Visiting foreign priests bring fresh wind to Czech parishes

Emmanuel Onuma, photo: Ľubomír Smatana / Czech Radio

There are over 1700 Catholic priests serving in parishes around the Czech Republic. Roughly one fifth of them are foreign priests who bring something of their culture and traditions to Czech believers. The exchange is mutually enriching, benefitting both the local community and Czech priests who tend to be fairly conservative in spreading the word of God.

Emmanuel Onuma was ordained in his home country Nigeria and had never been outside of Africa before travelling to the Czech Republic. Today the 36-year-old priest lives in Plzen and is studying European culture at the Univesity of Bohemia. On weekends he serves at the Klatovy parish, helping to celebrate mass and getting to know the parishioners with the local vicar Jaroslav Hula. The two have become good friends despite the fact that communication is difficult. Father Hula speaks only a few words of English and Emmanuel only speaks English and the tribal language Igbo. He introduces Father Hula as his teacher of Czech. The latter laughs off his tutorial skills.

“A teacher of Czech who speaks no English. But that makes it all the nicer. We are making friends straight from the heart.”

Emmanuel Onuma,  photo: Ľubomír Smatana / Czech Radio

Emanuel Onuma is here at the invitation of the Plzen diocese, to gather experiences in Europe. Out to visit the sick in the local parish, they make an unlikely couple – Father Hula is dressed in grey, Father Emmanuel proudly sports a Game of Thrones and Johnny Walker T-shirt.

„At 36 I am still young I have a lot of young people around me and some of them are great fans of Game of Thrones and some of them are great fans of Johnny Walker. So Johnny Walker came together with Game of Thrones to produce this T-shirt and as a friend of young people I got one.“

Father Emmanuel’s arrival in Klatovy was immediately welcomed by the local community, where the parishioners are driven by curiosity to find out more about him and highly expectant as to what he will bring to the life of the parish. Olga is one of the young parishioners.

Emmanuel Onuma preaches at Church of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary in Klatovy,  photo: Art Jarka,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0

“I think his presence here will be enriching for the parish. Like a fresh wind. He will bring a new energy to the place. We are looking forward to what he will have to say. “

Father Emmanuel is getting used to the fact that most Czechs expect him to break out in song and dance. He says he will be happy to comply if there is interest.

“God reveals himself to us in our culture. The European culture is a very solemn, calm culture. The African culture is a dancing culture. That is to say we are very energetic in our worship in Africa. If I find people here who are interested in energetic worship, then that’s Ok, I will give it to them.”

So how does Father Hula feel about the possibility of a somewhat “livelier” mass?

“We are open to everything (laughs). It depends on how people would take it. But I think they would take it well. I think most people’s idea of what goes on in Africa during mass is a bit exaggerated. We Christians are at home everywhere and Father Emmanuel is my brother in Christ.”

Already Father Emmanuel has tested the waters –singing a hymn in his mother tongue during mass to the great enthusiasm of the locals. Although his time in the parish has given him valuable experience and many new friends, most of his time is spent studying. Asked how long he plans to stay Father Emmanuel replies:

“As a priest you do not have a plan. Whatever God plans, is what you have. Whatever God says the priest follows. We trust in God, we follow Him. He is the way, the truth and the life.”

Zbigniew Czendlik,  photo: Jan Sklenář / Czech Radio

Another priest from abroad who has served in the Czech Republic for years and enjoys enormous popularity is Zbigniew Czendlik from neighbouring Poland. Father Czendlik is one of many Polish priests serving at Czech parishes to make up for the shortage of priests in the Czech Republic, but he is more visible than most. Due to his unorthodox, down to earth approach and the ease with which he is able to reach out to people in one of the most atheist countries of Europe he is popular with believers, the general public and the media. He is invited to talk shows and asked to speak on philosophical, social and other issues at the centre of attention. Asked by Czech Radio during the first wave of the coronavirus crisis what message he would send to the public Father Czendlik said:

“I have a notice on my parish door stating that it is forbidden to complain or whine. I think we are a bit spoilt in this day and age and find it hard to cope with life’s hardships. We Christians are a bit more prepared to handle these situations I think, because we know that pain, suffering and even death are an indelible part of life.

“So I think we need to stop whining about this and that and look on the brighter side of life. I always say we have two eyes so we can close one to the bad things around us and look on the good. This situation has sparked so much solidarity, selfless help and generosity. Look at doctors and nurses working around the clock, or people helping the elderly, bringing them meals and so on. I think that at the time of the pandemic we should smile as much as possible at people around us at home –where they can still see it – and outside, where despite our face-mask we can smile with our eyes.”