FRANTISEK TOMASEK was head of the Roman Catholic Church in Czechoslovakia for more than a quarter of a century. Most of his long leadership fell in the period of repression that followed the crushing of the 1968 Prague Spring and lasted until the Velvet Revolution of November 1989. During those long years of mindless reaction, Tomasek became, with Alexander Dubcek and Vaclav Havel, one of the three symbols of resistance to Communist rule.
Tomasek presided over the growth in influence of the Catholic Church in Czechoslovakia, caused in part by his increasingly bold and vigorous defence of religious and human rights. Indeed as he grew older he became more and more outspoken.
Tomasek was born at the tail-end of the last century, in the Moravian village of Studenka, then part of the Habsburg Empire. He was the son of a schoolteacher and one of six children. His father died when Frantisek was still a boy, but he went on to complete his schooling and, after military service, began studies for the priesthood at the seminary in Olomouc (later to be closed by the Communists). He was ordained in July 1922, and then taught religion in schools and later at the Cyril and Methodius theological faculty. He also studied there for his doctorate, which he obtained in 1938. The increasingly turbulent times in Europe brought the Nazi invasion, and with it the closure of the Czech universities. Tomasek was forced to return to schoolteaching.
When the faculty was reopened after the war, Tomasek resumed his teaching, at the same time gaining his second doctorate. But the end of the war had not brought peace to society. In February 1948 the Communists seized complete power, beginning a long and difficult period for all the churches in Czechoslovakia. The Communists moved to restrict their influence, confiscating church lands and forbidding religious education. Two of the Catholic Church's strongest supports had vanished. The following year, 1949, strict controls were imposed on the churches, forbidding new appointments without state permission, censoring sermons and pastoral letters and banning many religious organisations.
It was against this background that in October 1949 Pope Pius XII hurriedly named Tomasek - without the approval of the Communist government - as Auxiliary Bishop of Olomouc. The consecration took place the following day. Two bishops had similarly been named by the church only two months before in Slovakia. But the Vatican's last-ditch attempt to preserve a church leadership - already suffering from the arrest of Archbishop Beran of Prague - was too late.
In 1950 the state finally moved to arrest all the bishops loyal to Rome, including Tomasek, to destroy the monastic institutions and close all but two of the Catholic seminaries. Half the country's priests were sent to join the bishops in labour camps. The Eastern-rite Catholic Church in Slovakia was outlawed. The destruction of the Catholic Church seemed complete.
Tomasek was freed from a labour camp three years later, but forbidden to resume his episcopal functions. The state allowed him to serve as parish priest in the village of Moravska Huzova. Here he remained for the next 10 years. A surprising break came in the 1960s, when the state unexpectedly gave him permission to attend the Second Vatican Council. He was the sole representative from Czechoslovakia able to participate in all the sessions. Tomasek was greatly influenced by the reforms of the Council, but the severely restricted church life in Czechoslovakia meant he would have to await more favourable times to implement the reforms.
The Communist regime allowed the much-persecuted Archbishop of Prague, Josef Beran, to travel to Rome to collect his cardinal's hat in 1965. But they forbade him to return. So Tomasek was appointed in his place as apostolic administrator of the archdiocese.
In 1968 the country was swept by the sudden liberalisation of the Prague Spring under Alexander Dubcek, and Tomasek was quick to welcome the reforms and pledge his support. Restrictions on church life were lifted, and banned priests were allowed to return to their jobs. The Eastern-rite Church became legal once more. This was the opportunity Tomasek had been waiting for. He set up the Movement for Conciliar Renewal, whose aim was to inform the priests and laity of the work of the Council and to give the laity a greater say in the Church through a pastoral council of priests and lay Catholics.
But the Soviet-led invasion of August 1968 and the harsh 'normalisation' that followed soon reversed the reforms. State control over all aspects of church life was reimposed. The notorious pro-government peace priests' movement Pacem in Terris (misappropriating the name of Pope John XXIII's 1963 encyclical) began its task of undermining the Church from within. Four dioceses came under the control of the movement when the Vatican foolishly allowed four prominent members to be appointed to the depleted ranks of the episcopate in 1972. Tomasek, though not a member, had to move cautiously. At first he did not confront the movement head-on.
In May 1976 Pope Paul VI appointed Tomasek to the College of Cardinals but the appointment was made in pectore (secretly) because of fears of reprisals by the Czechoslovak government. The Pope did not feel it was safe to make the appointment public until the following year. It was not until December 1977 that the Pope raised Tomasek to the rank of full resident Archbishop of Prague.
It was the election of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II in 1978 that brought a new spirit of self-confidence to the dispirited Catholic Church in Eastern Europe. Wojtyla and Tomasek were old friends, having got to know each other at the Second Vatican Council. The new Pope put an end to the humiliations of the Vatican's Ostpolitik. Tomasek, describing the Pope as 'being very worried about it', condemned Pacem in Terris in 1980. Two years later it was banned by the Vatican and Tomasek removed his authorisation from the movement's paper Catholic News, the only permitted Czech Catholic paper.
It was during the 1980s that Cardinal Tomasek developed from a timid leader - criticised by some as too conciliatory - into the fierce denouncer of the Communist regime. He became a frequent critic of government policies. He backed lay initiatives, such as the 1986 campaign against the new abortion law which drastically liberalised the more restrictive 1958 legislation. In January 1988 he lent his support to a massive nationwide petition demanding more religious freedom, organised by the Moravian layman Augustin Navratil. More than 600,000 Christians and non-Christians signed the unprecedented petition in defiance of the government.
Tomasek's defence of human rights brought him ever greater respect from the largely secular Charter '77 movement, mostly made up of dissident intellectuals. The Catholic Church, suspect under the inter-war First Czechoslovak Republic, once again became the embodiment of the spirit of the nation. His authority was recognised abroad, and a meeting at his episcopal palace near Prague Castle became a regular feature for visiting foreign politicians (George Bush, Margaret Thatcher and Francois Mitterrand were later visitors).
The longing for freedom in Czechoslovakia was fulfilled in November 1989, as the Velvet Revolution mirrored upheavals in other parts of the former Soviet empire in Eastern Europe. In a surprise move, Pope John Paul II chose Czechoslovakia as his first destination for an Eastern European papal pilgrimage outside his native Poland. His visit in April 1990 was the crowning point of Tomasek's long ministry. Aged 90, he proudly welcomed the Pope to Prague's St Vitus's Cathedral.
But it was not until March 1991 - when the effort of fulfilling his many engagements was beginning to take its toll - that Pope John Paul finally accepted Tomasek's resignation. Bishops are required to offer their resignation at the age of 75. The Bishop of Ceske Budejovice, Miloslav Vlk, was named as his successor.
Tomasek's genuine popularity was obvious to all who had stood below his balcony after Sunday Mass in the nearby cathedral, where he would appear to the resounding cheers of the crowd. His long and courageous leadership of his Church earned the respect of his fellow countrymen, whether Catholics or not. And his short post-revolution career already saw him looking to rebuild the ruined institutions of his Church. During his necessarily short retirement he could look back with pride on a worthy career.
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content