On September 12-15, Pope Francis will travel to Slovakia, making this the fourth papal pilgrimage to the East-Central European nation after St. John Paul II’s visit to then-Czechoslovakia in 1990 (which included Bratislava) and trips to the independent Slovak state in 1995 and 2003.
Gaining independence only in 1993, Slovakia spent most of the previous millennium under foreign rule, primarily by the Hungarians, while during the existence of the Czechoslovak state (1918-1993) the Slovaks played second fiddle to the Czechs. The survival of Slovak identity was nurtured by the Catholic Church, and many priests played a prominent role (sometimes not always for the good) in the nation’s history. Here are some of them.
Saints Cyril (826-869) and Methodius (815-885): The first two priests on this list are not Slovaks but rather two Greek brothers known as the Apostles to the Slavs who created the Cyrillic alphabet in which many Southern and Eastern Slavic languages are written (like other Western Slavic tongues, Slovak uses the Latin alphabet). St. John Paul II, always concerned that European Christianity breathe “with both lungs,” named them the co-patrons of Europe.
These missionaries from Thessaloniki arrived in Great Moravia in present-day Slovakia and the Czech Republic in 863 upon the request of the Moravian prince Ratislav; thus, the lands of contemporary Slovakia were Christianized more than a century before neighboring Hungary and Poland, for example. Apart from bringing the territories of today’s Slovakia into the European cultural sphere at a time when the Old Continent was defined by Christianity, they helped in the formation of a Slavic linguistic identity: the brothers codified Old Church Slavonic, which they used to instruct priests and in the liturgy in Moravia.
After Cyril’s death, Methodius returned there, although the local Frankish (German) clergy opposed his use of Slavonic in the liturgy and imprisoned him until the intervention of Pope John VIII in 870, who initially asked the saint to refrain from using the Slavic liturgy. Methodius did not listen, however, and by 880 he finally succeeded in convincing John VIII to permit use of the Slavic liturgy and translation of the Bible into Old Church Slavonic. Veneration to Saints Cyril and Methodius remains strong in Slovakia to this day, where their feast day in the Latin calendar (July 5th) is a public holiday.
Anton Bernolák (1762-1813): This Catholic priest from Trnava codified the Slovak language. While a seminarian in Bratislava, he founded the Society for the Cultivation of the Slavic Language. Bernolák considered Slovak to be the purest of the Slavic languages, for in his view it was least corrupted by outside linguistic influences, and in 1787 he published his Philologico-Critical Dissertation of the Letters of the Slavs, in which he laid down the rules of the Slovak literary language.
Meanwhile, in 1790 Bernolák wrote a handbook on Slovak grammar, which he based on a Czech grammar guide (Biblical Czech strongly influenced the Slovak written language, which is why the two languages today are very similar). This Slovak clergyman devoted his life to the promotion of the Slovak language, founding the Slovak Learned Society, whose membership consisted primarily of Catholic priests.
Andrej Hlinka (1864-1938) was the most vocal advocate of Slovak independence and autonomy under Hungarian and later Czechoslovak rule. In 1913, during the twilight of Hungarian domination over Slovakia, Father Hlinka, a former unsuccessful candidate to the Hungarian Diet, founded the Slovak People’s Party, which was the first Slovak political party ever. He served as its chairman until his death a quarter-century later. Following the formation of Czechoslovakia from the ashes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the close of the Great War, the Slovak People’s Party opposed the process of “Czechoslovakization,” which consisted of an attempt to create a forged Czechoslovak identity that ignored Slovak cultural distinctiveness, and lobbied for Slovak autonomy. For this reason, Hlinka frequently clashed with Czechoslovakia’s president Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk.
Hlinka is a controversial figure in Slovakia, and commemoration of him is particularly opposed by the country’s Jews because of his professed admiration of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. Furthermore, during the Second World War, the paramilitary wing of the Slovak People’s Party, which deported tens of thousands of Slovak Jews to death camps, was named the Hlinka Guard.
Jozef Tiso (1887-1947): Unfortunately, a survey of the prominent priests in Slovak history must include Monsignor Jozef Tiso, arguably one of the most unsavory clergymen in all of Christian history.
Tiso followed Hlinka as the chairman of the Slovak People’s Party after the latter’s death in 1938. A year after Hitler’s conquest of Czechoslovakia, an independent Slovak fascist state allied with the Axis was formed with Tiso at its head. Its obscene “achievements” include sending 50,000 Slovak troops to aid Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939 (invaded by Germany from the west and the Soviet Union from the east, the Slovak Wehrmacht soldiers coming from the south meant that the country was surrounded by incoming enemies on three sides) and the USSR in 1941 as well as the deportation of the vast majority of Slovak Jews to death camps (the Slovak government paid the Germans 500 Reichsmarks for the “resettling” of each Jew in Auschwitz-Birkenau).
Tiso himself made anti-Semitic speeches and signed the Jewish deportation orders as well as a law on the “Aryanization” (read: state theft) of Jewish property. The Vatican protested through Archbishop Giuseppe Burzio, chargé d’affaires to Tiso’s regime. This later had some effect, as Tiso gave some presidential exemptions for the lives of Slovak Jews near the end of the war. In 1944, the Slovak resistance staged a brave uprising against Tiso, who was hanged as a war criminal in 1947. Whereas in recent years the Vatican has done much to punish corrupt clergymen and remove them from public Church life, disturbingly Tiso’s remains are interred at the Nitra cathedral, while in 2008 the Archbishop of Trnava celebrated a requiem Mass for him.
Blessed Pavel Peter Gojdič (1888-1960): In wartime Slovakia there were many morally upright prelates who stand in stark contrast to the war criminal Tiso. Among them are Pavel Peter Gojdič, the Greek-Catholic Bishop of Prešov.
Already in the 1930s, Gojdič opposed the chauvinistic stance of Czechoslovak authorities towards the Ruthenian minority, which included his believers. He once again defended the ancient Christian teaching that all are equal in Christ, be they Greek or Jew, man or woman, slave or freeman (Gal 3: 28). When Tiso’s government began deporting Jews, Bishop Gojdič publicly protested by issuing a pastoral letter and suggested to Archbishop Burzio that the pope laicize Tiso unless he would resign. Additionally, Bishop Gojdič personally baptized and hid up to twenty-seven Slovak Jews in Greek-Catholic monasteries, saving them from imminent death; he appealed to the priests in his eparchy to likewise shelter Jews.
Following the suppression of the Greek-Catholic Church under communism, Gojdič was sentenced to life imprisonment and refused an offer by the regime to become the Orthodox patriarch of Czechoslovakia, seeing it as infidelity to Rome. In 2001, Pope St. John Paul II, who had once prayed at Gojdič’s tomb during a visit to Slovakia, beatified the bishop, while six years later the State of Israel granted him the title of Righteous Among the Nations, given to Gentiles who aided Jews during the Holocaust at personal risk.
Ján Chryzostom (1924-2015) was a legendary figure of the underground Church in communist Czechoslovakia. Ordained a bishop at just twenty-seven in 1951, making him the youngest bishop at the time, this Jesuit illegally functioned as a bishop until his arrest in 1960.
Released from a twelve-year prison sentence during the Prague Spring thaw of 1968, Korec worked as a manual laborer throughout the 1970s, simultaneously secretly exercising his duties as a bishop, which included clandestinely ordaining priests. Under the well-intentioned but disastrous policy of Ostpolitik under the pontificates of Saints John XXIII and Paul VI, the Vatican tried to avoid confrontation with communist regimes in the hope that doing so could lead to the negotiation of better conditions for Catholics living behind the Iron Curtain. In 1976, Paul VI asked Korec to stop secretly ordaining priests. Korec reluctantly complied, although doing so led to no improvement in the regime’s treatment of the Church, thus demonstrating how myopic Ostpolitik was.
By the late 1970s, ten of Czechoslovakia’s thirteen dioceses were without a bishop, a situation unparalleled anywhere in the Eastern Bloc with the exception of fanatically atheistic Albania. Yet thanks to the leadership of such brave bishops like Korec, the Church there flourished (especially in Slovakia, which is much more religious than the highly secularized Czech lands of Bohemia and Moravia). Following the collapse of communism, John Paul II made Korec the Archbishop of Nitra, a function he exercised from 1991 to 2005, and a cardinal. Known for cordial relations with the Jewish community, in 1987, Korec became the co-signatory of a letter apologizing to Slovakia’s Jews for Slovak participation in the Holocaust.
Pavol Hnilica (1921-2006): This Slovak bishop and Jesuit was a close confidante of two of the twentieth century’s best-known saints, John Paul II and Mother Teresa, serving as a spiritual advisor to the latter. During the Marian apparitions in Fatima, Portugal, the Blessed Virgin asked that Russia be consecrated to her Immaculate Heart. The man who directly accomplished this was Hnilica himself. At John Paul II’s request, Hnilica, who was living in Calcutta with Mother Teresa at the time, obtained a tourist visa to visit the USSR in 1984. While in the Kremlin, he read the prayer of consecration, which had been hidden within the pages of Pravda. What effect this act had on the collapse of the Soviet Evil Empire seven years later is a matter of personal faith; however, Hnilica is a hero to those devoted to Our Lady of Fatima. He was also a strong proponent of the alleged Marian apparitions at Medjugorje, which have not yet been officially recognized by the Vatican, and in an interview spoke of John Paul II’s fond interest in them.
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