Spreading God's word in a land of atheists


Brother Laurence Cada is an American of Czech descent, whom the Marianist religious order sent to the Czech Republic in the role of missionary. In many ways it was a voyage of discovery to the land of his ancestors and five years after his arrival in the Czech capital Brother Cada appears to have settled down happily enough. He has a busy work schedule, many Czech friends and has established close links with dignitaries of the Catholic Church. But - from a professional angle Laurence Cada could not have been given a harder task. He was sent to spread God's word in one of the most agnostic and secular societies in Europe, if not the world. I recently spoke with him about his experiences, his impressions and his work.

"I have been living in the Czech Republic -in the city Prague - for five years now and I was sent here by the Catholic religious order, the Marianists to which I belong, to investigate the possibilities of my order establishing itself here in the Czech Republic and to work with the Catholic Church as it exists here in the present time."

The Czech Republic is widely regarded as a very atheist society -is it difficult to find followers here?

"That's true. By comparison to the United States the number of people here, the percentage of the population, that would call itself atheist is very large. Some surveys register that forty percent, fifty percent and sometimes even a majority of the people say of themselves that they are atheists and that is very strange for me as an American because in the US only a fraction of one percent of the population would say of themselves that they are atheists. "

Well, can you tell me how you approach people and what is the response. Are people here more skeptical or cynical when you approach them?

"I have the advantage that I speak Czech and I do an awful lot of work with a Catholic church here in Prague which specializes in providing Catholic religious services to university students. As a result I meet a fairly large number of university students here in Prague who are very interested in finding out more about the Catholic Church. Many of them are investigating the possibility of becoming baptized. Each year there are about one hundred young people who join the Catholic Church here in Prague. However by comparison to the country as a whole these young people would be exceptional. Most university students in the city of Prague would not be interested in becoming members of the Catholic Church, so it is really just a tiny fraction."

That's students - but what about older people?

"Yes, I also have contacts with older people. They are interested in investigating however they are also very reluctant to join anything formal."

Do you feel that this is the result of forty years of communist rule?

"Yes, I believe so and many people have told me that. Czech people in general do not join organizations too readily. They have a certain aversion to saying that they belong to some club or some association. They usually prefer to be "interested" -as they call it. If I ask somebody "Do you belong to this organization?" they say "Oh, no. No I don't. I just come here sometimes." Or, if I ask somebody "Would you like to join a religious community that I am forming?" they'll say "Oh no. I'd rather not" especially if it would be identified with a name and so forth. That is quite different from the United States where people join organizations quite readily, and leave them quite readily, and they don't consider it a loss of their independence or their privacy. So, besides the fact that there are so many atheists here there are also very few people who are joiners of anything."

Brother Cada, you have lived here for five years now. Was it difficult to settle down here? Different lifestyle, different culture...What aspects of life did you find it hard to accept and what did you like?

"Well, in one sense it was quite easy for me to settle here even though I am a foreigner because I grew up in this section of Cleveland where there are many Czech speaking people and with my grand parents as I child I spoke only Czech. I even picked up quite a bit of - I would say - rearing that exposed me to the mentality of the Czech people."

Can you explain what that is - for you as an American?

"One difference is this. I find it very difficult to ever complement people here that I know personally. Czech people are very, very reluctant to be complemented, to accept direct complements. If I ever say to somebody that I like them because of the way they do this or that or that they have some positive quality they very quickly tell me "Oh no, that's not true", or they minimize it and they start telling me all the things that are wrong with them. There's a different sense of politeness here. There's a kind of coldness that people have initially here, a certain reserve that is a really only a display of good manners. This is very different from the friendly, forward approach of Americans. This is something that needs to be learnt but once you understand that - that when people are being reserved it is because they are extending a certain respect to you, that's part of the good manners of the country - it is perfectly acceptable. I would say that as I learnt about life here, learnt to appreciate the manners and the style of the Czech people it has been very positive really. Also I have this wonderful advantage that I speak Czech fluently ..."

That is a quality that Czechs appreciate don't they?

"Oh, they surely do. I get many, many compliments about that. I think that they are happy to know that even though I am an American I speak Czech and I try to speak it correctly. That's very much appreciated here."

What about the food here?

"It reminds me of the food my grandmothers used to serve me when I was a young boy. Some of the standard Czech dishes I love. Its a real pleasure to be able to eat them here authentically, to see the way they are being prepared and so forth. I also have some distant relatives in the country, cousins whom I visit with. And that's also very good."

So, you are right at home?

"Oh yes, I am."

Brother Laurence Cada of the Marianists religious order there talking about his life and work in the Czech Republic.