Marc Verdier – French freemason in Prague

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In this edition of One on One, my guest is Freemason Marc Verdier, the Deputy Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of the Czech Republic. French by origin, Mr Verdier settled in Prague fifteen years ago where he now runs his own company. I asked him about the history and the present state of the Masonic movement in the Czech Republic which has recently seen a most unusual development: the Grand Lodge of the Czech Republic has merged with the Grand Czech Orient.

“The two Grand Lodges have been following two different traditions: one was following the Anglo-Saxon or English tradition, which is known as regular, while the other was following the French or continental tradition, which is known as liberal. It is very unusual that different grand lodges unite, as the case has been here. I think it is the second or third time this has happened throughout the world. But it is also due to the fact that there are only a few countries where you see these two streams coexisting. In most Anglo-Saxon and Germanic countries, there is only the regular branch of Freemasonry represented. Having both branches is very specific for Central Europe because after the revolution of 1989, both streams were implemented in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Romania, and so on. But the quarrel, which is at the root of this division of Freemasonry, has nothing to do with the Czechs, Poles, Hungarians, etc. It was therefore after a certain time understood that the natural evolution of Freemasonry was to unite – which we did on Saturday, March 8.”

Does it mean that the original problem, the original quarrel has been overcome?

“As far as we are concerned here, in the Czech Republic, the answer is yes. The essence of the quarrel does not apply; it is a very formal dispute whether it should be compulsory to have the Bible open during out Masonic works in our lodges. For the Anglo-Saxons, it had to be present as a symbol of moral law, whereas for the liberal stream this was not necessary. And from this dispute, everything went according to two different paths. But this has nothing to do with the Czech spirit.”

Why do people become Freemasons? I know it’s an organization that does a lot of charity and philanthropic work, but you can do that and not be a Freemason.

“Well, this is a very complex question. You speak of charity – yes, this is something we do, and it has been seen publicly in countries like the U.S. after 9/11. But this is not the main goal of Freemasonry. The main goal is to ‘polish the rough ashler’, which means yourself, and we are trying to improve ourselves by these Masonic works, and by helping each other mutually in a brotherly way. But the essence of Masonry is, I would say, a peculiar system of morality illustrated by symbols thanks to which you try to become a slightly better human being.”

So you don’t posses any kind of secret learning passed on by the Templars who found it under the ruins of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem?

“No, and we don’t drink the blood of newborn babies, either. Masonic secrets are just symbolic. They not secrets in the sense you can read about in the Da Vinci Code, it’s got nothing to do with that. The secret is how to make yourself better, and this is a very deep secret.”

Are many Czechs interested in becoming Freemasons?

“I think our Grand Lodge has a growth in membership of something like 15 to 20 percent a year, which I consider to be very good – especially nowadays when young people focus more on the material aspects of life. It’s more important to be wealthy, to have a nice car, to go on holidays abroad than to do something less flashy but more important from a personal point of view. What makes me personally very happy is to see many young people in free masonry. Young means 30, 35, 40 years old – not only, as you would see in some other countries, old gentlemen in their late 70s and early 80s. We have a young and dynamic freemasonry in this country, and this is very satisfactory.”

How long is the tradition of Czech Freemasonry? I know it existed during the First Republic, but does it go even further?

I think the first lodge was working here in 1741 or 1742, during some military events that the Czech people know very well. Freemasonry was flourishing during the second half of the 18th century. Then, as you know, it was banned by the Austrian Empire, and it was forbidden until 1918. After it was restored at that time, it became a very flourishing order, and there were perhaps some 3,000 Masons before the Second World War in the whole of Czechoslovakia.

Freemasonry has been opposed throughout its history by many organisations – you mentioned the Austrian Empire, also the Catholic Church; they were persecuted by the Nazis as well as by the communists. Why do you think you had such powerful enemies?

We preach tolerance and freedom, and this is not to the liking of extremes, as you have mentioned, the communists and the Nazis. I think the Austrian Empire banned Freemasonry for similar reasons – they didn’t want to have circles preparing plots and coups. As far as the Catholic Church is concerned, it is slightly different. I believe that the Catholic Church does not accept our free thinking somehow. Not respecting the Catholic dogma, Freemasons are in favour of a free spirit, and that’s why we have been rejected by the Catholic Church. We were excommunicated by the Church, and I think that it is only recently that they have taken a slightly milder position. But it is still officially not permitted for a Catholic to be a Freemason. Yet many Freemasons are Catholics.

There is an interesting story that relates to the time when Václav Havel first became the president. While reviewing the troops at Prague Castle, he was wearing trousers that were too short. People immediately associated it with Freemasonry and though this was some kind of a sign. I see your trousers are the correct length – is this a myth?

Absolutely. I can tell you that being a Frenchman living in this country for 15 years I heard the story in two versions. One has it that Mr Havel is a Freemason because his trousers were too short; the other says that Mr Havel is Jewish because his trousers were too short. Nobody suggested that he was a Jewish Mason. Both stories are absolute myths. Freemasons do not wear specific symbols to be recognized. They are normal people, just like you and me.