The Society of Jesus is the largest Christian religious order of the Catholic Church. Its members, known as Jesuits have been called "Soldiers of Christ", in part because the Society's founder, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, was a soldier before he became a priest. Today, there are about 16,000 Jesuits around the world. Jesuit priests and brothers are engaged in ministries in 112 nations on six continents. Their works are focused on education and intellectual contributions, primarily at colleges and universities, as well as missionary work and ministry in human rights and social justice.
After the approval, by Pope Paul III, of the "Formula of the Institute", the outline of the newly established order´s way of life, the Society of Jesus began its remarkable expansion across Europe and its penetration into India and Latin America. But the centre of the Society´s activity was in Europe.
The lands of the Czech Crown were surrounded by the Germanic world. The Society of Jesus penetrated into this world very soon and the German Province was established, including also Austria. In 1555 ten Czechs entered the Society of Jesus in Rome. In 1555, St. Ignatius sent the German provincial Peter Canisius to Prague. He dealt judiciously with the estates, the king, and the archbishop and in this way opened the door for the arrival of the first Jesuits in Prague.
A Short Summary of the History of the Czech Province
Before his death in 1556 St. Ignatius sent the first 12 Jesuits to Prague to a newly prepared home by St. Clement´s Church. On 21 April 1556 the chosen Jesuits appeared in Prague. All of them were foreigners, but could establish the schools since instruction at that time in Europe was conducted in Latin. On 7 July 1556 they opened theological and philosophical colleges as well as an academy (analogous to a grammar school). At the same time, they established two halls of residence: St. Bartholomew for noblemen, and St. Wenceslas for poor students.
After some time, Czech Province administered three universities on its territory: in Prague, Olomouc and Wroclaw. The colleges and residences providing religious services for worshippers continued to prosper. At its peak prosperity there were forty-eight institutions of this kind and, in addition to these, two mission stations came into being. Up to 1773 and the disbanding of the orders, beautiful Baroque churches were built everywhere Jesuits of the Czech Province worked. In the places where they had their colleges the Jesuits also built large schools and halls of residence. At the same time, however, Czech Jesuits also took part in the Society´s world-wide missions in India, China, Latin America and the Philippines.
It was not only the Jesuit teachers and priests who were of such importance for Czech cultural development, but also the scientists, prominent in various fields, and the excellent painters and sculptors. The Czech Province Jesuits carried out pioneering work of all kinds in their schools, which involved dramatic performances, ballet and also music.
Although the Society is not a charitable order its members did not exempt themselves from this kind of work wherever it was needed. Many Czech Province Jesuits served people suffering from the Black Death, sometimes paying the ultimate price. Twenty four Czech Jesuits died as a result of this work.
In 1754, Silesia separated from the Czech Province. In 1773, at the time of the disbanding of the order there were, excluding the Silesians, altogether one thousand one hundred and twenty-five members of the Czech Province, of which six hundred and twenty-three were priests. Seventy-eight members were at this time engaged in foreign missions. In the days of the independent Czech Province one hundred and sixty priests and brothers took part in the missions. Most of the priests were enlisted by the dioceses for parochial service while some of the professors carried on with their teaching.
Despite the world-wide renewal of the Society through Pope Pius VII´s Bull in 1814, the formerly famous Czech Province failed to become revitalised for a long time. Individuals who were interested in the Society of Jesus had to become members of the Austro-Hungarian Province (later only Austrian). On Austro-Hungarian territory Jesuits returned to the original places in the historical countries of Bohemia. At first, in 1853 to Šejnov-Bohosudov (Mariaschein) where they established a German Grammar School and a hall of residence for boys who were to dedicate themselves to the priesthood (the boys´ seminary of the Litoměřice diocese). In 1866 Jesuits returned to Prague-Nové Město, St. Ignatius Church. In 1900 they were also called to Hradec Králové. Otherwise, the dioceses entrusted them with new work in ecclesiastical service: in 1887 at St. Hostýn (a Marian shrine), and in 1890 in Velehrad (a shrine of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, and a parish). In 1913 the Archbishop of Prague entrusted Czech Jesuits of the Austrian Province with the Archiepiscopal Grammar School in Prague-Bubeneč and a hall of residence for the education of future priests.
After the end of World War I and the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the independent state of Czechoslovakia came into being. Some communities in Bohemia and Moravia could not remain in the Austrian Province and the two communities in Slovakia could not remain in the Hungarian Province. By virtue of a decision of Father General Vladimír Ledóchowský the Czechoslovak Vice-Province was established. The residency at St. Ignatius in Prague became the seat of the head of the Vice-Province. In Bohemia, the colleges in Prague-Bubeneč, Bohosudov, and the residency in Hradec Králové, and in Moravia the college in Velehrad and a residency at St. Hostýn, belonged to the Vice-Province, while in Slovakia, the college in Trnava and the residency in Bratislava fell to the Czechoslovak Vice-Province. By the time of its establishment, the Czechoslovak Vice-Province had one hundred and fifty-three members, of whom seventy two were priests, twenty nine scholastics (i. e. members studying for priesthood), and fifty two brothers. On 25 December 1928 the Czechoslovak Vice-Province was promoted to the Province. In 1929, the Czechoslovak Province had two hundred and seventy-one members, of whom ninety-nine were priests, ninety-three scholastics and seventy-nine brothers. By virtue of the decision of the Father General, the Slovak Vice-Province, independent of the Czechoslovak Province, came into being on 1 January 1931.
On 15 March 1939, the German army occupied Bohemia and Moravia, and the part of the Reich known as the "Protectorate Bohemia and Moravia" came into being. German authorities, with the extensive help of the Gestapo, struggled against the Catholic Church. The Jesuits in particular found themselves in a difficult position.
After the end of World War II, Jesuit activity in Czechoslovakia began in earnest once more. The Czech Province received back some houses and works.
In 1946 the communists seized parliamentary power through an election that surprised the whole nation. Already in 1947 the government had on its programme the banning of all church schools, but at this time nothing was done to put it into force.
But there were signs that a new totalitarianism was just around the corner and that the dominance, even the dictatorship of the proletariat would soon begin. This happened by means of a putsch on 25 February 1948. This day became a painful date not only in the history of the Czech nation, but also in the history of the Church and the Society of Jesus.
After this brief history of the life and work of the Jesuits in the Czech regions we are coming to the period of persecution under communist totalitarianism. It was a time of violence which affected human lives inhumanly and cruelly. It was a period when the Communist Party, and the Czechoslovak government headed by it, did not reject violence, leading even to death and ruining the lives of many people, especially intellectuals. It was a period notable for the existence of mindless people in the Security Services, who were, on the other hand, obedient party members. These people followed party instructions and treated prisoners in ways which deprived them of any human dignity. By means of physical and psychological violence, and by other means which are not common in a civilised society, they prepared the investigated men in ways which led to the gallows or to sentencing for the punishments prescribed according to the wishes of the communist leaders. Jesuits were afflicted by this fierce oppression too.
Firstly we must deal with the name. It derived from communist jargon. In all respects these were normal concentration camps. In saying this we also follow definitions from the communist-style encyclopćdia of the time which says: "Concentration camps are designed for isolating, terrorising and for the physical liquidation of political opponents of Fascist and other dictatorial regimes." In the same entry we find: "The prisoners came to the concentration camps without proper legal authority and for an undefined time." The aim of the "monastery camps" was to isolate the religious - police watched the buildings and the prisoners could not freely communicate with the outside world. As in other camps the heads of these "monasteries" used terror as an instrument for making the lives of prisoners unpleasant counting parades, compulsory dangerous work without any prior training. There was no fixed standard of discipline providing prisoners with at least minimum rights. Everything was left to the arbitrary decision of the camp headquarters. In the Želiv camp even the number of lines in a postcard was stipulated and this rule had to be adhered to before a postcard could be despatched. The letters could be addressed only to parents or selected relatives and always to the same address. The "monasteries" did not carry out actual direct killing, but there was indirect murder. The possibility of injury or death at work was ever present, be it because of insufficient training or lack of protective equipment while working, for instance, with various chemicals. The lack of health care was terrible and amounted to indirect murder. It is clear that we were included among the files as opponents to the dictatorial regime. Precisely at the time when these camps were being established both the Communist Party leaders and the government pompously proclaimed the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Normalisation in our state was characterised by the acquired experience that, when they want to, normally silent people protest against their oppressor. It also resulted in a hardening of the rule by the regime, which became aware of this fact. Everything was to seem more decent, but only in appearance. Also the destruction of people´s lives was more "decent" and many difficulties and much suffering were created by this "more decent way."
With difficulties, but infallibly guided by the Lord and strengthened by the world-wide Society of Jesus by its prayers, concern, solidarity and real help we were getting near the date of 17 November 1989 and events we had only dreamed of. Then the communist regime in our country collapsed and we could officially renew the life of the Czech Province of the Society of Jesus.
From: Czech Jesuits During the Communist Oppression: On the Way to Jesus by Jan Pavlík SJ, www.svobodat.com/sj
20. 5. 2021 - 31. 7. 2022
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