“Catholicism Returns to Slovakia”

“Catholicism Returns to Slovakia” by Katrina J. Zeno, MTS

Despite years of religious oppression, the faith of this Catholic country couldn’t be ripped out. The Slovak flag tells it all.

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April 13 and 14, 1951, changed the course of Catholicism in Slovakia. Without warning, the communist government invaded monasteries and cloisters, arrested thousands of priests, brothers, and religious sisters, and shipped them off to work camps and prisons.

“The communists knew that to win over Catholicism, they had to break up the unity between the Holy Father and the bishops,” says Eva Klcovanska, a psychologist and professor at Tranva University in Tranva (pronounced tren-a-va), Slovakia. “Because our allegiance to the pope is so strong it was impossible. So they tried to destroy the relationship between the clergy and the lay people.”

Besides deporting clergy and religious, the communist government imposed severe sanctions on anyone professing to be a believer – promotions were impossible, jobs were often lost, and university entrance was denied for their children. Some were even arrested and sent to prison such as Dr. Silvester Krcmery, MD, and Dr. Vladimir Jukl.

Targeted as enemies of the state, these two Catholic intellectuals were arrested in 1951and imprisoned for 13 years. Upon their release, they were disheartened to find the churches empty. “They thought they spent so many years in prison for nothing,” Eva says.

Determined to revitalize the faith for which they had suffered, Drs. Krcmery and Jukl set about creating an underground church. They gathered people together in secretive groups according to occupation – students, workers, writers, teachers – and taught them to pray, study Scripture, encourage one another, and organize pilgrimages. They also published magazines and newspapers that gave the true history of Slovakia, news about the holy father and the Church in other countries, and articles on the meaning of freedom and the evils of communism.

“The next generation didn’t know what democracy or freedom meant because they were raised under communism,” Eva explains. “They couldn’t travel, so they thought this was life as it should be.”

The communist regime also implemented new, communistic traditions. This required rewriting Slovak history and removing all the signs and symbols of the country’s Catholic roots. This proved to be a risky venture.

“In Tranva’s main square we have a big tower and on the top is a statue of Mary,” Eva says. “One day, the communists sent someone up to remove the statue and in the process, he fell and died. After that, no one had the courage to try again.”

Other religious sites in Tranva weren’t so lucky. The bishop’s house was turned into a soldier’s barrack. Most churches, although left open, were neglected and crumbling. A large statue of the Holy Trinity in the main square was disassembled. However, after the fall of communism, the statue was reassembled from pieces people had hidden in their homes.

“Even though it was impossible to be raised Catholic officially for 40 years, many parents and grandparents still prayed with their children and grandchildren and went to church,” Eva says. “For the Slovak people, life means to live with God.”

This entwining of faith and history can be traced back to 863 when Ratislava, the ruler of Greater Moravia, invited Sts. Cyril and Methodius to this region. Not only did they bring the Gospel, but they created the Slovanic alphabet, making formal education possible.

Under Hungarian rule, Catholic culture and tradition continued for 1,000 years. Thirteen beautiful churches in Gothic and Baroque style were constructed in Tranva, earning it the title of “Slovak Rome.” Then, in 1635, Cardinal Archbishop Peter Pazmany established a university in Tranva, highlighting the city’s role as Slovakia’s cultural center. It was this historical and religious memory that the underground church and its publications kept alive, refusing to be deleted by communist amnesia.

After 25 years of secretive work, the leaders of the underground church decided to take their activities public. On March 25, 1988, a group of 2000 gathered in the town square of Bratislava, the former Slovak capital. Surrounded by policemen, guard dogs, and fire hoses, the group held a candle-light vigil in protest of the communist regime. As a half-hour ticked by without interference, a spirit of victory infused the participants. For the first time in 40 years a public demonstrated for religious freedom had occurred.

Now know as Big Friday, this first protest set the stage for the Velvet Revolution – ten days of protests and talks between the communist government and underground leaders in November 1989, which resulted in opening the country’s borders and allowing other political parties. As the grip of communism relinquished Eastern Europe, Slovakia became an independent country and two leaders of the underground church, Dr. Frantisek Miklosko and Dr. Jan Carnogursky were elected president of parliament and prime minister.

As this new government struggled with sky-rocketing inflation and unemployment, an equally important task confronted them: to re-establish an educational system free of communistic ideology. On March 25, 1992, four years after Big Friday, Dr. Frantisek Miklosko and Dr. Jan Carnogursky refounded Tranva University as a free (secular) university. “At the time, there weren’t enough Catholic professors because all education had been atheistic for 40 years,” Eva explains. “They brought good scholars together and hoped as time went on the university could become Catholic.”

The university, however, almost died in its infancy. Three months after its founding, Vladimir Meciar was elected prime minister and reinstated a communistic approach to governing. “He considered Tranva University as an enemy,” Eva says. “For eight years, he kept narrowing our budget and making it difficult for those who worked here.”

Despite these strangulation tactics, the professors persevered in bringing a new (anticommunistic) world view to the classroom. Eva’s specialty, Christian psychology, was nonexistent in Slovakia before her arrival at Tranva University in 1994. Even Eva didn’t know such a field existed until she studied for a year at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio.

“My training under communism was confined to deterministic, Marxist psychology,” Eva explains. “ It was always my desire to combine psychology with my Catholic faith, but I wasn’t aware that somewhere in the world the field of Christian counseling and psychology actually existed.”

Through her year of study, Eva developed a deeper understanding of the human person as created in God’s image and likeness. She was also trained in the psychology of personality, Christian counseling, pastoral psychology, and the integration of human and spiritual issues, classes she now teaches at the university and a seminary in Banska Bystrica.

“At first, students (and faculty!) were shocked when they realized what I was saying – that we can extend the concept of God into psychology,” Eva says. “This was unacceptable for many because science and God didn’t go together.”

Now, however, the tables are turning. “We have students applying to our university precisely because of the Christian orientation of our psychology program,” she says.

It’s an orientation that is spreading throughout Trnava University, urging for additional development. “A very strong liberalism is coming, and we’re not prepared for it,” Eva says. “We need an intellectual atmosphere where our scholars can develop Catholic thinking and our students can be prepared to demonstrate the fundamental dangers of liberalism and its reductionistic thinking.”

Ten years ago, this type of intellectual work would have been unthinkable. But now, as Eva looks at the three mountains and cross that are the Slovak state symbol, she is reminded of God’s mysterious timing. “We believed communism would end, but many of us didn’t think we’d be alive,” Eva says. “After 40 years of communist oppression and aggression, it’s a miracle that we got to put the cross in our state symbol. God has the last word.”

[Originally published in Our Sunday Visitor, August 8, 1999, under the title of: “For Slovaks, Life Means to Live with God”]

  • "Man...cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself." (GS 24)