The German shepherd bids farewell to a 'wolf in winter'

by John L. Allen Jr.

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Cardinal Miloslav Vlk (CNS)

Pope Benedict XVI, the first German pontiff since the 16th century (or the 11th, depending on whether you count Adrian VI, born in Utrecht while it was still part of the Holy Roman Empire), has sometimes playfully been dubbed "the German shepherd." To extend that zoological pun, this weekend in the Czech Republic, the German shepherd will share his stage with a wolf -- albeit a wolf by now in winter.

At 77, and struggling with spotty health, Cardinal Miloslav Vlk of Prague (whose last name in Czech means "wolf") has announced that this will be his last major public event, and that he expects to be replaced by the end of the year. In effect, Benedict's visit is also Vlk's swan song.

One of the most remarkable Catholic prelates of the 20th century, Vlk is that rare figure whose biography seems to perfectly crystallize the larger dramas of his time. He's also perhaps the closest thing to an alter ego of the late Pope John Paul II on the European scene, so a look at Vlk's story may also offer some insight about the state of the church, and John Paul's legacy, in the early 21st century.

A circuitous path

Like John Paul, Vlk's path to ecclesiastical prominence was circuitous, shaped by the vicissitudes of life behind the Iron Curtain. Born in South Bohemia in 1932, Vlk's original dream was not of the priesthood. Unlike the young Karol Wojtyla, however, who aspired to the theatre, Vlk's fantasy was to be an airplane pilot. By the time he got to middle school, a sense of vocation to the priesthood had begun to flower instead.

Following the 1948 Communist takeover of what was then Czechoslovakia, entering the seminary wasn't an option. Vlk therefore worked in a car factory and completed his military service, before earning a Ph.D. in library science and becoming a professional archivist. It wasn't until 1964 that he could begin studies for the priesthood, leading to ordination in 1968 during the short-lived "Prague Spring".

After that brief window of hope was slammed shut by a flotilla of Soviet tanks, Vlk was marked as a potential enemy of the regime. In 1971, he was exiled to a string of remote mountain parishes; by 1978, he was denied permission to act as a priest altogether.

For the next decade, "Citizen Vlk" ministered in an underground catacombs church, while working during the day as a window-washer in downtown Prague. He later said that he was sustained during this period by the spirituality of the Focolare movement, founded by Italian laywoman Chiara Lubich and emphasizing unity across political and religious divisions. Vlk would later become one of Focolare's best friends, chairing its annual meeting of bishops.

His taste of repression inclined Vlk to be skeptical of the Vatican policy of Ostpolitik, or outreach to the Soviets, under Pope Paul VI and his Secretary of State, Cardinal Agostino Casaroli. Papal biographer George Weigel, however, said that Vlk's critique was always "more thoughtful than you'd get from a true wild man of the resistance church." If nuanced, Vlk's anti-Communism was no less steadfast; as recently as 2006, he suggested that Communist parties perhaps ought to be banned in the same way that being a Nazi is against Czech law.

While he wasn't a protagonist of the 1989 "Velvet Revolution," which swept the Communists from power, Vlk was sympathetic to its aims. He would later carve out a warm relationship with dissident intellectual Vaclav Havel, an avowed agnostic who became the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic. (Despite his agnosticism, Havel also has some common ground with Pope Benedict XVI. The pope's motto is "co-workers of the truth," while Havel described his political philosophy, shaped in the context of an Orwellian regime, as "living in truth.")

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Vlk's upward movement was swift. John Paul II named him the Bishop of Ceské Bud?jovice in Budweis in 1990 (so yes, Vlk was briefly a "Budweiser"), and then in 1991 tapped him as the archbishop of Prague. Vlk became a cardinal in 1994, by which time he was already a heavyweight in the global church. Elected president of the Council of European Bishops' Conferences in 1993, he would hold that post for almost eight years, succeeding the legendary Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan.

For the next decade, Vlk was widely tipped as a possible successor to John Paul II. In the end, however, his role in the conclave of April 2005 that elected Pope Benedict XVI was mostly as a footnote: he was the lone cardinal-elector whose last name didn't contain a single vowel.

Two streams of criticism

In another parallel to John Paul II, Vlk rocketed to international influence and celebrity status while never being quite able to shake two persistent streams of criticism: Catholic traditionalists, who see him as a liberal modernizer, in his case literally a wolf in shepherd's clothing; and liberals of both the Catholic and secular variety, at least some of whom who regard Vlk as a conservative stick-in-the-mud.

Perhaps fueled by his formation with Focolare, unity has been a central passion of Vlk's career. His episcopal motto is Jesus' prayer from the Gospel of John, "That they may all be one."

Vlk took a lead role in promoting reconciliation between Czechs and Germans, no small challenge given that, in some ways, Czech nationalism has been defined over the centuries in terms of resistance to perceived German (and Austrian) aggression. Czechs and Germans still fall into cycles of mutual recrimination for the German occupation of Czechoslovakia during World War II and the post-war expulsion of more than two million ethnic Germans from the Sudetenland. An estimated 300,000 Germans died in what is today regarded as a classic instance of "ethnic cleansing."

Vlk pioneered an exchange of letters between the Czech and German bishops in the early 1990s, apologizing for past wrongs and offering forgiveness. Vlk styled that exchange as a model for civil society. For his efforts, Vlk was awarded the Grand Cross of Merit by then-German President Roman Herzog in 1999.

In a recent interview, Vlk acknowledged that Czech-German tensions are, despite his best efforts, still very much alive, reflected in speculation in some Czech media that Benedict XVI is coming to their country as "the voice of Sudeten Germans." (To this day, the Germans who were expelled, and their descendants, seek compensation from the Czech government.) In what is arguably a sign of sensitivity, organizers have announced that Benedict XVI will not speak German while in the Czech Republic, but rather English and Italian. (For the record, Vlk says that's because English is more familiar to young Czechs, and Italian is "closer to the liturgy.")

Vlk has also been an ardent champion of Christian unity. His breakthrough success on that front came in 1999, when Vlk was instrumental in crafting an apology by John Paul II for the "cruel death" of the famed medieval Czech reformer Jan Hus. Burned at the stake as a heretic in 1415 during the Council of Constance, Hus is considered a forerunner of the Protestant Reformation as well as a father of the Czech nation. In his 1999 speech, John Paul expressed "deep sorrow" for Hus' death and praised his "moral courage."

That act, which built upon consistent statements and gestures from Vlk, was widely praised for ushering in a new ecumenical climate, not just in the Czech Republic but across Eastern and Central Europe.

Vlk's interest in unity also naturally led him to broad support for European unification and for the Czech Republic's entry into the European Union, a position which at times put him at odds with conservative leaders. (For some European Catholics, anti-EU activism is a signature issue, analogous to the anti-abortion struggle for Catholics in the United States. In those circles, the EU is seen as a vehicle for imposing secularism. Vlk is not unsympathetic; in a recent interview, he said that the rejection of an EU treaty by Irish voters came because the EU has "dropped its Christian roots." He also warned that the religious tone in Europe will increasingly be set by Muslims unless Christian values are restored.)

Shock therapy

A defining feature of Catholicism in Vlk's part of the world is that the tensions which shaped the church elsewhere after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), between reformers and traditionalists, were largely frozen in place during the Communist era. As long as Catholics were struggling to keep the church alive vis-à-vis a hostile regime, they simply didn't have time to fight amongst themselves.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the church thus experienced its own form of "shock therapy," as developments and fissures that evolved over several decades in the West erupted all at once in the 1990s -- which meant, in practice, that they all happened on Vlk's watch.

In many ways, Vlk came down on the side of the reformers. One small example: Communion in the hand wasn't widely introduced in the Czech Republic until the mid-1990s, and even then a coalition of traditional priests tried to discourage it. Vlk shot them down, saying it had become normal practice elsewhere, and there was no reason why the Czech Republic should stand apart.

Vlk has been a champion of lay activism, again informed by his experience of the Focolare. He's also been an outspoken proponent of the need for the church to come to terms with its own failures. In 2007, when a scandal erupted in Poland based on revelations that some clergy had collaborated with the secret Communist-era police, Vlk condemned the popular conservative radio outlet Radio Maryja for trying to "sweep the whole thing under the carpet." For his part, he's called for the Czech church to be a "house of glass," including cooperating with government inquiries about the role its clergy played under the Soviets.

Vlk has been sharply critical of the rise of far-right and xenophobic sentiment in Central Europe, joining Jewish protests in 2007 when right-wingers planned a march through Prague's Jewish quarter on the anniversary of Kristallnacht. In 2006, Vlk criticized a group of Lefebvrite Catholics who staged a conference in Prague, accusing them of sympathies for "anti-Semitism and neo-Nazism." Local organizers fired back that Vlk showed "ill will to socially ostracize Catholics who point to the negative consequences of liberalization processes in the church."

Vlk's reputation as a "man of the council" was cemented by his role in changing the theological climate at Prague's Charles University. During the 1990s the Catholic theological faculty under Fr. Vaclav Wolf was seen as a bastion of traditionalism. According to local sources, Wolf had discouraged the admission of laity to theology programs, and had insisted upon a largely pre-conciliar curriculum -- a situation which not only produced intra-Catholic division, but also led to threats in 2001 of a loss of accreditation from the state's Education Ministry.

In 2002, Vlk withdrew Wolf's canonical license as a theologian. That led to the appointment of a new Jesuit dean who, as Vlk put it, would preside over "an open faculty which will cooperate with church and civil authorities in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council." (Wolf appealed to Rome, but Vlk's action was upheld.)

Inevitably, however, Vlk didn't move far or fast enough for everyone's taste. In 1999, one of the Czech Republic's best-known progressive priests, Dominican Fr. Odilo Stampach, announced that he was abandoning Roman Catholicism to affiliate with the Old Catholic Church in protest over what he described as harassment about his orthodoxy. (Stampach taught at Charles University, where he repeatedly clashed with Wolf. Stampach has also been perhaps the most flamboyant voice calling upon the church to come clean about its role during the Soviet era, including the alleged collaboration of priests with the secret police.)

Early success, later frustration

Again to some extent like John Paul II, many of Vlk's defining successes came early, while his later years have been more ambivalent, marked as much by frustration as triumph.

Most notably, Vlk has fought a decade-long, and still unsuccessful, battle to work out a new legal framework for the Catholic church in the Czech Republic, which would include resolution of some $6 billion in church property confiscated under the Communists and never returned. That includes almost a million acres of forest which formed the church's traditional economic base. In 2004, Vlk agreed to waive restitution of much of that property in exchange for financial compensation, and at one stage a deal seemed within reach that would have paid the church roughly $4.8 billion over sixty years (with interest, the final total would have been close to $15 billion).

That plan fell apart in parliament due to opposition from leftist forces -- including, naturally, the Communists. It was merely the latest setback for Vlk, who seemed initially optimistic about a new climate for the church post-1989, but who has since grown increasingly bitter.

More than once, Vlk has suggested that Czech politicians actually prefer the status quo, since in the absence of compensation or restitution of its property, the church remains financially dependent upon the state. Priests' salaries in the Czech Republic, for example, are paid by the government. A serious compensation package, Vlk has hinted, would give the church an independence which some politicians fear.

(By the way, that suspicion is not simply paranoia. When the Communists began paying priests' salaries in 1949, it was with the explicit aim of making them more compliant. One consequence of the proposed compensation deal is that salary subsidies would be gradually phased out.)

To date, the Czech parliament has also not ratified a new concordat, or basic treaty, with the Vatican, making it the lone Central European state to fail to do so. Things became so testy that in 2005, when John Paul II died, Vlk spurned suggestions that he call for a national day of mourning. "If this government wants to make a gesture," he snapped, "let it approve the Czech-Vatican treaty."

In 2006, the Czech government claimed the power to approve, or to reject, the opening of church facilities such as parishes and charities, a move Vlk strenuously opposed. One year later, Vlk publicly defined church-state relations in the Czech Republic as the worst of all Central European post-communist societies.

At a deeper level, Vlk shared John Paul's dream that the newly liberated nations of the Soviet sphere, where Catholics paid in blood to keep the faith alive, would awaken the West from its spiritual torpor, and he has also shared John Paul's disappointment that this dream has gone largely unrealized.

"We discovered that God was near when the rest of the world had forgotten us," Vlk said a decade ago. "Today, people are searching for religion the world over … not just religious theories, but the true living God. That's where our experiences may prove helpful in a Western context."

Instead, both John Paul and Vlk watched as the missionary tide in Europe flowed mostly in the opposite direction: the East assimilated Western values, lifestyles and patterns of consumption, without shipping much spiritual energy in the other direction (except, perhaps, for the growing number of Polish priests serving abroad.)

Truth to be told, the Czech Republic probably wasn't ever destined to become a spiritual exporter. According to Austrian sociologist Fr. Paul Zulehner, the Czech Republic and the former East Germany are the only two zones of the erstwhile Soviet sphere where state-sponsored atheism was an unqualified success. Today, some 60 percent of Czechs say they have no religious affiliation, and while a third of the population is nominally Catholic, levels of Mass attendance and other indicators of religious vitality are notoriously low. For the last several years, more priests have died in Prague each year than were ordained.

Meanwhile, Czech society is rapidly embracing a Dutch-style ethos of tolerance. A domestic partnership law for gay couples was adopted in 2006, legal abortion is inexpensive and widely accepted, and polls show growing support for the legalization of euthanasia. Echoing John Paul once more, Vlk has warned Czechs about divorcing freedom from truth -- becoming intoxicated with liberty, but failing to ask what ultimate ends that liberty ought to serve.

"All kinds of things have been transformed," Vlk rued not long ago, "but no one bothered about the transformation of hearts."

Faced with these disappointments, local observers say that Vlk has become a bit more withdrawn, especially in the face of health difficulties. (Vlk took an extended convalescence in 2008 due to heart problems, which he said were compounded by exhaustion.)

At least in terms of Vlk's public image, the populist prelate who once merrily revealed that as a young man, "various girls swirled around me, and one fell in love with me," has to some extent receded. Czech journalist Petr Tresnak lamented in 2007 that Vlk has become a "crashing bore," and that in Vlk's twilight, the Czech church "shows zero internal life, movement or creativity."

Not quite done

As the clock winds down on Vlk's tenure, speculation inevitably has turned to who might come next as Archbishop of Prague. Local media have pointed to three names: Bishop Dominik Duka of Hradec Králové, a Dominican who spent time in Czech jails with Vaclav Havel during the Communist era; Archbishop Jan Graubner of Olomouc, widely seen as the leader of the local church's conservative wing; and Norbertine Abbot Michael Josef Pojezdný of Prague's Strahov Monastery.

While there's certainly something to be said for each, most observers concede that none is likely to capture the same international spotlight as Vlk.

That's not to suggest, however, that the "wolf in winter" is quite done yet. Vlk seems eager to use this weekend's visit of a German pope to deepen healing between Czechs and Germans. With typical candor, Vlk recently said that neither society has done enough to promote reconciliation, because nationalist resentments remain too valuable a "trump card" for politicians.

Vlk is also hardly sitting out the current political crisis in the Czech Republic, which has seen a deal to allow new elections to replace an unpopular interim government fall apart at the last minute. This week, Vlk published a column urging Czech voters to scrutinize the moral character of political candidates, looking past their "often nonsensical and naive promises for which there is no ground."

The current crisis, Vlk opined, is a logical consequence of the entire course of post-1989 development, which prioritized economic development over moral renewal.

Whatever balance sheet historians eventually draw, Vlk will inevitably loom as one of the great Catholic personalities of his time. If his batting average of success and failure isn't quite as high as that of his mentor, John Paul II, it's worth recalling that John Paul got to take his swings all over the world, while Vlk was fated to play in what is, by Catholic standards, definitely not a hitter's park -- the thoroughly secularized Czech Republic, where atheism, for all intents and purposes, is the state church.

One suspects that most Czechs, whatever their theological or ideological inclinations, will be cheering for Vlk's informal exit this weekend to go well. Certainly few figures in recent Catholic memory have done more to earn a rousing sendoff.

[Editor's Note: Pope Benedict XVI is visiting the Czech Republic Sept. 26-28, traveling to Prague, Brno, and Stará Boleslav. It's the pope's first visit to the country and his second to a former Soviet satellite state, after Poland in 2006. NCR senior correspondent John Allen will be in the Czech Republic covering the trip. Watch the NCR Today group blog pages through the weekend for more of Allen's reports.]

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR senior correspondent. His e-mail is

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