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The Orthodox Church of the Czech Lands and Slovakia

The fortunes of the Orthodox Church in the Czech Republic and Slovakia mirror those of these Central European states, which once formed a united Czechoslovakia. Church and state were born after the collapse of the multiethnic empire of Austria-Hungary in 1918. Both were controlled by Nazi occupiers during World War II and then by the Soviets, who commandeered leadership after the war. Both were revived after the Velvet Revolution in 1989 and have since been affected by the dissolution of Czechoslovakia — the so-called Velvet Divorce — in 1993.

Though a relatively young community, and numbering only about 100,000 people, the Orthodox Church in the Czech lands of Bohemia and Moravia and the independent republic of Slovakia dates back more than a thousand years.

The Slav mission. In Europe’s Middle Ages, Latin missionaries worked among the Slavic peoples of the principality of Great Moravia. These missionaries (most of whom were Germanic) introduced the Latin rites of the Roman church in the ninth century and advocated closer ties with Moravia’s Germanic enemies. To counter these efforts, Moravia’s reigning prince, Rastislav, petitioned the emperor in the great Byzantine city of Constantinople to provide Slav-speaking missionaries to work among the prince’s subjects.

In 862, the emperor sent two Greek brothers, Cyril and Methodius, who devised an alphabet for the Slavonic vernacular, translated Scripture and the liturgies of the church (it remains unclear whether these liturgies were Byzantine or Latin in rite) into Slavonic, and transcribed the first Slavic code of civil law. Despite support from the papacy, the brothers’ work generated hostility among the Latin Germanic bishops. They later drove Cyril and Methodius from Moravia, engineered Rastislav’s removal and, in 886, banished their followers.

Two of their disciples, Clement and Naum, found refuge in the Balkans, where they furthered the works of Cyril and Methodius. They organized a church Byzantine in custom yet independent of the church of Constantinople and the church of Rome. This church, which supported the aspirations of the first Bulgarian tsar, Boris I, served as a model for similar autonomous churches later established in the Slavic states of Kievan Rus’ and Serbia.

Greater Moravia collapsed after 893. Its successor state, the Latin Catholic Kingdom of Bohemia, retained its Slavic “Czech” identity despite profound antagonisms and influences from neighboring Germanic principalities — a state of affairs that survived until the decades following World War II. This Czech tenacity impacted the culture in a number of ways.

In the early 15th century, Jan Hus, a Czech priest and rector of the famed Charles University in Prague, reacted to the schism in the church (there were three rival claimants to the papal throne) corruption and abuses that compromised the integrity of the church and the papal office. The popular preacher called for a number of reforms — the use of the vernacular in the liturgy, the reception of the Eucharist under both species and the prohibition of clerics from assuming secular power.

Hus was burned at the stake as a heretic in 1415, but some of his followers, including Oxford-educated Peter Payne, turned to Constantinople and asked the ecumenical patriarch for bishops and priests to lead a distinct Czech church reconciled with the Orthodox communion. The Reformation, 150 years of religious wars and the invasion of Europe by the Ottoman Turks, however, prevented any further developments.

Modern developments. The House of Hapsburg, which governed a multiethnic empire in Central Europe from the 13th to early 20th centuries, protected the interests of Catholics of the Byzantine tradition, including those in its Czech and Slovak dominions. Most of these “Greek” Catholics were peasants (from ethnic groups today identified as Carpatho-Rusyn, Croatian, Hungarian, Romanian, Slovak and Ukrainian) who were received into full communion with Rome after the Catholic Reformation in the late 16th and 17th centuries. Despite their “unia,” these Catholics were held in suspicion by the Hapsburgs as allies of the Russian tsar, the self-proclaimed protector of Orthodox Christians worldwide.

With the breakup of the Hapsburg realm of Austria-Hungary in 1918, and the birth of the Czechoslovak state, a group of Latin Catholic priests affiliated with a post-Vatican I modernist movement called for the use of the vernacular in the celebration of the Mass, optional clerical celibacy and the reception of the Eucharist under both species.

Influenced by the work of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, Jan Hus and Martin Luther, these priests eventually formed a national church that grew quickly, especially in the Czech heartland of Bohemia. According to 1921 census data, 523,232 people in what is today the Czech Republic claimed membership in this Czechoslovak Hussite Church; nine years later this increased to 779,672. By 1950, the church counted nearly a million members.

While the Hussite Church retained elements of its Catholic heritage, some priests were sympathetic to the 15th-century Hussite scholar and diplomat, Peter Payne, and his interest in Orthodoxy. Heeding appeals from the Serbian Orthodox patriarchate, one priest, Father Matej Pavlik, was received into the Orthodox Church and consecrated a bishop in 1921.

Taking the name Gorazd, the new bishop erected two eparchies, one in the Bohemian capital of Prague and another in the Slovak town of Mukacevo, the historical center of Carpatho-Rusyn Greek Catholics. While he was bishop, a large number of these Greek Catholics accepted Orthodoxy after the Holy See imposed restrictions (for example, barring the use of married priests) on their parish communities in North America.

A prolific writer and a zealous pastor, Bishop Gorazd established parishes for all of the diverse ethnic communities that made up the Orthodox Church of Czechoslovakia, including Bohemian Czechs, Carpatho-Rusyns, Russian exiles, Serbs and Slovaks.

Active in the resistance movement after the Nazi dismemberment of the state in 1939, Bishop Gorazd and a number of his colleagues were executed after the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi protector of Bohemia and Moravia, in late May 1942. The assassins found refuge in the crypt of the bishop’s Baroque Cathedral of Sts. Cyril and Methodius in Prague, which the Nazis eventually stormed. Hitler ordered severe reprisals (some 1,300 people were executed), including the deportation of all Orthodox priests in Bohemia and Moravia to German camps and the closure of all Orthodox churches.

In 1961, the Orthodox Church of Serbia recognized the bishop as a martyr. In 1987, the Orthodox Church of Czechoslovakia recognized him as a saint, fixing the day of his death (4 September) as his feast day.

The Allied defeat of Nazi Germany allowed for the rebirth of the Orthodox Church in Czechoslovakia. Yet the Soviet annexation of the Slovak region of Transcarpathia (including Mukacevo) and the forced repatriation of exiled Russians to the Soviet Union at first reduced the number of Orthodox Christians living in post-World War II Soviet-dominated Czechoslovakia.

The country’s surviving Orthodox leaders appealed to the patriarch of Moscow for support. Patriarch Alexei I of Moscow established a Czechoslovak exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church and dispatched a bishop to Prague. In April 1950 — after the Communists consolidated their power following a successful coup d’état — a “synod” of the Slovak Greek Catholic Church severed ties to the Holy See and sought communion with the Orthodox Church. The Communist government imprisoned the church’s bishops (who refused to attend the synod) and turned over their property to the exarchate, forcing some 360,000 Slovak Greek Catholics to worship as Orthodox Christians. A year later, the Moscow patriarchate reorganized the church by erecting four eparchies and recognized the independence, or autocephaly, of the restored Orthodox Church of Czechoslovakia.

A majority of these former Slovak Greek Catholic parishes returned to a reconstituted Greek Catholic Church during the reforms of the Prague Spring in 1968. However, their properties remained in the hands of the Orthodox Church until 1993.

Today. The dissolution of the Communist government in 1989 (the Velvet Revolution) and the 1993 separation of the Czech and Slovak republics (the Velvet Divorce) forced the church’s permanent synod to modify its structure. Now, there are two metropolitan provinces, one in each state, which each include two eparchies. A single synod remains, but the church may be led by either the archbishop of Prague or the archbishop of Prešov, a city in eastern Slovakia. Metropolitan Christopher of Prague, who shepherds the church today, was elected in 2006 soon after the death of Metropolitan Nicholas of Prešov.

The church is strongest in Slovakia, especially in the Carpatho-Rusyn areas of the northeast near Poland and Ukraine, numbering some 50,000 people. In the Czech lands of Bohemia and Moravia, the church is weak. This reflects the status of religious identity in the modern Czech Republic — a majority of Czechs identify themselves as atheists. Most Orthodox Christians who fill the churches in both republics are guest workers from Greece, Russia and Ukraine and may include up to 500,000 people.

Michael La Civita, CNEWA’s vice president for communications, has written extensively on the Eastern churches.

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