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 The Word From Rome

September 19, 2003
Vol. 3, No. 4

global perspective


"Are you crazy?"

Anezka Domorakova, 20, of Trnava
answering the question: "Did Pope John Paul's physical struggles make his appearance embarrassing?"

Reflections on John Paul II in Slovakia; The pope's health; Bits of color from the Slovakia trip; Beatifying Mother Teresa


Suffering was indeed the story of John Paul II’s Sept. 11-14 trip to Slovakia, but, contrary to what dominated news reports, not his own.

While most of the world’s media concentrated on the pope’s obvious physical weakness, the underlying logic of the trip, John Paul’s third to this overwhelmingly Catholic nation of 5.4 million, was to honor the memory of its 20th century martyrs. A whole generation of Slovaks paid a price in blood for their fidelity to the church under Communism, what the pope called Sept. 12 in Banska Bystrica the “bleak regime of not so many years ago.”

As symbols of that sacrifice, John Paul beatified a Greek Catholic bishop, Vasil Hopko, and a Slovak nun, Sacred Heart Sr. Zdenka Cecilia Schelingova, calling them “radiant examples of faithfulness in times of harsh and ruthless religious persecution.” Both died after being incarcerated and tortured in the 1950s.

Both have harrowing stories.

Hopko, one of two Eastern-rite Greek Catholic bishops in Slovakia at the time of the Communist rise to power in 1948, spent 13 and a half years in prison for refusing to accept the forced dissolution of the Greek Catholic church. During those years he was beaten during interrogations, not allowed to sleep for long periods, forced to walk continually for hours, and put on limited rations of food and water. The experience took its toll, and when Hopko was released in 1964 he suffered deep psychological trauma. He died in 1976, after seeing the Greek Catholic church restored to legal status during the “Prague Spring” of 1968. An autopsy revealed that Hopko had been slowly poisoned in prison; his body had a level of arsenic 1,000 times above normal tolerance levels for a human being.

Schelingova’s story is similarly dramatic. While working as a nurse, she attempted to help six priests escape from a hospital where they were sent to recover from interrogations before being shipped off to jail. The plot was discovered, and Schelingova was arrested on February 29, 1952. Her captors believed she had an accomplice and were determined to beat the name out of her. They began by kicking her, then threw her into a vat of freezing water. As she was on the point of drowning, they removed her, then threw her back. Two men then dragged her by the hair to another room, where they stripped her, bound her arms, and put her on a pulley that lifted her off the floor. They beat her savagely with clubs until she lost consciousness. The process repeated itself several times until the officials were satisfied that Schelingova had no accomplice to name. She was released on April 7, 1955, and died on July 31 at the age of 38.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Hopko and “Zdenka,” as the Slovaks call her, is how ordinary their experiences were for the generation of Catholics that came of age in the 1950s. Many historians believe the Slovak “church of the catacombs” suffered the fiercest persecution of any in the Soviet block. Local historians say some 102,000 Slovaks were victimized under 40 years of Communist rule.

I was in the press pool that accompanied the pope from the capital Bratislava to the historic heart of Slovakian Catholicism in Trnava. I stayed behind afterwards to conduct interviews arranged by a Slovakian Jesuit friend, Fr. Vlasto Dufka. One remarkable man to whom Dufka introduced me was his confrere, Jesuit Fr. Rajmund Ondrus, 74.

When the state’s anti-religious crackdown began in 1951, Ondrus, like all other members of male religious communities, was sent to 40 months of forced labor and “reeducation” — called, in the euphemistic fashion of the Soviet system, an “auxiliary technical batallion.” 

In May 1960, Ondrus was sentenced to three years in prison for taking part in clandestine theological studies, and was forced to work in a factory. He said that while he was not physically mistreated, if he failed to meet strict factory quotas he was punished with measures such as a ban on writing letters, loss of free time, being forced to stay awake for extended periods, and double shifts.

In 1960, Ondrus was arrested for taking part in clandestine theological studies. He was sentenced to three years in prison — though, he modestly insisted, he only served two years and four months before being released.

Ondrus told me that despite the drama inherent in his own story, he doesn’t like to dwell on it. “It’s better not to think too much of these things,” Ondrus said. “Otherwise what you get is the desire for vendetta.”

Ondrus said that when he was released, he was forced to sign a pledge never to talk about what had happened to him in prison. After the fall of Communism, he said, his generation decided to “draw a line” after their experiences, in order to avoid a cycle of reprisals and revenge.

“You can’t do justice for the dead,” Ondrus said. “What are you going to do, find all those who put us in prison and kill them?”

Dufka also set up a conversation with four young Slovak Catholics who sing in a choir sponsored by his Jesuit Church of the Holy Trinity in Trnava. They were: Anezka Domorakova, 20; Veronika Skodova, 23; Martin Istvanec, 20; and Jozef Zamozik, 23.

All were intelligent, articulate young persons dedicated to staying in Slovakia and building a better future for their country, currently beset by 14.5 percent unemployment and high rates of corruption, crime and alcoholism.

Strikingly, however, all admitted that they knew very little about the 20th century story of the Slovak Catholic church, including experiences such as those of Ondrus. “We don’t carry our memories very well,” Skodova said. “We are forgetting these things. We hear about it sometimes, but it’s not touching us.”

That, it seemed, summed up the motivation for the pope’s presence.

He came to challenge Skodova’s generation not to forget the price paid on their behalf, to remember that despite all its flaws, there is something so precious about Catholicism that men and women are willing to endure forced labor, prison, beatings and even death rather than renounce it.

* * *

One of the hallmarks of John Paul’s pontificate has been his repeated call for “purification of memory.” The pope has apologized, among other things, for the Inquisition, the Galileo case, the church’s justification of slavery, the mistreatment of indigenous persons, and the Crusades. He has set an admirable standard for remembering the past as it really was, not through the haze of a romanticized self-image.

Quietly, however, some critics suggested that this commitment to historical honesty was absent in Slovakia.

No one disputes the terrible suffering of the Slovakian Catholic church in the 20th century, and certainly the heroism of figures such as Hopko and Schelingova, as well as Ondrus, merits every honor the church can bestow. L’Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper, justly called their martyrdom “an icon of the Cross.”

Yet Slovakian Catholicism was not just a victim of the century’s dramas — at times, it was also victimizer. The way this aspect of the story was glossed over during the pope’s visit can be glimpsed from the general silence surrounding two names: Msgr. Josef Tiso and Vladimir Meciar.

Tiso was a Catholic priest who led a Nazi-allied Slovak state from 1939 to 1945 that deported some 60,000 Jews to death in the camps.  During his years in power he remained a priest in good standing, celebrating Mass and hearing confessions. Tiso carried out the deportations with the support of some of Slovakia’s prelates. Bishop Karol Kmetko of Nitra, for example, told Slovakia’s chief rabbi in 1943 that Jews deserved punishment and could expect no help without embracing Christianity.

Today, Tiso remains a divisive figure in Slovak life. Some remember him as a patriot who did what was necessary to save the nation, arguing that had Tiso not gone along with the Germans, Slovakia would have been sliced into three regions, with part going to Czechs, part to the Hungarians, and part to Poland.

Other Slovaks are embarrassed by Tiso’s legacy.

The debate over Tiso is part of a deeper ambiguity many Slovaks feel about the country’s role during WWII. Slovakia was largely spared the bombardments and ground combat that scarred other regions of the German Reich, and for that reason it was a popular vacation destination for high-ranking Nazi officials. Whether Slovakia should be understood as a colony or a collaborator of the Nazi regime, and hence whether Tiso was a hero or a villain, remains a painful historical question.

In a 1999 interview with me in Trnava, Archbishop Jan Sokol of Bratislava-Trnava argued that Tiso had been misunderstood.

“I don’t mean to defend Tiso by this… but Christ is the best example and the most beautiful example for us. He was absolutely not guilty and he ended up on the cross,” Sokol said, suggesting that Tiso too is often treated as guilty for matters beyond his control.

Meciar, meanwhile, was prime minister of Slovakia from 1992 to 1998. His authoritarian and nationalist rule was widely seen as a throwback to the days of Communist diktat, and was supported by influential elements in the Slovak church. Sources told NCR, for example, that some elderly Slovaks still carry pictures of Meciar in their prayer books like holy cards.

Meciar’s regime was characterized by widespread corruption and anti-Western rhetoric, and it was not until he lost the 1998 elections that Slovakia was enrolled among the nations set to enter the European Union in 2004. Many observers charged Meciar with using the police and intelligence agencies to intimidate and harass political opponents.

Most Slovak observers say the country’s bishops were divided by Meciar, with one faction supporting him and another in opposition. Those who backed Meciar saw him as a bulwark against social instability and the liberalizing pressures of democracy. By this point Meciar had picked up the cause of Slovak nationalism, including its Catholic identity, despite the fact that he had begun his political career as a Communist Party official. Most political observers here say that Meciar’s government was prolonged and sustained at critical points by elements within the church.

Perhaps the wounds from the Tiso and Meciar eras are still too fresh, Slovakia’s democracy still too fragile, to permit an honest rendering of accounts. Still, for those Slovaks who found themselves in opposition to either man, a call to cherish the memory of Catholic suffering cannot help but ring hollow without some acknowledgment that it is not the whole story.

* * *

A word now about the pope’s health, which all but drowned out his message in Slovakia.

After the first day of the trip, when John Paul failed to finish his opening speech and looked fatigued, television networks dispatched key personnel to both Bratislava and Rome, fearing the worst. Newspapers that had originally decided to skip the expense of the Slovakia trip suddenly ordered correspondents into position. The sight of emergency medical equipment at the cathedral in Trnava and on the papal plane had journalists scrambling to spell, and define, terms such as “defibrillator.”

In the end, it was the latest in a now legendarily long line of what Mark Twain once called “greatly exaggerated” reports of his own demise. John Paul II, as he almost always does, weathered the storm, and seemed to pick up some energy as the days went by. He managed to issue greetings to the crowd during his Angelus address on the last day of the trip in Hungarian, German, Ukranian, Czech, Polish, Italian and Slovakian.

On Sunday, Sept. 14, the pope’s voice was stronger, his face was more expressive, and he managed to read more extended portions of his speeches. He also distributed communion in person, a gesture sometimes omitted when the pope is especially fatigued.

Observers who follow the pope on a regular basis also noted that he did not seem dramatically worse then he has in most public appearances this summer at Castel Gandolfo, his holiday residence in the hills outside Rome.

On background, Vatican officials told NCR Sept. 14 that it seems clear the pope has reached a new stage in the deterioration related to his age, his Parkinson’s disease, the impact of the 1981 assassination attempt, and crippling hip and knee problems. The weakness in Slovakia, they say, was more than routine up-and-down variation.

At the same time, they expressed basic confidence that the pope could continue to travel, albeit in an increasingly restricted mode. Swiss bishops announced on Sept. 4 that John Paul has accepted in principle an invitation to attend the second day of a youth congress in Bern on June 6, 2004, if his health permits.

Moreover, the pope has not backed away from a demanding fall schedule in Rome, with a gala celebration of the 25th anniversary of his election on Oct. 16, the beatification of Mother Teresa on Oct. 19, and a series of closed-door sessions with his cardinals in between.

Still, the decline in this once-dynamic pope was clear.

“You would have to be blind not to see a difference,” said Bishop Rudolf Balaz of Banska Bystrica, Slovakia, in a briefing for reporters in Bratislava Sept. 13.

“I believe that had it not been for the assassination attempt in 1981, the pope would easily have the force to lead the church until he was 90 or beyond,” Balaz said. “As it is, it’s amazing how he succeeds in keeping up his responsibilities. I told him yesterday how much we all appreciate his sacrifice.”

John Paul’s difficulties in moving from point to point stood out in stark relief on the Slovakia trip. The pope was driven to the airport for each day’s flight and succeeded only with great difficulty in extricating himself from the car seat. He was placed on a rolling chair and taken to a hydraulic lift, which again he struggled to enter. After the lift hoisted him to the aircraft’s rear door, new complications ensued to get the pope into his seat. On the first day, events ran up to 45 minutes behind schedule, in part because of the time it took to physically get the pope in and out of his various conveyances.

Up to this point, Vatican officials and observers sympathetic to the pope have argued that these obvious physical difficulties augment his message, underlining the depth of his sacrifice and making it clear than he is a spiritual father, not an efficiency-minded corporate CEO.

The question Vatican officials find themselves asking today, however, is when the situation crosses the delicate line from being admirable to being embarrassing, even pathetic.

After the Slovakia trip, most observers asked for a judgment by NCR didn’t seem to think that moment has yet arrived.

To the question of whether John Paul’s physical struggles made his appearance embarrassing, 20-year-old Anezka Domorakova of Trnava had a simple response.

“Are you crazy?”

* * *

Other bits of color from the Slovakia trip:

• Prior to the pope’s arrival, there was a drumbeat of criticism in the Slovakian press about the costs of the trip, estimated at $2.1 million. Critics complained that in a country where poverty is widespread and unemployment hovers at 14.5 percent, it was a waste of resources to foot the bill for a third papal visit. Others wanted to know why John Paul’s 1997 visit to the nearby Czech Republic cost comparatively less. Defenders of the visit pointed out that much of that $2.1 million went to civic improvements that would continue to be of public value long after the pope went back to Rome. Much of the critical talk, by the way, came from a TV network owned by a Slovakian politician who is spearheading a liberal abortion law in the national parliament over the opposition of the Catholic church. Slovakia has also been locked recently in a polarizing debate about Catholic education in public schools. The atmosphere of controversy may have succeeded in keeping some people away from the pope’s public appearances, since crowds were down in comparison to his last visit in 1995, despite the fact that thousands of Poles were bused in for the Masses in Roznava and Bratislava.

• On Sept. 11, as we waited in the Trnava cathedral for John Paul’s arrival, I asked Vatican spokesperson Joaquin Navarro-Valls why the pope hadn’t made any reference to the second anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. “When the pope is in a country, he almost never speaks of another country,” Navarro said. “This is his rule. I do the same. For many years, we’ve always respected this rule.” I also asked Navarro if he thought John Paul would continue to travel despite his physical limits. “I don’t see any real obstacle,” he responded. Is it probable? “It’s possible,” Navarro responded. “For me, probable is when I have it in a program.”

• For all of Slovakia’s challenges, one encouraging point from an ecclesiastical perspective is that practice of the faith remains strong at the grassroots. Perhaps the clearest example is the way lines form at the confessional, and not just on Sunday but during the week. Dufka told me that the Jesuits have to allocate four or five priests to hear confessions on weekdays, and they do so in morning and afternoon blocks of a couple hours each. The first week of each month, when many Slovak Catholics seek confession as part of a popular devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the crowds are especially large. Ondrus pointed to the residual strength of popular religious practice as something that gives him hope, saying in his experience as a confessor the people experience it “as a personal matter, not just rote behavior.” He told a story of being visited recently by a French Jesuit, who upon seeing the lines at the confessionals in the Jesuit church in Trnava wanted to know what feast day he had forgotten. It turned out to be business as usual.

• Inside Slovakia, the pope, his entourage and those of us in the press corps flew around in a Sky Europe jet. At the very front of the plane, where the pope sat, the crew had put up a small icon of Christ, a crucifix, and a bouquet of yellow and white flowers representing the papal colors. Initially we thought the icon was illuminated, but it turned out that it was simply placed under the lights of the “no smoking” sign. The configuration of the plane was such that for takeoff and landing two stewardesses had to sit directly across from the pope, and one of the more amusing images of the trip was their valiant attempt not to stare. Their struggles gave whole new meaning to the old moral discipline of “custody of the eyes.”

• Given that Slovakia is 74 percent Catholic, it’s no surprise that popes have helped shape its history in manifold ways. A bishops’ conference publication points out, for example, that Pope Paul VI’s 1977 decree Qui Divino, erecting for the first time a Slovakian ecclesiastical province independent from the Hungarian church, is cited by secular historians as an important stage in the formation of Slovakian national consciousness. Fr. Josef Halko, a prominent Slovakian church historian, told me that the document helped stimulate the “self-determination of the Slovaks.” It also had immediate political importance because it fixed Slovakia’s ecclesiastical province at the country’s present southern border, despite the fact that some of that territory at the time was claimed by Hungary. Hence Qui Divino in effect resolved a border dispute in favor of the Slovaks, one among many papal favors they have not forgotten.

• Slovakia has more than the Tatra mountain chain in common with Poland. It shares the Slavic culture, Hapsburg architecture, languages that are close enough to the mutually comprehensible, and an ecclesiastical history that is deeply intertwined. An anecdote illustrates the closeness. Bishop Rudolf Balaz of Banska Bystrica said that in 1966, when Archbishop Karol Wojtyla was still in Cracow, Balaz and a fellow Slovakian cleric asked permission from the Communists to attend a celebration of the 1000th anniversary of the foundation of the Polish church. The government turned them down, so they hopped on their motorbikes and drove through the forests on the Polish/Slovakian border to reach Cracow. While there they stayed with Wojtyla, getting to know him. On their way back, Balaz said, a rainstorm forced them to pull off and seek shelter. While waiting out the rain, he said to his friend, “Wouldn’t it be great if that archbishop one day became pope?” Two years later, Balaz said, he was in his room when his friend came bounding to his door to inform him of Wojtyla’s election as John Paul II. It’s that kind of history, Balaz said, that leads Slovaks to think of the pope as “part of our family.”

• A sense of historical ghosts finally being laid to rest hung around the Slovakia trip. For example, the Sept. 14 beatification Mass took place in a neighborhood of Bratislava called Petrzalka, designed as a model Soviet quarter. It was composed almost entirely of high-rise apartment buildings, with no restaurants, bars or cinemas to distract workers from their tasks. Most pointedly, there were no churches. Since the collapse of Communism, two parishes have been opened in Petrzalka, and on Sept. 14 John Paul blessed the foundation stones for a third, to be dedicated to the Holy Family. The square where the Mass was celebrated will itself be renamed the  “Piazza of John Paul II.” The choice of location and the symbolism was obviously calculated to put an exclamation point on Communism’s failure to scrub Catholicism out of the Slovak soul.

• The Slovakian abortion debate took an odd turn on Saturday, Sept. 13, when two three-year-old conjoined twins who had been surgically separated were introduced to the pope at the end of his Mass in Roznava. Bishop Eduard Kojnok decided to present them to reinforce the argument that even the most seemingly desperate situations are not an argument for abortion. The political effectiveness of the symbolism was undercut, however, when the mother of the twins gave an interview to the local media saying that she had not known the burdens the twins would have to carry, and hinting that had she known, she might have opted for an abortion. She also objected to what she felt was the “instrumentalization” of her children by the church for political purposes. The abortion theme surfaced again at the pope’s concluding Mass Sept. 14, when an anti-abortion petition with 150,000 signatures was among the gifts offered.

• Three cardinals on my list of possible successors to John Paul II concelebrated the Sept. 14 beatification Mass with the pope in Bratislava: Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, Miroslav Vlk of Prague, and my personal favorite dark-horse candidate, Lubomyr Husar, the Greek Catholic patriarch of Ukraine.

* * *

I write this column on my way to the United States and Canada for three lectures this week, one in Cleveland at John Carroll University and two in the Toronto area. I managed to spend one day in Rome after the Slovakia trip, Sept. 15, and that afternoon I gave an interview to CBS’ “60 Minutes” program, which is preparing a segment on saint-making to air in conjunction with the Oct. 19 beatification of Mother Teresa.

By now, most readers of “The Word from Rome” will have heard that John Paul considered skipping the beatification stage for Mother Teresa and moving directly to canonization. The pope sent a letter to cardinals asking for their reaction, which was sufficiently mixed that he decided to back down.

News reports treated this as a sign of the pope’s special esteem for Mother Teresa, which indeed it is. But it also reflects a theological debate that has been going on among experts for some years as to whether beatification really makes sense anymore.

Recall that for the first 1,200 years of church history, the Vatican had virtually no role in the declaration that a given person was a saint. It was not until 1642 that anything resembling the modern process was instituted. The ancient notion was that a saint’s following would develop locally among those who knew him or her, and if the fame of the cult grew, eventually it would be observed by the universal church. Thus when popes began to systematize the business of making saints, they respected this distinction with a two-stage procedure: beatification to approve a local cult, canonization to extend that cult to the universal church.

In the modern world of telecommunications, however, that distinction may no longer have any practical meaning. When Mother Teresa is beatified in October, for example, the ceremony will probably be attended by some 250,000 people or so in St. Peter’s Square, and will be broadcast all around the world. In such a context, it is absurd to believe that her veneration will be restricted to a single diocese in India.

The Oct. 19 celebration may thus end up proving the point that beatification is an institution that has outlived its usefulness.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

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