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
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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.