Church starts process of beatifying “miracle” priest killed by Communists

Josef Toufar, photo: Czech Television

The Roman Catholic Church has begun the process of beatifying a priest who was at the centre of one of the most bizarre and gruesome episodes of the initial phase of communism in Czechoslovakia. After a cross was said to have moved in his village church, Josef Toufar was brutally tortured into confessing to fabricating the “miracle”. However, if he is beatified, it will be a lengthy process.

Josef Toufar,  photo: Czech Television
The Czech Bishops’ Conference has given the green light to launching the process of beatifying Father Josef Toufar. The move – which would be the first step on a lengthy possible path to sainthood – has been initiated by Jan Vokál, the bishop of Hradec Králové, Mladá fronta Dnes reported on Wednesday.

He told the newspaper that the priest had endured torture heroically and chose to be beaten to death rather than testify against the church and his brethren.

In 1949, the year after the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia, a “miracle” – in the form of a cross moving of its own accord – was said to have taken place one Sunday in Father Toufar’s church in the small parish of Číhošť, which is in the Vysočina region.

The priest said he hadn’t seen anything as he was serving mass. However, reports of the miracle spread and a month later Toufar was brutally tortured by the StB secret police and put his signature to a confession to having personally faked the moving cross.

Číhošť church,  photo: Tomáš Vodňanský
The StB then brought him back to the church so he could take part in a filmed “reconstruction” of how he had used ropes and pulleys to fool his congregation. But the priest, who was 47, had been so badly beaten that he died before it could be made.

One criterion for beatification is having performed a miracle. But that is not the justification being used in this case.

Jaroslav Šebek is an historian at the Czech Academy of Sciences and specialises in church history. He says even if a miracle did take place, it can’t be attributed to the priest.

“Father Toufar definitely didn’t perform the miracle in any sense. He didn’t know about it, and was surprised by it. I think the miracle and the events linked to it were really used by the Communist authorities to launch repression against the church and its representatives.”

So, says Mr. Šebek, the Czech Bishops’ Conference are basing their case on another criterion for beatification: martyrdom.

“I believe Czech Catholics see him as somebody who laid down his life for his ideals in the fight against communism. He stayed faithful to those ideals until his death. That’s the main thing: his martyrdom for his beliefs in the period of Communism, which carried out a massive campaign of atheism.”

Jaroslav Šebek,  photo: Vendula Kosíková
Whatever the justification, a number of complicated steps need to take place before Josef Toufar is beatified, never mind possibly being canonised.

First his life will have to be examined in detail by the Hradec Králové bishopric. If it finds that nothing stands in the way of the process, it will send his file to Rome for eventual consideration by the pope.