A martyr's story

Wire services precede the transmission of major news stories to subscribing publications with the sounding of bells. No bells rang last fall when this report came to Our Sunday Visitor from Catholic News Service, but it caused many bells to ring in my mind.

It was the bulletin that Cardinal Ján Chryzostom Korec, the bishop emeritus of Nitra, Slovakia, had died. The news took me back about 20 years. At that time, Slovakia had just separated itself from the artificial union with Bohemia created by the world’s “statesmen” following the First World War in what was called Czechoslovakia.

More profoundly, it had just been freed from 40 years of communism, and it was under communism that Cardinal Korec won for himself a place on the Church’s golden list of martyrs.

He was a priest when Slovak Communist officials arrested and imprisoned him. Never forgetting that he was a priest, and he was a follower of Jesus Christ — no easy task — he somehow survived the harshness of imprisonment and was released.

This release, however, had strings attached. Authorities sternly warned him that he could not function as a priest. To keep him busy, they assigned him a job — as an elevator repairman.

He duly looked after defective elevators, but he risked everything by being a priest secretly. He celebrated Mass behind closed doors. He visited the sick on the sly. He counselled people and gave religious instruction, but this he accomplished by walking with the people involved along streets, speaking in a whisper. He knew his tiny room was bugged, and anything overheard on the street might be reported to the police.

Pope Paul VI, now Blessed Pope Paul VI, heard of him and arranged for him to be ordained a bishop in secret. The new bishop realized that in itself his new status only increased his jeopardy in that world of bitter persecution, but he embraced his new calling. At long last, when Slovakia was free, Pope St. John Paul II named him a cardinal and bishop of Nitra, the oldest of Slovakia’s dioceses, founded by St. Cyril himself. Cardinal Korec served in Nitra until he retired in 2005.

I met him two decades ago when Slovakia’s bishops asked that a group of American Catholic journalists visit to assist Slovak efforts to establish Catholic communications, long forbidden by the Communists. Archbishop John P. Foley, later cardinal, now called to his reward, led the group. We lectured and advised local Slovak Catholics on how to publish religious journals and interact with the public media.

And we met Cardinal Korec. I shall never forget the day. Humble and gentle, it was hard to imagine what he had experienced. Wise and dedicated, he had one interest: the renewal of Catholicism in Slovakia where a millennium before it had been rooted, after communism so intently, but unsuccessfully, tried to exterminate.

As we Americans drove away from this meeting, Archbishop Foley said, “Today we met a martyr.” Indeed we had.

A week later, we met another living martyr, Cardinal Miroslav Vlk of Prague. Imprisoned, harassed, required to wash windows for his daily sustenance by the Communists, the cardinal greeted us with the utmost hospitality. He so wanted Czech Catholic communications to live again.

Czech and Slovak Catholics died under communism, which died a generation ago, but Catholics die for their faith at this very moment.

Why? What about Catholicism impels modern martyrs, as it impelled Agatha, and Isaac Jocques, and the Korean martyrs, to pay any price to keep it in their hearts and to share it with others?

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.