Good King Wenceslas meets the Beatles on the Feast of Stephen
A good few years ago I used to live in a tiny flat in an old house called the Mouse Hole, which was just off the ancient street that runs along the bottom of the park below Prague Castle and the cathedral. In winter I used to go out to the park to collect kindling to help get my sluggish coal-fired stove to draw. On one occasion it had been snowing heavily and I traipsed out through deep drifts. Ever since then I have always had a very specific picture in my mind of the Victorian carol about the Czech patron Saint, the tenth century Prince – or King - Wenceslas. I like to imagine the Good King standing at one of the windows of the castle looking down and spotting the poor man in the snow – in this case me – struggling with an armful of branches.
A few days ago she was back here in Prague for reasons that, as we’ll be finding out later, are not unconnected with Saint Wenceslas. When I caught up with Petra on her busy schedule, I began by asking her about her choice of career, starting with the long path that led her to the priesthood:
“I was born in Prague, and grew up in Prague as well.”
Was there something in your upbringing or childhood that led you to your vocation?
“Yes and no. My family isn’t a Christian family, so from that point of view, I guess not. But a lot of values that my family held and the way that I was brought up probably pointed quite clearly to where I am now.”
It’s interesting that you talk about the values your family had, because you were growing up in a very difficult time, the time of “normalization” after the Soviet invasion, when many people were forced to make moral compromises.
“I guess that you made compromises or you tried to hold on to the values that you held dearly and that was a way of surviving as well. I guess that was probably the experience of my family – trying to stick to the moral values that they considered important – and also being proud of the heritage that we as a country had.”
How was that possible in concrete ways? There must have been a lot of social and political pressure – even when you were at school. It wasn’t necessarily easy to resist that pressure, was it?
“I think as children we were advised to be careful about who we talk to and how we talk, and I guess you learned to know who you can trust and who you can’t. You just tried not to get yourself into trouble. Then I was fortunate enough, as I grew up, that things were changing. The revolution came when I was 19, so there were those years when I was able to express what I thought and believed.”
That must have made it a great deal easier in terms of studying, for example...
“Yes, definitely, because I had just started university when things were turning round.”
And what did you study?
“I studied Czech language, literature and general studies to become a teacher.”
You say that you grew up in a family where your parents weren’t believers. At what point did you start believing in God?
“When I was about twenty. It was at a point when I was asking some deep questions about life, and also a time when I had something that you may call a spiritual or mystical experience, a moment of seeing and knowing the reality at that one moment differently.”
And in your outward life, did that manifest itself in your starting to go to church – or what happened?
“I was quite slow. I was quite happy for some time just to live with that knowledge, and I think I just found it quite exciting that there is a God. It took me about two years to start exploring more seriously and try to place that knowledge with something more concrete and real.”
From Prague’s Old Town to Everton
In the Czech Republic, there are many different churches. The biggest is the Roman Catholic Church but there are also many different Protestant churches. So you had quite a choice…
“I first thought I’d explore the Catholic Church, but genuinely I must say – I don’t want to offend anybody – that a friend of mine who was Catholic put me off by saying that was the only way I could go and I think I wanted to rebel against this very directive suggestion. So I walked into the Salvator Church in the Old Town Square, which is used by the Protestant church of the Czech Brethren. I just walked in and the first person I met there was Alfred Kocáb, who was the pastor there – quite a significant figure…”
… and also the father of Michal Kocáb, who is very well known as a rock musician and more recently as a politician.
“I just met him and said, ‘Could you baptize me some time soon?’ He said, ‘Of course I can. Just come along on Thursday.’ So I went along and he invited me to a Bible study, and then, about two years later I was finally baptized in that church.”
It is interesting that it was through someone like Alfred Kocáb, who, like many of the current prominent church leaders, was a dissident under the old regime. The church played a big role, didn’t it, at that time?
“Yes, and he was a person of great wisdom and intuition – a leader and a person who could guide very wisely.”
Where did things go from there?
“I decided to take a couple of years off to go to England, to learn English. So I went there first to work as an au-pair. Then my English basically wasn’t existent at all. Then I went to work with people with learning disabilities in a residential home. And it was about that time that I found myself spiritually at home in the Anglican Church, much more than I had experienced in that Protestant church here. I felt I really shared something with those sitting next to me and it was quite a profound experience for me.”
And from there it must have been quite a long path towards becoming a priest in the Anglican Church.
“I think by the end of my second year in England, I felt a sense of calling, even though it was something I tried to resist, because it felt quite crazy and an impossible idea. But I knew I felt spiritually at home there more than I felt here in the Czech Protestant church, and I think I just took slow steps, talking to people and finding out what they thought about it, and everything seemed to be pointing towards the direction that it feels right – that’s the right thing for you – so the doors started to open.”
So when and where did you finally become ordained?
“I spent three years training in Ridley Hall in Cambridge, from 2000-2003, and I was ordained deacon in Liverpool in 2003 and then as a priest one year later.”
And you’ve been living in Liverpool ever since?
“Yes. I chose Liverpool partly because I always had a great love for the Beatles when I was growing up! So I was thinking, which town can I go to and put down roots and live. Liverpool came as an idea, when I was wondering where I might see some kind of emotional connection with a city.”
“It did. It’s a very interesting and very diverse city, with lots of people. It’s got a good feeling about it, partly because it’s a port, so there are people from everywhere. It’s got that cosmopolitan feeling to it. But also it’s very diverse in that you’ve got very big communities of people who are quite poor and obviously it’s known very much as a city with a lot of needs, a lot of conflicts.”
Were you given a parish, or were you working in other ways in the community?
“I first started as a curate in a team of three churches in Toxteth, an inner city area, and then, after three years, towards the end of the curacy, I was appointed priest in charge of Saint George’s Church, Everton, which is again quite a poor area – very close to the football grounds of Liverpool and Everton.”
Have you become an Everton fan?
“No…. I’ve tried to keep out of trouble!”
Arriving in Liverpool must have also been quite a challenge in that you’re not a native English speaker. I should imagine that just being able to understand and make yourself understood must at times have been quite difficult.
“I think I found it actually quite a positive experience, because people don’t quite know where to place me. They can still hear my accent, but they don’t know where to place me. So if I spoke very posh English, they would probably feel more resentful of me or alienated. But because they just don’t know where my English comes from, they are actually always quite kind and very friendly. I can actually talk to people from very different backgrounds by being a foreigner.”
“Yes, when you are in a specific job like a priest, it becomes quite natural that most people you meet are your colleagues and that’s how I met my husband.”
Don’t you find that it is sometimes difficult to distance yourself from your job?
“Actually, it’s quite useful, because you have a person who understands exactly what the pressures of the work are. Also you’ve got somebody who can talk about your ideas. So I found it always very useful when I wanted to think through my Sunday service and talk about some of the work I was doing or talk through my sermons. We seem to work well together and complement each other in our thinking, so it’s actually quite stimulating and interesting.”
And you have two small children. Your daughter is nine months old and your son is two. You are on maternity leave and that must be pretty much a fulltime job in itself, but do you still work together with your husband in his parish or parishes?
“Well, not since Lucie was born, but I do try to take part in services. But hopefully that will happen again soon.”
On the Feast of Stephen…
You have just come to Prague for a very specific reason which was that you were invited to take part in a radio programme for the BBC, called Sunday Worship, which is broadcast on BBC Radio 4. They wanted to do a special broadcast about Good King Wenceslas for December 26, the Feast of Stephen. How did you come to be involved in that radio programme?
So they wanted someone with a Czech accent!
“I think so, yes! So I think partly there wasn’t that much choice!”
And so you became involved, and I understand the idea was to tie together the stories of Saint Wenceslas and Saint Stephen – two martyrs, separated by nearly a thousand years?
“Yes, I think it was to explain the background of the carol.”
And how did you go about it?
“I have some knowledge of Czech history and I just tried to draw out the main themes that you could find in the life of Saint Wenceslas and Saint Stephen. And I tried somehow to make those themes make sense in the context of Czech history and also in the context of our time today.”
Many of our listeners will know the carol. It originates in 19th century England, and presumably he story of King Wenceslas looking out and seeing the poor man “gathering winter fuel” is completely made up. Do you think there is something deeper to the carol, other than just being something that people like to sing at Christmas?
“I guess most legends have very little factual truth in them, but they have a message, which resonates with our experience of life or how life should be, or how we would like to see it. So I think in that sense it still has a message that is very relevant to people today.
“The carol talks about Wenceslas as a king who cares for the poor and is inspired by the legend of Saint Stephen, who was the first deacon or servant and whose ministry was to care for the poor. And Saint Wenceslas is trying to do the same thing on the Feast of Stephen: to go out and take food to the poor peasant. He goes out in spite of the hardship of the winter and the cold weather and is very determined to do the good work. I guess that the theme that I saw in the carol is that it is not easy to care for the poor, but we do have a responsibility to do it and as Christians that’s part of the teaching of Jesus. We can’t help poor people by preaching at them, but we can help them by brining them food, providing for them and making changes in our society that would give the right support to those people who are in need…”
… which, in a sense, brings us back full circle to your mission in Liverpool.
“I guess so. There it is, right in front of your eyes, maybe in a much more obvious way than I felt when I was living in Prague. We have small pockets of poverty, but I think where I live now in Liverpool, it’s much more right in front of your eyes.”
Crossing cultures on Christmas Eve
I’m talking to you here in your parents’ flat in Prague. Has it been quite tough for them understanding your career, given that you didn’t grow up in a Christian family? Also, there’s the fact that you’ve moved to a different country with a different language. It must have been quite challenging for them, sometimes, and for you too.
And your children are still small, but do you intend to bring them up to be bilingual?
“Yes, we hope that they will manage to learn both languages.”
So they’ll be able to talk to their grandparents…
“I think so, and hopefully also I’d like them to grow up being proud of Czech heritage and culture, that I’d like to be able somehow to share with them.”
You’re Czech, your husband’s English, your living in England. The way that Christmas is celebrated in the two countries is actually very different. Do you try to have some Czech elements in your English Christmas?
“We do have very strong elements of Czech Christmas in our home. We have a Czech Christmas Eve meal…”
And have you introduced any elements of Czech Christmas or Czech culture to people in your congregation over the years?
“I think people are always very interested to know about the differences, so I’ve been asked – even by different churches – to come and talk about Czech Christmas. So I do actually always give little talks to various small groups about Czech Christmas tradition, mainly by talking and letting them taste my Czech Christmas cookies….”
…which is a great way of converting people to a Czech Christmas! Czech Christmas cookies are extremely good yet I’ve never managed to find the secret to any of the recipes.
“Yes. It’s passed from generation to generation. That’s something you can’t live without, really!”
Petra Elsmore, thank you very much for talking to Radio Prague for this special Christmas programme and a very Happy Christmas!