Church and social historian Tomáš Petráček on Czech secularism, Slavic paganism, and Easter as a celebration of life

Tomáš Petráček, photo: Tomáš Chlouba, CC BY-SA 3.0

In a wide-ranging interview at the start of Holy Week, leading up to Easter, the Roman Catholic priest Tomáš Petráček – a leading church and social historian – talks about the pagan, Slavic, communist and Hapsburg influences on the position of the church in Czech society over the centuries, and why, in his mind, painting eggs and pre-Christian fertility rites have a welcome place at Easter alongside the liturgy.

Tomáš Petráček,  photo: Tomáš Chlouba,  CC BY-SA 3.0

The modern Czech nation is among the most secular in Europe, with more than seven in ten adults unaffiliated with an organised religion. The country’s largely secular leaning stems especially from dramatic declines over time among those who identify as Catholic, though the Catholic Church remains the largest Christian grouping in the country.

How did this all come to pass? Who better to explain than Father Tomáš Petráček, who before earning a doctorate in theology also studied economic and social history, and ethnology, and as a Roman Catholic priest, serves as chaplain of the academic community in Hradec Králové.

I began by asking Father Tomáš Petráček about his own roots. Born in 1972, he was in his last year grammar school in when the Berlin Wall fell and a whole new world opened up. (To listen to the full interview, click on the white arrow to the left of the blue bar above or download the MP3 to the right; excerpts follow).

“I’m from a small town near Hradec Králové called Hořice v Podkrkonoší, with a very progressive tradition -- not a Communist one but a progressive tradition, a bit nationalist in the spirit of Sokol; I mean the people were progressive and patriotic. Not really Catholic. It was quite difficult for priests there.

“The Velvet Revolution was really an exciting time. For me, as a historian, I’m really grateful for this experience – I lived for almost eighteen years under the Communist regime. But it was also a very difficult time for my family. My grandfather was arrested – he spent many months in prison, almost a year. Then suddenly everything was open, and I could go to university and study history.

“It was also an exciting time for me as a member of the church because also, suddenly, everything was possible and the Czech church started to develop many new initiatives and also looking into their own history.”

Your grandfather spent time in prison for dissident activities, or his Catholic beliefs?

“Well, it was part of this Communist repression against farmers – kulaks. There was the collectivisation of agriculture, so they tried to push all these independent, free-minded farmers to be part of these collectives. It was in the early ‘50s, and it was really difficult time for my grandmother, who had to take care of three small children with very little money. So, my father had to spend two years with his relatives in another part of the country because my grandmother wasn’t able to take care of all three.

“In this spirit, we were also raised – me and my sister – so we had no illusions about the Communist regime. But although the ideological pressure was very strong and developed, with this family background it was easy to be sure about the true character of the regime.” Were your family strong believers? If so, how possible was it to freely exercise your faith?

“Some were, such as my grandmothers and others weren’t. It was possible to visit churches and take part in church life, but there was a price to pay. It was not possible (for an open believer) to work as a teacher, and their children wouldn’t have the possibility to study at university, especially for certain professions.

You first studied history and ethnology, got your MA in 1999, entered the seminary the following year, and over the next two years earned a PhD in economic and social history, and in 2008 your doctorate in theology. I’m recalling this because I think you are uniquely suited to talk about the evolution of the influence and scope of the church in daily public life. Today, here we are at the beginning of Holy Week, ahead of Easter. Radio Prague often get letters from listeners asking how the Czech Republic came to be the ‘most atheistic country in Europe’ What’s behind it?

Illustrative photo: Štěpánka Budková
“It’s true that the Czech Republic, together with eastern Germany and the Baltic States, maybe Bulgaria, are among the most secular countries in the world, and certainly in Europe. The Czech Republic – especially Bohemia, the western part – was very much developed already in the first half of the 19th century. This new phenomena of urbanisation and industrialisation came very soon, and the church was not ready for it. So the church lost immediately one or two generations in the new developing suburban areas like Žižkov and Smíchov (in Prague).

“Then there was the ‘first wave’ of secularisation in Europe, when the church wasn’t able to give really good responses to the social and natural sciences, these new discoveries. So, the church lost much of the new intelligentsia, which was also a rather new social stratum in western society.

“There were also some specific aspects in Czech society like the double position. The Catholic Church was part of the hierarchical power structure of the Austrian state, so it was seen as a part of this power; on the other hand, the church was a protagonist – especially the lower Catholic clergy – of the National Revival movement. So, the church wasn’t able to really benefit from either position, neither as in Austria, in the position of a state church, nor as a member of the opposition, like in Ireland or Poland.

“In the Czech lands, the Catholics soon became strangers in their own nation. It’s surprising because up until the end of the First World War, more than 90 percent of the population were baptised as Catholics; they were members of the Catholic Church. In their minds, they shared another view of Czech history, which was so constructed that the most important aspect was the Hussite movement, then the 15th and 16th centuries with the Czech brethren and Komenský (Comenius) at the end.

“And these were authentic Czech-Slavic parts of Czech history – it means democratic, egalitarian, all these values that were important for modern Europe. But the Catholic Church was connected with a German spirit or a German influence, with feudalism, with hierarchy, with all these values that were problematized at that time of severe nationalism.

“It’s quite surprising because up until the revolution in 1848, the situation was very much the same as in Ireland or Poland, and Austria. There was no real split between the Czech identity and the Catholic or Christian identity. But slowly, there came to be two traditions. One, this old Catholic one from the 17th and 18th centuries, with the cult of St. Wenceslas and St. John of Nepomuk, and the other with the new national heroes – Jan Hus, Jan Zizka and Jan Amos Komenský. And this was because the new Czech elites needed some historical ideology to fight their political struggle for more influence on political life in the Czech lands. They needed something to fight against the Hapsburg dynasty, and against the Austrian state.”

Jumping ahead to the 1990s – there was quite a resurgence of religious faith for a time, which seems to have lulled again. In your study of church, social and economic history, do you see some long-term patterns in this development for this nation?

John Paul II,  photo: KingCrimson,  Public Domain
“Well, what we have in common with all these countries, such as the Baltics or eastern Germany, is they suffered the first wave of secularisation in the 19th and 20th century, and then the second one, which was imposed by the communist state in central and eastern Europe. So there were both of these hard secularisations, which left their mark. But it would be very alibistic to say that the secularisation of the Czech lands was caused by the Communist regime. It has deeper roots and goes really to the middle of the 19th century. After the Velvet Revolution, there was a lot of expectation and the first visit of Pope, John Paul II, was a triumph – it was really something.

“But if you remember already the second visit in 1995, there was already a lot of tension, many problems, like this dispute about the canonisation of St. Jan Sarkander, who was martyrized at the beginning of the Thirty Years War by the Protestant Estates, and for the Czech Protestants, it was seen as an insult to canonise someone who was a hero of the re-Catholicisation and it was already quite problematic. The Czech Catholic Church stayed as the biggest national church, that’s true, but really the numbers of course diminished over the years. One of the reasons is that the Catholic Church was very much damaged in the Communist time, and after the Velvet Revolution, they invested most energy and time into the restoration of the institutions and not so much into the evangelism, efforts to explain to the people why the churches are here, why they are useful for society.

“And of course there was of course always this very problematic motive – which like a poison was destroying this relationship between society and the Catholic Church – and this was the question of restitution of church property (seized under Communism). In the recent years, it’s become a big issue. Many people lost their trust in the church or gave up on the church.”

If we could turn to Easter, the most important holiday in Christianity. … What pre-Christian, Slavic or particularly Czech traditions have endured, merged with the liturgy, or come and gone?

Photo: Zdeněk Bobčík,  Czech Radio
“I think we can divide it into three segments. First, Christians celebrate it mostly in the traditional way, following the liturgy. For most of the society, though, it’s really a long weekend, three or four days – a small holiday. There is this popular habit to decorate the eggs and have a special meal typical for Easter.

“There are folk traditions, like on Easter Monday when the men go with these pomlázka (braided willow switches), visit the houses and whip the women – well, that is really pagan! It’s meant to transfer the energy from the switches to the women, but sometimes it’s quite degrading – an excuse to get drunk for free. I don’t think it’s really something precious.”

“We live in a society now where, for example, it happened it several towns that the city hall wants to somehow celebrate this holiday, so on Good Friday, they organise a barbeque – with pork. They think this is the most popular thing you can do. Of course, for Catholics, Friday is a day for strong penance some fast – and certainly we don’t eat meat. But I think there is no intention to harm somebody. They just don’t know.”

How will you generally mark Easter yourself? Do you deliver services?

“I celebrate Easter with a group of my old students who were part of my student parish in Hradec Králové. Now they are married and have children. We always go to the Orlické hory (Eagle Mountains in north-eastern Bohemia) to a small parish, and there we celebrate all the ceremonies, from Thursday until Sunday. We walk the Stations of the Cross. It’s very peaceful – but also very intensive.”

Painted eggs and willow switches are obvious symbols of fertility. Are there Christian roots in that?

“It’s as old as humanity itself, these rites to prosper and encourage the fertility– I don’t think there is something wrong with it. And there is a connection. Christianity also is basically about the origin of life. If there is life, celebrate it; also the resurrection. All this is about life, defeating death. It is universally human.”

Your first book published in English, under the title ‘The Maelstrom of Secularization, Collaboration and Persecution. Roman Catholicism in Modern Czech Society and the State’, and you’ve done a lot of scholarly work on Catholic exegesis – the interpretation of religious texts – and on progressive Catholicism. Are you a proponent of a more activist church, getting into social issues and engaging the secular population and believers in this way?

“It’s also a very difficult question… I think, as a historian and as a Christian, we live in a very interesting period, but it’s easier for a historian to observe than for a Christian or citizen to live in. But we have something that I’m very grateful for to help us not to be lost, and to see a way. And for me, a very important person now is Pope Francis. And I think he’s somehow the Pope that the Church needs at this time.

9th Station,  Jesus falls for the third time,  Via Dolorosa,  Jerusalem,  photo: Berthold Werner,  CC BY-SA 3.0
“He is rediscovering the true essence of Christianity, going to the roots of evangelium (the Gospel) and offering it to society. Somehow, we have developed so many institutions and systems that we forget that evangelium is in essence the Good News – and we need to rediscover this basic truth, that the most important thing is God’s love for humanity, and all the rest stems from this.”

If you were asked to deliver an Easter sermon at the pulpit right now, what would you say?

“During the Holy Week, we read and listen to the whole story of the suffering and death of Jesus twice... I think the reason for this is to awaken in us true empathy with Jesus, who experienced all this suffering and violence out of love for us. During our own moments of suffering and pain, we can connect to him and not to be alone – at any moment of our lives. He is always on our side.”

“This should also awaken our empathy to all people, most of all those who are close to us, because they need us and we should use this capacity to understand their pain, their problems, their lives. It’s not only an act of generosity; it’s also our gift to ourselves because our world is better if we can see it through the eyes of other people.”