment on the Church law has not been passed, St Vitus Cathedral remains in the hands of the state and there is no treaty between Prague and the Vatican. I will have to pass these debts onto my successor.”
Many observers would argue that the cardinal was unduly harsh in his self-criticism; but not all. When asked about the subject the No.2 man in the Vatican, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, agreed Cardinal Vlk’s words were true. In his own defence, in the Czech TV interview, Cardinal Vlk stressed that political conditions throughout much of his tenure had not been in his favour, and made clear he alone could not be blamed. For years successive Czech governments, he said, had resisted agreement on issues, everything from the Vatican treaty to restitution.
“My success or failure depended on political realities. The Church was always willing to find agreement, of this I am certain. I was there so I can confirm it. But there was never will on the side of the politicians. Now they bustle to get close to the pope or to have their photograph taken next to him. There was little goodwill on the part of the politicians over the last 20 years: on the contrary they pushed the Church to the side, saying we shouldn’t be economically or politically strong.”
It is not known who will succeed Cardinal Vlk in office yet – a move expected by the end of the year - but there is wide-spread speculation it could be the head of the Czech Bishops’ Conference Archbishop Jan Graubner. As for those unresolved issues? The Vatican’s Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone met with Czech Prime Minister Jan Fischer during the pope’s visit at the weekend, making clear, for example, that the restitution of property was not the issue of the day given the economic crisis and would be put on the backburner. A moral standpoint those in the Church, including Cardinal Miloslav Vlk of course readily agreed with.
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