Father Piotr Krysztofiak - a Polish priest in Prague

Fr Piotr Krysztofiak

Fr Piotr Krysztofiak is a Polish priest who has been living in the Czech Republic for the last eight years. The prior of Prague's Dominican monastery, he is also parish priest of St Jilij's (St Giles's) church. When we met there recently, Fr Krysztofiak had interesting things to say about the number of Polish priests in the Czech Republic, the differences between Czechs and Poles, being a priest in a largely agnostic country, what having a Polish pope means to Czechs, and the "pitfalls" of the Czech language.

Due to a shortage of Czech priests, there are now around 200 Polish priests serving in the Czech Republic. When I spoke to Fr Krysztofiak, he first told me why the Czech Roman Catholic Church had turned to their Polish brothers for help.

"There was a great gap of 40 years when it was practically forbidden to accept new vocations and to form new Dominicans, new branches of the different religious orders, or even diocesan priests. We know that there was one seminary, in Litomerice. But it was not enough, it was controlled by the Communists. It was not enough.

"Of course, religion was repressed and believers were persecuted - that is the reason why here in the Czech Republic there are a great number of very old fathers, very old priests. There is the lack of a middle generation of priests. And of course there are some new vocations but not a lot, they are very few.

"In Poland there are an exceptional number of vocations, so it's quite natural that bishops from the Czech Republic asked bishops in Poland if they could send some priests.

"We very often say that St Wojtech [also known as St Adalbert, a Prague bishop who became the first martyr of the Polish Church] came from Czech to bring the faith, and now it is the time to repay that benefit."

Did you find when you came here that there were cultural differences between Czechs and Poles that made your work more difficult, or possibly even just interesting?

"The mentality, the people are very different; I didn't expect such a great difference. They are a little bit afraid of showing their faith outside, they are convinced by the Communists, by the past, that the question of faith is your private question and you shouldn't show it to other people, especially in the place where you work."

What about your parish - is there the same kind of community spirit that you might find in a Polish parish?

"No, I would say no. Polish priests are very close to the believers, and believers are very close to the priests. In Poland the priories, the parish houses, are open to believers, and this contact is very close. It's not like here.

"For us there is another difficulty when we want to introduce a certain way of praying...we are very often accused of wanting to make the Czech Church in a Polish way."

Do you think that some parishioners would prefer a Czech priest to a Polish priest?

"Well, I think so, but that's natural. We could also say that we prefer the priest who comes from our region, not only Czech priests but from our region, geographically. That's our priest, the parishioners very often say. And that's understandable, I agree with it."

What about the issue of language? Did you find it hard to master Czech and give services in Czech?

"The Czech language is so close to Polish that THAT is the difficulty. On one hand, it is very easy to learn and to communicate. On the other hand, it is very difficult to speak the Czech language perfectly, for Poles.

"That's because the words are so similar that very often you mix up the words from these two languages. One brother who was here when I came to Prague to our priory told me that I will not learn Czech but I will forget Polish."

Poland is a country which is well known for being religious. The Czech Republic, on the other hand, is known to be quite an agnostic country - is it harder being a priest in a country where most people don't believe?

"Of course it is, but on the other hand it's a very good experience. And I've learned a lot here. But it also has changed - in the time between the first and the second world wars there was only approximately ten percent of atheists here. So we can observe that that is the result of the Communist time."

Why do you think the Communist system had so much impact in this country but not in Poland? Forty years of Communism in Poland didn't dampen your religious fervour.

"During the Communist era here, the Communists were very strong. And people, I would say, were more obedient to that system. In Poland no, people were very resistant to Communism, especially the Church, especially the priests.

"But on the other hand the times are changing. Now there is democracy and maybe now Czechs listen and are obedient to the new democratic rules. And maybe the impact of Communism on Polish people is...the result is that people do not trust the system, also the democratic system."

My last question: Poles are famously proud of John Paul II - do you think that Czechs are in some way proud that the pope is a Slav? Does that mean much to Czech Catholics?

"Yes, I think that many Czech Catholics are proud of the pope. I would even know many atheists who admire the pope. But again, that's also a difference of mentality. When you look at the Poles, they are very spontaneous; they are a little bit like...showmen. Czechs are more reserved, and even when they have great success in sport or whatever, they are not so happy, they do not show it.

"So I think it's the same. I meet a lot of people who say yes, this pope is really clever, is really good, is really a great symbol of morality. And it's the same here in the Czech Republic, sure.

"Of course, there is great opposition against the pope. And not only against the pope but against the Church. I would say that the opposition against the Church is much, much greater than against the pope."