Thirty years ago this Christmas, Czechs were in an especially festive spirit – the entire Communist Party leadership had resigned a month before, and in a matter of days a majority democratic parliament would elect Václav Havel as president, bringing the Velvet Revolution to a glorious end. Ahead of the holiday, I spoke to Adéla and Petr Mucha – a historian and theologian, respectively, born into practicing Catholic families under Communism – about their experiences with the “Underground Church”, religious figures active in the dissident Charter 77 movement, and enduring legacies of the era.
I began by asking Muchas about the “wave of terror” against church figures in the 1950s, attempts by the regime to both dismantle and co-opt religious institutions in later decades, and how priests – whether practicing openly or secretly ordained – worked under the system.
Petr: “Communism had been built on Marxist ideology, which of course is very anti-religious. There’s this theory of Karl Mark that “religion is the opiate of the people”, something that doesn’t fit with the Communist ideology and vision for society.
“So, religion was one of their first enemies – especially the Catholic Church, whose headquarters are in Rome. It was especially difficult for Communists to accept a religious institution with headquarter abroad not subject to any control. So, in this country, Catholics were the first target of violence during the 1950s after the Communists took over.
“In the first wave of terror, we see the liquidation of democratic leaders, other political parties, and most religious institutions. Many religious orders were completely destroyed. Monks and nuns were sent to work camps, sometime to do heavy labour in mines – some friends of my family spent time there – and some died there.”
“Liquidation of the religious orders, many bishops and church leaders, were among the first steps of the Communist regime to prevent them from creating alternatives for the people. The definition of a Totalitarian regime is that it tries to control every aspect of life. They tried to destroy religion while creating their own ‘civil’ religion full of symbols, rituals, their own Communist ‘saints’ – with relics of Lenin in the mausoleum in Moscow, a place of pilgrimage to see the relics of the founding father of Bolshevism.
“So, that’s how it worked in the beginning. Later, it changed a bit, especially during the Normalisation period after the Soviet invasion of 1968. They went from trying to control the church through open terror in the 1950s to trying to infiltrate the church structures and create the appearance of religious freedom on one side but control from within.”
Q: In 1951, the regime created this “Peace movement of the Catholic Clergy”, which after 1969 was called Pacem in Terris, and as you say an attempt to create a schism, have no allegiance to Rome and if anything to Moscow. Maybe we could talk about a major figure who did not join this group, František Tomášek.
Petr: “František Tomášek was a priest who didn’t want to collaborate with the regime but on the other hand did pastoral work without provoking them. There were many priests who worked underground and provoked the regime with their opposition work. Tomášek for many years was accepted by the regime because he was not openly against it. So, he worked officially as a priest and later as a bishop.
“They did not view him as much of a danger because he was not very active in the Underground Church and opposition movement. This changed later, especially during the 1980s, with the growing power of the dissent movement, and he saw the time had come to speak clearly against the regime.
“And he became a pretty courageous voice, a prophetic voice, during his time as Prague archbishop. He started to work secretly with many representatives of the Underground Church, for example with [Roman Catholic priest] Oto Mádr.”
Q: Religiously affiliated schools simply did not exist, but religion was taught as an optional subject, which parents had to register their children for. Their employers were then notified, and if they held a position of responsibility especially in education or the cultural sector, they would likely lose their jobs or worse. What were your experiences?
Adéla: “Our experiences were very similar, as we’re both from Catholic families with parents and grandparents who were strong believers. In my case, my parents were close friends with a very modern priest in the post-Vatican II (Second Ecumenical Council) theology in bringing people into active spiritual life. So, with my religious upbringing, it was very natural to participate in Sunday services, for example, as part of a small church community that was very active.
“As far as the education itself, I was part of various Christian groups for children; we’d meet every week or two in somebody’s home, and we were educated in various religious and ethical issues – very informally. And, of course, this was dangerous for the parents because if it was obvious to their boss or colleagues, they might be persecuted – lose their jobs.
“I also was a part of a Christian scout group – girl scouts – but of course it was unofficially Christian. We prayed in the summer camps and had some religious education. On Sundays, we’d split into smaller groups of 5 or 6 girls supervised by an adult or teenager, and each would go to a different village nearby to attend a service.
“We had stories ready, like that we were cousins on holiday visiting our grandmother, making up this espionage so nobody would suspect and realise there were 50 girls going to church in one region, where nobody usually attends.”
Petr: “I think for the full picture, it’s good to add that religious life was very limited, but the Communists didn’t want to destroy the church completely because they wanted to create the appearance of religious freedom, to create in the West the image of Communism as a free society.
“So, some church services were open to the public and you could attend mass. But very often the priests were under their control. Some collaborated with the regime, some not. But they were limited in their pastoral work, and all religious education and many forms of pastoral work were illegal. So, religious education was possible only underground.
“I was educated by the Silesian movement, and most of their members were underground – unofficial priests ordained secretly. Most of my educators were normal people working as window cleaners, drivers, etc. In their free time, they gave one on one religious instruction, for example.”
Q: So, there was an aspect of forbidden fruit there, which must have made it more appealing…
Petr: “Yes. My father was involved in this underground scout movement – officially a tourist movement – and in the Underground Church, working directly with Oto Mádr, one of the leaders of the movement. He had the nickname ‘The General’ of the Underground Church, as he had great organisation skills. He suffered a lot during the 1950s. He was imprisoned in heavy labour camps for 12 years and was really a hard guy.
“During the 1970s and ‘80s, my father and whole family were involved in a branch of the Underground Church. We are now sitting in a house where many of the meetings took place. There was even a branch of the Underground University, where some professors expelled from university because they were not loyal to the Communist regime taught students in groups of 3 or 4 people here for seminars.
“Sometimes we had larger seminars, but of course we had to be careful. In our street was a reporter to the Communist Party and secret police, and sometimes we had to ask students to leave through the garden, over a fence, as our front gate was often monitored.
“So, it was adventurous and sometimes dangerous. For my father, it was more difficult. He was a biologist working in a scientific centre in Prague. And if he were caught by the secret police, he would of course lose his job, and maybe spend a couple of years in prison. They were courageous. For young adults and students, it was more of an adventure.”
Q: Had you been baptised before 1989?
Adéla: “Of course. I don’t remember it myself (laughs). In the late 1970s, my parents were visiting a parish with a very active priest in the dissent and Underground Church movements. They decided to baptise me when I was a new-born.
“Looking back, I think this was a very courageous act for them. As it later turns out, this particular priest was actively collaborating with the regime while serving the alternative church. They thought they were part of a Christian-Catholic community opposing the regime, and some people were dissidents, but some others, and the priest, were not.
“So, in some communities, they could not really be sure whom to trust. This was one of the biggest issues, and I think one of the biggest problems we still have today – this lack of trust. During Communism, people were conditioned not to trust anybody, even within your own church circles.
Adéla: “No, it was in an official church. But as Petr said a while ago, the only activity that was official was the Sunday mass, and you could perform some rituals and do baptisms. But apart from that, there was nothing in the churches – no social life, no community life. And I believe this is one of the things destroying the activity of laypeople, non-clergy, in a way, because people were not supported in having a religious or spiritual life outside these very narrow borders.”
Q: Speaking of your birth year – 1977, and Charter 77, quite a few devout Catholics thinkers and clergy were signatories, such as Václav Benda, who came up with the concept of a Parallel Polis; Jan Patočka, now Bishop Václav Malý, but also from other Christian denominations, such as Svatopluk Karásek and Milan Balabán – and the rabbi Karol Sidon. Since you are just old enough to remember that time, what were you aware of in 1997 – very few people actually knew about the Charter at first, and in the first ten years there were only some 1200 signatories.
Petr: “Charter 77 and these figures you mentioned became very important moral figures for all of us. As people of faith, it was very important for us that Christians of all kinds became part of Charter 77 from the beginning because it was not just about politics. It was about values, justice, truth.
“Even Václav Havel was a deeply spiritual guy, you know. It was also very important for us that this Underground Church was very ecumenical – that Catholics and Protestants shared a lot, whereas the division was irrelevant, basically, during the underground period. And, as part of Charter 77 it was kind of another level of ecumenism; one of values – with agnostics, atheists who shared the values we were basically in one boat.”
Adéla: “Looking back now, being a theologian myself, I find the period of the 1970s and ‘80s, after the Second Vatican Council, in our church, in our country, very positive in the sense of cooperation between the clergy and laypeople.
“It was very informal and purifying experience for people because spirituality was not a folklore, it was not a traditional thing, it was something you experienced and maybe wanted to share with others. And you didn’t really need much of the structure. People could do everything themselves. I think this was one of the most positive things about the Underground Church community.”
Q: I’d also like to talk about the lead-up to the Velvet Revolution in 1989. Could you explain what the canonisation of Agnes of Bohemia (earlier that November) meant. I understand you kind of a tour guide on that pilgrimage to Rome.
Petr: “Yes, I was a student in my early twenties, and because of my involvement in the underground network, I was invited to participate in this great event. The background goes back to the Middle Ages because St. Agnes was a very important figure in the history of our nation. She was a royal daughter who decided to become a nun and founded one of the first monasteries in Prague, serving the poor.
“We she died, she was considered a saint, but because her relics had been lost in one of the wars, the canonisation had not been completed – there is this condition that you have to have the relics. So for many centuries, people were waiting for her canonisation and there was a saying, or legend, that when Agnes of Bohemia is canonised, justice and righteousness would return to the country.
“Pope John Paul II, Karol Wojtyła, made sort of an exception, and she was to be canonised in November 1989. Nobody could know it would take place five days before the Velvet Revolution. For us, it was of course a miracle that she was canonised. We never expected such a fast change, and for us people of faith, of course there was something beyond.
“It was also very interesting that the Communist regime allowed thousands to leave the country, to cross the Iron Curtain, to travel to Rome. They allowed it because they saw it as the canonisation of a historical figure of the Czech nation as sort of a public relations tool for the regime. It’s a paradox that she was a religious figure.
Petr: “Yes. And many people in the Underground Church were involved in organising it – even students like me were invited to lead a bus of 50 people to Rome – where I’d never been before. So you can imagine the journey of trust and faith. And what’s also funny is that the group of young people leading groups of pilgrims were formed by Tomáš Halík – we knew only that he was a psychologist. Just after the Velvet Revolution started we learned that he was a secret priest as well.
“When we got back from Rome, just two days later I was involved in organising that student meeting in Albertov, a campus of Charles University, commemorating the death of Jan Opletal, a student who opposed another totalitarian regime – the Nazi regime. And, of course, we already expected there to be protests against restrictions on academic freedom. But we never expected that this very meeting would become the initial one of the Velvet Revolution.
“So, coming back from the canonisation of St. Agnes, we brought this energy to the first, initial meeting of the Velvet Revolution, which in the end became one of the largest protests against the Communist regime. This meeting (on November 17) was stopped by the violent attack of the police on Národní třída, and this violent but also emotional moment became sort of the last drop from the regime.
“In the following days, we started with the students’ strike, and later the dissidents organised the Civic Forum, a very important platform for the official opposition. From underground, they became above ground opposition and the Velvet Revolution became a reality.”
Q: You had a real taste of the euphoria that the nation would experience about a week early. Its 30 years now since the Velvet Revolution but also the first Christmas you would have experienced in a free society, essentially. What was that like?
Petr: “That first Christmas was still part of the fall of Communism, still within the Velvet Revolution, even though it started on November 17 and the most important political events and happenings took place in those first ten days.
“Still December and even at Christmas was part of the first steps of this new-born free society. Václav Havel was about to be elected president – and he was and still is for us a great moral authority, and somebody who really embodied the values which for us is what Christmas is about. Values of equality, justice, forgiveness and reconciliation.”
Adéla: “I have a funny thing to add. In the Soviet times, Communists obviously didn’t celebrate Christmas, and the Russian religion, also persecuted was Orthodox, who celebrate the birth of Jesus in mid-January. So, having Christmas in December was something very strange.
“And even in our country, the Communists tried to put more emphasis on the New Year’s celebration. So, there was this Děda Mráz – Grandfather Frost – and it was propaganda, but very strong, to bring it to this culture. Of course, some tradition of Christmas was celebrated here all throughout Communism, but it was a bit ignored by the regime, I’d say. It was a minor issue.
“Czechoslovak television and radio, in the very early years after the revolution, started what I’d call a huge information campaign about Christmas. It was the first time we heard about Jesus Christ being born in Bethlehem on national radio and TV. It was unbelievable for us!”
Petr: “The Communist regime tried to replace the story of Jesus with Děda Mráz and through celebrating Yolka, the Russian concept of New Year, instead of the Christmas story. They didn’t succeed in destroying the Christian concept.
“But today we are experiencing another attack on the story, through this commercialised form of Santa Claus – not intentionally, not ideologically, but spontaneously because of consumerism, is trying to replace the story of salvation and Jesus, the Holy Family. But, again, I see that something deeper in the society is resisting.”
Q: Ať žije Ježíšek! (Long live the Baby Jesus)
Jana Ciglerová: Americans say their lives are fantastic, Czechs say everything is terrible – neither is true
Czech IT specialists organize “hackathon” to give government online motorway vignette sales system for free
Minister: Czech Republic won’t take in 40 child refugees from Greek camps
CzechTourism head hints attracting tourists no longer agency’s main goal
Screenshot: a hybrid English-friendly Prague art-house cinema where screenings are events