This is the third Sunday of the Christian period of Advent, referred to in Czech as Stříbrná neděle or Silver Sunday. One particular third Sunday in Advent, 60 years ago in 1949, entered the history books, as it marked the start of an odd and rather grotesque episode in the Communist regime’s war against one of its ideological enemies, Czechoslovakia’s Roman Catholic Church.
In the village of Číhošť in Bohemia there were claims that during a mass on Stříbrná neděle at the local Catholic church a metre-long iron cross above the altar moved of its own accord several times. Apparently the local priest Father Josef Toufar, who was serving the mass, was not among the witnesses of what became known as the Číhošťský zázrak, the Číhošť Miracle.
Nevertheless, Toufar was to pay dearly for the rumours that the cross had moved. He was arrested in January 1950 and hauled off to jail by one of the more notorious units of the StB secret police. Having been brutally tortured, the priest, who was 47, signed a confession saying he had personally faked the so-called miracle.
The StB then took him back to the Church of the Ascension in Číhošť so he could take part in a filmed “reconstruction” of how he had faked it. However, the cleric had been beaten so badly by his interrogators that he collapsed and later died in a Prague hospital. Toufar’s body was then thrown into a mass grave in the Ďáblice district of the city.
Despite his death, the Communists were determined to exploit the situation. Their aim was to discredit a purported conspiracy centred on the late priest to dissuade farmers from signing up voluntarily to collective farms. They had a propaganda film made, showing ropes and pulleys they said had been used to make the cross move.
Apparently the film, which unfortunately I haven’t seen, is so crude that it’s hilarious from today’s perspective. It probably wasn’t so funny at the time.
After 1989, the Institute for the Documentation and Investigation of the Crimes of Communism looked into the Číhošť case extensively. It said suggestions that the whole “miracle” had actually been cooked up by the Communists themselves could never be cleared up either way.
But the investigators said there was no doubt that the case had been used to intensify attacks on the Catholic church and the Vatican: it paved the way for a series of show trials of Catholic clerics, and the breaking off of diplomatic ties with Rome.
Six decades after that fateful Silver Sunday, a plaque on the wall of the church in Číhošť today recalls the fate of Father Josef Toufar and other priests persecuted by the Communist regime.