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. Both the 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.
In Europe’s Middle Ages, Latin missionaries worked among the Slavic peoples of the principality of Great Moravia — which covered much of the territory of the contemporary states of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. 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 into Slavonic (it remains unclear whether these liturgies were Byzantine or Latin in rite), 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.
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.
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 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 the Czechoslovak Hussite Church, a national church that grew quickly, especially in the Czech heartland of Bohemia.
While this 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.
Today, this Orthodox 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.
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