The priest Rome can't embrace

The Vatican would rather forget Ludmilla Javarova. In the dark days of communism, she was ordained secretly. Peter Stanford meets an exceptional woman

ON EASTER SUNDAY, Rome will be awash with priests from every corner of the globe, gathered in all their finery to celebrate the most important day in the Christian calendar with Pope John Paul II. At the same time, in a tiny flat in a soulless block in Brno in the Czech Republic, a single priest in everyday clothes will celebrate a solitary liturgy behind closed doors. At St Peter's, it will be an all-male occasion. In Brno, the celebrant will be female, 68-year-old Ludmilla Javarova, the Catholic Church's first women priest in modern times.

Her case has caused consternation in the Vatican. For this is a woman who was ordained by a bishop in good standing with Rome and who cannot therefore be lightly dismissed. Moreover, in taking holy orders at a time when Czechoslovakia's communist rulers were intent on suppressing the church, she risked her life for the institution that now wants to disown her. Priests were routinely imprisoned, tortured and even killed behind the Iron Curtain.

Javarova and her bishop, the charismatic Felix Davidek, believed that the communists' long-term goal was to destroy the church. To guarantee the survival of the priesthood in the face of such an onslaught, married men and women were ordained. A total of six women were said to be involved, but Javarova is the only one to have spoken to anyone about it.

Rome refuses to give any credence to her claims. Whatever Davidek's reasons, the authorities say, he simply did not have the authority to break a centuries- old rule. Perhaps what disturbs Rome most about Javarova's one-woman crusade is its uncanny parallels to that of Florence Tim Oi Li. Ordained Anglicanism's first woman priest, in war-torn Hong Kong in 1944, by a bishop unable to communicate with the outside world and fearful for the fate of the church, once peace had broken out she became the icon around whom campaigners rallied for their long-running - and ultimately successful - battle for women priests.

Brno is in the industrial heartland of the Czech Republic. My interpreter finally managed to locate Block 23 among the concrete complexes. Ludmilla Javarova peered out nervously: her thin, pinched face, with hair pulled back severely into an insubstantial bun, is reminiscent of one of the more tragic figures in Maggie Smith's repertoire.

She finally let us into her two-roomed flat. We couldn't stay long, she said, looking nervously away as if she was hiding someone in the next room. Publicity is the last thing she wants, she explained. "It will damage the church, me and the memory of Bishop Davidek."

I couldn't help but wonder why then she had agreed to my request for an interview. Dressed in a yellow sleeveless blouse and a thick, straight browny-purple skirt, she wore a simple religious medal around her neck. Her face alternated between the passivity of a nun and the animation of a politician on a street husting. When the latter was more dominant, I started to notice little touches - earrings, a touch of red dye in her greying hair, bright red carpet slippers. She makes no attempt to play down her femininity.

Conscious that the only picture in the room was of Davidek, I asked if she had a family. "No," she fired back, "the Church is my family." The local parish? "No. The underground church. We remain close. Most do not talk with outsiders about their experiences."

Javarova first met Davidek when she was a girl and he was curate in her home village near Brno. Between 1948 and 1962, he was imprisoned, like so many other priests. The collapse of the Prague Spring of 1968, and with it the chance for greater religious toleration, prompted Davidek to think of alternative and radical ways to ensure the future of the church as it faced renewed persecution.

"It was an extraordinary time," Ludmilla recalls, a resistance fighter reflecting on her war-time service. "You cannot understand. For us it was a question of survival. We feared the church would not survive."

In 1970, Davidek preached a radical gospel at a clandestine meeting of the underground church. His ideas split the gathering. He wanted to ordain those the authorities were least likely to suspect of being priests - married men and women. The logic was compelling. The communists may have despised the Catholic Church, but they took it at face value when it said ordination was only for celibate males. For Davidek, tradition could be sacrificed for survival.

"We learned to trust no one. "If they betrayed us, we faced prison, death. We led double lives. In the day I would teach and then at nights we would have our meetings. I would have to stay up all night to prepare my school work for the next day, in case anyone was suspicious. No one knew details about the other priests, except Bishop Davidek."

Javarova's primary role was to visit women prisoners - including nuns. The authorities denied prisoners access to priests and hence the sacraments, but because she was a woman, they did not suspect and let her come and go freely. So successful was her disguise, that she began to act as go- between with the underground priests and Davidek. If the bishop held all the information about his network of priests in his head, she knew almost as much. She had the power of life or death over many.

Since Davidek's death in 1988, Javarova has understandably experienced a terrible sense of loss - of his guidance, his willingness to go it alone, his ability to perhaps explain the situation to Rome and make it acceptable.

Does she still consider that she is a priest? "The Vatican says I am not." But what does she think? "The Vatican says I am not, that the times were extraordinary." There has been a correspondence and she clearly - and it would seemnaively - entertains hopes that Rome may one day welcome her, so she will not be drawn. Friends in the underground church, however, report that she still says mass privately.

Some - including senior officials in Rome trying to sort out the post- revolutionary Czech church - say Davidek was a madman. Is it, I suggest, that the Vatican does not consider Davidek to be a proper bishop? "Never". She shakes her head violently, outraged at such a slander. The Vatican, she points out, grants special rights to bishops in times of persecution so that they can secretly make new bishops without the usual recourse to Rome. So when Davidek was consecrated a bishop by Bishop Jan Blaha in 1968, it was done with Rome's full approval, if not knowledge.

Surely now, I ask, there is no need to be frightened? "I still cannot trust people," Javarova said, looking away, suddenly vulnerable. There are still bad people out there." She is retreating into her shell. Even some of the men who worked most closely with Javarova and Davidek have noted this fear in her. "It's very hard for her," says one. "She's accepted neither as a priest nor as a woman."

A fuller version of this interview appears in Peter Stanford's The She- Pope: A Quest for the Truth Behind the Mystery of Pope Joan, published by Heinemann on 14 April, price pounds 16.99.

Suggested Topics
The current recommendation from Britain's Chief Medical Officer, is that people refrain from drinking on at least two days a week
food + drinkTheory is that hangovers are caused by methanol poisoning
Life and Style
techConcept would see planes coated in layer of micro-sensors and able to sense wear and tear
Patrick Stewart in the classiest ice bucket to date
scienceExcitement from alien hunters at 'evidence' of extraterrestrial life
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
Life and Style
Horst P Horst mid-fashion shoot in New York, 1949
fashionFar-reaching retrospective to celebrate Horst P Horst's six decades of creativity
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Senior Network Engineer-(CCIE, CCNP, Cisco, London)

    £65000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Engineer-(CCIE, CC...

    Senior Network Analyst - (CCIE, Cisco, CISSP)

    £70000 - £80000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Analyst - (CCIE, C...

    Senior Network Engineer-(Design, Implementation, CCIE)

    £60000 - £80000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Engineer-(Design, ...

    JavaScript Developer (C++ / C# / HTML, Java Angular.js) London

    £50000 - £60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A world leading business intellig...

    Day In a Page

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition