Czechs mourn Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, a symbol of courage and unwavering faith

Miloslav Vlk, photo: CTK

Arrangements are being made for the funeral of Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, the former head of the Czech Roman Catholic Church, who died on Saturday. The funeral mass at St Vitus Cathedral will be served by Prague Archbishop Dominik Duka and the cardinal’s remains will be interred in the Archbishop’s Chapel at St. Vitus.

Miloslav Vlk,  photo: CTK
Bells tolled around the country on Saturday and masses were celebrated for the 84-year-old cardinal who is remembered for his unwavering faith, his bravery during the communist years and his utter dedication to every office he held, be it a pastor in an isolated mountain parish or the head of the Czech Roman Catholic Church.

Tributes to the cardinal flowed in from at home and abroad as news of his death spread. Pope Francis sent condolences to the Czech Archbishopric praising the cardinal as a “generous pastor”. “I recall with admiration his tenacious fidelity to Christ, despite the deprivations and the persecutions against the Church,” the pope said in the message. Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka described the cardinal as a respected man who was not afraid to follow his conscience and Culture Minister Daniel Herman said Miloslav Vlk was among the greatest figures he had had the honour to know.

The Archbishop of Prague, Cardinal Dominik Duka, who succeeded Miloslav Vlk as head of the Czech Roman Catholic Church in 2010, said his friendship with the cardinal had been a lifelong inspiration.

“I personally have a great deal to thank him for, be it during our studies of theology or later when we were forced to work underground and met in the circle of priests around Cardinal Tomášek. And I cannot omit mentioning the enormous amount of good work he did for the Prague Archdiocese and the Prague Archbishopric.”

Miloslav Vlk,  photo: CTK
Cardinal Vlk tread a thorny road to fulfil his vocation. The hard-line communist regime prevented him from pursuing theological studies and he worked in a car factory until the Prague Spring reform movement when he was finally ordained a priest at the age of 36. However his joy was short-lived. After the Soviet led-invasion of Czechoslovakia came a period of “normalization” during which he was sent to small isolated parishes in the mountain regions of south Bohemia in order to minimize his influence. In 1978 the authorities went further, revoking his authorization to serve as a priest. He was forced to work as a window cleaner while secretly performing pastoral activities. It was not until the fall of Communism in 1989 that he could fully dedicate himself to his work. His merit was recognized and in 1990 Pope John Paul II made him a bishop. He was appointed Archbishop of Prague a year later and in 1994 he was elevated to the rank of cardinal. He spent almost two decades at the head of the Czech Catholic Church before retiring in 2010. When, after the fall of Communism he fought for the return of Church property he told a reporter – I fought throughout the communist years – I am ready to fight now.

Those who were close to him say he never lost his humility on the way up or his firm faith and dedication to the Church. His funeral scheduled for Saturday at St. Vitus Cathedral is expected to bring together not just cardinals and bishops from around the world, but parishoners from small Czech villages who remember the cardinal with love.