Priest Vojtěch Eliáš: Religion is the key to yourself, your history and culture

Vojtěch Eliáš

Paradoxically for an atheist country, it is Baby Jesus, not Santa, who brings the Christmas presents in Czechia. And very many people attend Christmas mass. So how is it with Czechs and religion? Why are so few Czechs believers? What are the challenges ahead of the Catholic Church and has it managed to overcome the years of communist oppression? Those are some of the questions I discussed with Roman Catholic priest Vojtěch Eliáš. Sitting in the parish house in the Prague district of Chvaly where he now serves, I began by asking how he found his calling.

“It was during communist times, and at that time it was very risky because to be a priest you did not only need to be accepted by the Church but by the government and the public authorities as well. In those days, many priests were only accepted by the Church, but they did not have permission to serve from the government. So, possibly, that inspired me as well, the fact that I might have to serve the people clandestinely.”

You were passionate about music, and I believe you also considered the option to be a musician and serve as a priest undercover?

“Oh yes, well, to have a passion for music was a duty in my family (laughs). It was obligatory. I played the oboe and the piano. So I could have been a professional musician, as my official occupation, and could serve as a priest clandestinely. I did consider that idea as well. The decision to take a straight path and study theology came at the advice of one priest. He said to me listen – to work clandestinely should be the second option. Take the first option, go to the faculty and you will see. So I did.”

And it all turned out well. The Velvet Revolution came in 1989.

“Yes! In the last year of my studies. So I never served as a priest in communist times. I could enjoy the freedom.”

Vojtěch Eliáš | Photo: Miroslav Krupička,  Radio Prague International

The Pope’s visit was a time of joy and inspiration

And I believe that you even assisted Pope John Paul when he came to visit Czechoslovakia soon after the Velvet Revolution?

“It is so. I was a deacon and I was at the mass, serving as a deacon, but not the closest one, because one of my sisters was getting married on that same day and of course, I had to be there. But the Pope’s visit and my sister’s wedding was a beautiful time, plenty of joy and inspiration.”

You were extremely active we should say. You studied not only at Charles University in Prague but also in Rome. You now lecture at Charles University, so you are an academic, a teacher and a priest. How do you juggle those roles and do they enrich each other, so to speak?

“First and foremost is my priesthood. I am a priest, I want to be a priest and everything else is just another way of serving the people. I was among the first generation of teachers sent to Rome to complete their studies. Imagine, I started to teach at the university without any previous education – I remember I just had time to prepare for my lectures. And after two years, it was my turn to go to Rome and I did so very happily. I was sent to study at the pontifical university and because my subject was education, I went to the Salesian University. When I got back, there was a very difficult situation at the Faculty of Theology at Charles University. Changes were taking place; there were arguments and storms in the process of development. So I could not return there. I went to a normal parish and I am very happy for that experience – just being an ordinary chaplain in the countryside. And after two years there, change came again. It was like going from 0 to 100 miles an hour. The bishop called me one day and said “I need you at the faculty”. And so the day after I went to the faculty. Eventually I was deputy dean there, organizing a new way of study, using credits…the curriculum was completely changed.”

And you enjoyed the interaction with students…

“Exactly! And not only the interaction with students, but the interaction with the theological world in Europe! Due to my experience in Rome and in Germany, we opened the studies with the idea –let us not do it like in the 19th century, let us do it in a more modern way. I was really passionate about that task. And, another focus was how to help people with certain handicaps to study theology. So for example, to prepare study materials for blind people, or to make the building barrier-free and accessible to the disabled. I was so happy working on that.”

Chvaly Castle with Saint Ludmila Church | Photo: Martina Schneibergová,  Radio Prague International

Wimbledon was a revelation

We should also say that before coming to Chvaly (Prague district on the suburbs of the city) you spent three years serving a parish in England. How did that come about?

“After 12 years in academia I went to the cardinal and said ‘I am a priest, I want to be a priest – please, send me to a parish!´ And Cardinal Duka said to me ‘Listen, if I do that, given the scandals in the Catholic Church, people would immediately ask you –what happened? What happened that from such a high position in academic life you are being sent to the countryside? ´ And so he decided that the best thing would be to send me to London for a time or maybe Paris. And after three years I could go to a Czech parish and nobody would ask me what happened. And actually, when I came to London, the first thing that the cardinal asked me was ‘What happened?’ He said don’t tell me that as an episcopal bishop and deputy dean at the faculty you are coming here to serve in our parish! (laughs) But when I eventually returned, after three years in England, I was sent to this parish. So the plan worked!”

Was the time spent in England a revelation for you?

“Definitely, definitely. The vicar general in Westminster said ‘Look, we have enough priests, but our neighboring archdiocese, Suddock, could probably accept you.’ So I was sent there and the vicar general in Suddock said ´What about Wimbledon?’ And I thought, ‘OK , I know about Wimbledon because of the tennis, but I don’t know where it is´. And he said, it is quite close by. So they sent me to Wimbledon. And Wimbledon is dubbed the Holy Land of the United Kingdom. It is really so! There are so many Catholics there, they have a beautiful Catholic school and a huge parish! The revelation was how to manage such a huge community. We are speaking about thousands of people. Here we have the opposite problem –how to manage a parish with three or five people. But managing a community with 5,000 people! And faith is really something so intimate, you cannot speak to crowds the way politicians do. But, I learnt how to manage this and how to cooperate with different people and respond to different spiritual needs. Because some believers are conservative and some prefer progress and everything new. Yet they all have a place in the Catholic Church. There were many masses celebrated each Sunday, some very modern-style with a guitar playing and a choir of girls and boys singing at the altar, and then there were conservative masses celebrated in Latin – it was often my duty to celebrate the mass in Latin, with Gregorian chants and so on. It was excellent!”

So it was an education in itself?

“Oh yes, I would say it was another ´university of life´.”

Is there something that stuck with you? Something that you brought back?

“The desire and necessity to look beyond the people sitting in the front pews, to the ones hidden at the back. That is our duty. Definitely, to work with people in the front lines, but also to see beyond them, to people who are probably not speaking so loudly. We need to look after them, to see them and to hear them. That was definitely the fruit of my stay in Wimbledon.”

Vojtěch Eliáš | Photo: Magdalena Hrozínková,  Radio Prague International

“Feeling something is not believing”

Let us talk about the Czech Republic now. This country is known as one of the most secular nations in Europe, a nation of atheists. Yet when I speak to people, they will say that they don’t go to church but they do believe there is something between Heaven and Earth. How is it with Czechs and faith?

“I would say it is bad, really. It is natural to human beings to have some belief, some faith, it is the manner of our existence in this world and all our relationships need to have this dimension of faith. Not just in relation to people, but to Nature and the world we live in. But in a religious way, when we say ‘I am a believer´, or a Christian, it is how the values of that belief are projected in my life. We are human beings and feelings and emotions are very important to us, but my decision regarding religion must be based on more than just “a feeling”, you need to have strong faith and even an education, an understanding of what that faith entails, to know the values and the reason for them. Jesus Christ in Christianity is not just “a feeling” or a romantic notion at Christmas time. He is a very important person and we know that he said ‘I am the Truth, please follow that Truth’.”

How many believers are there? I have heard 3.5 to 4 percent of the population, which is really very little.

“Yes, I agree. In the big cities such as Prague, Brno and Ostrava I would say it is less than 1 percent. Less. The average for the whole country would be somewhere between 4 and 5 percent of people.”

Photo: Martina Schneibergová,  Radio Prague International

Believers in Czechia are very much alone

To what do you ascribe this? Czechs are very anti-establishment. They don’t like authority, they ridicule authority. Is this preventing them from accepting the Church as yet another authority? Or is it the communist years?

“That is a complicated academic question. I would say it is not just the fruit of the communist period. It is the fruit of this movement from the 19th century to the present. But let us look at it on a practical level. If there are so few believers in society –and the estimate is four percent - that means that in one classroom you have no classmate with the faith. Because it means that in one hundred people there are four believers. And the average class has 22 -23 people –so that means that you are alone. Probably sometimes in church, when the community is a bit bigger, you could meet classmates or people close to your age, but even this is difficult. So one reason is not having a relationship with people with the same way of thinking and the same traditions. Even at work, what are your chances of coming across people belonging to the same church or who have the same way of thinking?”

Many parents say they do not want to introduce their children to a church, they want to let them grow up and make up their own minds whether they want to embrace a given religion. Is this wise? Would it be easier for children to find faith at a younger age?

“They will find it anyway, we know that. But why not give them a choice? It is like saying OK, there are so many beautiful languages in the world, French, English, Czech, Russian, but let us wait until our child grows up and let them choose for themselves which language they want to speak. I say give them a platform. This is your base and you can make a decision –to continue along this way or not – but you have to know about it. The problem in the Czech Republic - and even with people who are close to Christianity – is that they don’t know what this is all about.”

So there should be religion lessons at school?

“Yes, but actually for another reason – because we need that knowledge to be able to communicate with the world. Education enables you to introduce yourself to the world. Many conflicts are based on religion or religion plays an important part in them. So religion classes in schools should be about knowledge. To know what the Catholics believe in, to know what the Protestants are doing, to know what the Muslims are doing, to know why the Jews are not eating this or that. It is important knowledge for us to be able to live in this world. Because we are not isolated from those people, we are together and we want to be together, because we see there is beauty in that. But without knowledge it could be very risky. So, I agree that children should have religion lessons, but not focusing on bringing them to a religious practice, but to help them to understand and to know – to give them knowledge.”

Illustration photo: Jeff Jacobs,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

Religion is the key to yourself, your history and culture

Why is inner faith so important for an individual?

“It is very important when you face difficulties in life. I am a priest and even I search for answers in my life as well. And I would say it is important so as to understand myself as well. I would say that religion is the key that helps me understand my own life, the society and –speaking for Europe – the culture. And to understand my past, because without the key of religion, this is closed to you.”

The role of the Catholic Church has changed over the years. What is the role of the Catholic Church in present day society and is it fulfilling it in this country?

“Here we have to say a very difficult word ‘restitution’. The Catholic Church is now very busy looking after all the property and assets that were returned to it and we are probably not fulfilling our mission – although probably only temporarily.”

And that mission is?

“It is to be the power in the society able to bring people of different opinions and different status together. To help them to speak and work together. And this is something the Catholic Church is really not doing at all.”

St. Vitus cathedral | Photo: Štěpánka Budková,  Radio Prague International

We are not prepared to be wealthy

You mentioned restitution. Has the Catholic Church been able to overcome the legacy of communism? Because it was not just having property confiscated, its priests were persecuted and it was cut off from the public…has it managed to overcome that?

“In many ways, the Church is unprepared for the challenges ahead. We are not prepared to be wealthy. To look after property you need an expert, you need a tradition, you need a style of management – and all that is new for us. So we need to find a new way of functioning. What is the role of a parish priest? Is he a manger of property? Or a servant to the people? Or an administrator of charity? What is his identity? That is what is changing right now.

“Actually, there is something positive there as well. We now have more freedom than we had in the last 150 years, because we are independent from the state. We are able to survive. But looking into the future, I see a theological problem. The mission of the Church is to spread good news. We have to evangelize. Not look after property. That is a problem of identity. I think the Catholic Church is in a better state when it is poor –not because poverty is something positive - but because you are pushed to look after the people, to speak to the people. When you are wealthy, you can say – Ok, I will do it by myself. And that is a problem, because our mission is not to do it by ourselves –we are sent to bring good news to the people.”

The Catholic Church is also expected to voice its stand on many sensitive issues, such as gay marriage and child abuse. Is it vocal enough on these issues?

“Here in the Czech Republic not at all. We are very silent to everything or we say it is the sin of a singular person, it is not the problem of the system. OK, that could well be true, but the single person is not living in a vacuum. They are living in a community. And it is our problem. We do not have the courage to face the reality. We say there are people coming to church, singing beautiful hymns, everything is OK. We must not only see the problems, but face them. If a problem is here, we need to accept it.”

Ukrainian refugees | Photo: René Volfík,

The Ukrainian refugees were a Godsend

When the wave of Ukrainian refugees came, I know that you let them use your church for masses, christenings and special occasions. Why was it important to do that and how was it received by the community?

“Actually, in this parish we had a bit of a problem in that whatever was done was done for ourselves. We were not doing anything for other people. So the Ukrainian refugees were sent to us by heaven. It gave this community the chance to say “OK, let us accept them, let us help them and let us experience the reality of Christian charity”.

"I remember how one day the mayor of Prague 20 called and said we have a busload of Ukrainian people here that need taking care of. Can you help? It was around 6pm and I remember we ordered food for them from the local Chinese restaurant. Later we gave then bread and cheese and they said ‘Everyone gives us bread and cheese, can we not have something else, please?’. So I took four of them to the local store so that they could choose what they wanted. And, as we walked past the shelves in the shopping mall, they tentatively asked ‘And what about beer?’ (whispers)and I replied ‘Why not, WHY NOT?’ So I remember that moment, when we finally gave them something they wanted. (laughs)

They are normal people with many problems. It was nice helping them. I remember especially those first moments. And they are here till now – living on the second floor of our parish house.”

When you reach the limits of your possibilities, that is love

This is a very difficult time, full of strife. There was the Covid pandemic, economic problems, there are wars going on. People are tired and frustrated. What will be the gist of your Christmas message this year?

“I think it is important to know that we are not helping because we are passionate to help. Passions are sometimes very time-limited. We know that they need help over a long time –we knew that from the beginning. And I think the special Christmas message this year is that of perseverance. Jesus did not come only for a limited time and leave us. It is the day-by-day, step by step endeavor that we need to see in a new light. It is a challenge, but it holds a beautiful message: show and prove your humanity. Not only in theory, because in theory you could speak about love for your neighbours for hours and hours. Show it. And not only when it is easy for you. When you reach the limits of your possibilities, that is love. Now we need to share – our time, probably our resources, probably even our traditions. We need to look after their traditions as well. Sometimes it is difficult. Even in our church the people are sometimes grumpy and say ‘they are going to steal our church’ and I say ‘Please, what are you talking about?! They live here now, they will probably be here for generations –but what’s the problem?’ So I would say that the Christmas message this year is : Don’t hesitate to accept the difficulties and daily problems that come your way -because that is the reality of life. Christianity is not a theory –it is a way of life. Let’s do it!”

(The interview was recorded before the tragic shooting incident in Prague)

Vojtěch Eliáš is a Czech Catholic priest, episcopal vicar, former deputy dean at the Theological Faculty of Charles University where he now lectures.

He served as President of the Archdiocesan Charity of Prague and in 2015 he was appointed Canon-in-Charge of the Metropolitan Chapter of St. Vitus in Prague.

He served as administrator of St. Ludmila's parish on Náměstí míru in Prague 2, assisted the English-speaking parishioners at St. Thomas’ Church, and served at the The Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Wimbledon, England, among others.

In October 2018 he became the parish priest at St. Ludmila's Church in Chvaly, Prague-Horní Počernice.

He is a former president of the Leprosy Eradication Society and founded a drug prevention center.