Pope Francis‘ political collaboration with Communist China has direct precedents in the Ostopolitik of John XXIII and Paul VI. But yesterday, just as today, Ostoplitik had strong opponents who deserve to be remembered. One of these was the Slovakian Bishop Pavol Hnilica (1926-2006), whom I’d like to recall, based on my own personal memories and by referring to a precise study dedicated to his figure, to be published shortly by Professor Emilia Hrabovec, to whom I express my gratiude for allowing me to consult and quote from her manuscript.
In the 1960s when Vatican diplomacy began to put Ostpolitik into action, there were two Churches in Czechoslovakia, like there are today in China. One was the “patriotic” Church represented by priests under the Communist regime; the other was the “underground” Church faithful to Rome and its Magisterium. Monsignor Pavol Hnilica, originally from Unatin, near Bratislava, after entering the Jesuits, was ordained a priest secretly (1950) and consecrated bishop (1951) by Monsignor Robert Pobozny (1890-1972), Bishop of Roznava. In this way he was able to consecrate 27 year old Ján Chryzostom Korec (1924-2015) bishop (and future cardinal) who, after exercising his priesthood in secret for nine years, was arrested and sentenced to twelve years in prison.
In December 1951, when Monsignor Hnilica was forced to flee his country and go to Rome, Pius XII approved fully of they way the Church in Czechoslovakia, was proceeding, confirming the validity of the secret consecrations and rejecting any collusion with the Communist Regime. In his Radio Message of December 23rd 1956, the Pope affirmed «To what purpose, for that matter, is there in having discussions without a common language, or how is it possible to come to an agreement, if ways diverge, if from one side absolute values are being disregarded and denied, therefore rendering any “coexistence in the truth“ workable?»
After the death of Pius XII, in October 1958, the climate changed and Agostino Casaroli became the main protagonist of the Holy See’s eastern policies, promoted by John XXIII, but carried into effect by Paul VI. During those years, Monsignor Hnilica, had the opportunity to meet Pope Montini frequently and presented him various memorandums in which he cautioned him against having illusions, warning him that the Communist regimes had not renounced their plan to liquidate the Church but had accepted dialogue with the Holy See only to obtain unilateral advantages, thanks to which they would recover credibility inside and outside their Countries, without ceasing their anti-religious politics.
«Hnilica – writes Emilia Hrabovec – advised not settling for cosmetic concessions, asking for the liberation and rehabilitation of all the bishops, religious and lay faithful still in prison, and the effective recognition of freedom to profess the faith and never to consent to the removal of repressed bishops which would be ‘ the worst humiliation for them personally and for the entire martyred Church, in the face of traitors, enemies and the general public opinion.’ The exiled Bishop feared that negotiations conducted without the most heroic part of the episcopate [and arriving] at a closed agreement with no relevant concessions, would have caused in Catholics – especially the best, who with vigour and fidelity had resisted oppression – disorientation and the sensation of being abandoned even by the ecclesiastical authorities.”
While the Second Vatican Council was in progress, on May 13th 1964, Paul VI made the rank of Monsignor Hnilica as bishop public – until then kept secret. This new status allowed the Slovakian Bishop to take part in the last session of the Council, where he intervened by associatimg himself with the Council Fathers who had asked for the condemnation of Communism. Monsignor Hnilica declared in the auditorium that the schema of Gaudium et Spes said so little about atheism that it “was the same as saying nothing at all”. And added that a great part of the Church was suffering “under the oppression of militant atheism, but that this is not apparent in the schema which however wants to address the Church of today”. “History will rightly accuse us of cowardliness and blindness for this silence,” the speaker continued, recalling that he was not speaking abstractly, as he had been in a work-concentration camp with 700 priests and religious. “I’m speaking from direct experience, and for those priests and religious I got to know in prison and with whom I bore the burdens and dangers for the Church.” » (AS, IV/2, pp. 629-631).
At that time, Monsignor Hnilica had numerous meetings with Paul VI, seeking in vain to dissuade him from “Ostpolitik”. In February 1965, the Archbishop of Prague, Josef Beran (1888-1969) was freed and came to Rome where Paul VI made him a cardinal. Monsignor Hnilica warned the Pope that the presumed success of Vatican diplomacy was instead a success for the Communist regime, which, with the exile of the Archbishop, had rid itself of an increasingly unpleasant international problem, with no fear of anything from the new Prague administrator, considered a timid member of the Movement of Clergy for Peace.
Cardinal Korec, after his liberation from the chains of Communism, recalls “Our hope was in the underground Church, which silently collaborated with priests in the parishes and formed the young fit for sacrifice: professors, engineers, doctors, disposed to becoming priests. These people worked in silence among the young and families; they published magazines and books in secret. In reality, the Ostpolitik sold our activity in exchange for vague promises and Communist uncertainties.
The underground Church was our great hope. And, instead, they slashed its wrists, they disgusted thousands of boys and girls, mothers and fathers and many hidden priests ready to sacrifice themselves. […] It was a catastrophe for us, almost as if they had abandoned us, swept us away. I obeyed. However, it was the most painful time in my my life. The Communists, in this way, had the public pastoral activity of the Church in their hands.” (Interview to Il Giornale, July 28 2000).
In the meantime, the Holy See, under heavy pressure from the Prague government, began to curb the Slavic Bishop’s activities and, in 1971, even asked him to leave Rome and move overseas. As Hrabovec reports, what touched the Bisop was the accusation of being an obstacle to the negotiations, the implicit reason for the persistant persecution of the Church, in addition to acting against the will of the Pope. Monsignor Hnilica said he was ready to leave Rome, but only if the Pontiff or the Superior General of his order had ordered him explicitly to do so. Since such an order from these two authorities never came, Hnilica remained in the Eternal City and continued with his activities, even if contacts with the Holy See ceased.
The years of Ostpolitk were also those of historical compromise. When many thought that the persecutory Communist system was a closed chapter, and the Italian Communist Party was celebrating electoral victories previously unknown, «the untiring Bishop sought to persuade his public that the Communist regimes had only changed their tactics, by choosing more refined methods, without receding even one inch from their anti-religious and anti-human programme, and that the Church was obliged in conscience not to settle with the Communist system and its legality, but to continue denouncing its crimes and the dangers it represented».
As again Hrabovec recalls, «with the evangelical radicality of a profoundly religious person, Hnilica was convinced that in the age of “a final decision for the Truth or against the Truth, for God or against God”, neutrality was impossible and those who did not side with the Truth, became the accomplice of Falsehood and thus co-responsible for the spreading of Evil. In this spirit, Hnilica, bitterly criticized Western policies of accomodation and compromises in the negotiations with the Communist regimes; the weakness and indifference of Western Christians focussed too much on themselves, too intent on maintaining their own material well-being and too little disposed in taking interest and engaging themselves [in aid] for their brothers and sisters behind the Iron Curtain and the defence of their own Christian values.
Recalling the famous expression by Pius XI in the 1930s, Hnilica, denounced the silence of politics, the media and public opinion – even Catholic – with regard to the Communist regime and the persecution of Christians Behind The Curtain, as “A Conspiracy of Silence” , noting, that while it was once customary to speak of the “Church of Silence” behind the Iron Curtain, now it would be more appropriate to use this name to define the Church(es) of the West.”
Monsignor Pavol Hnilica was a profoundly good man, but at times ingenuous. When I met him in 1976, he was always accompanied by his secretary Witold Laskowski, an aristocratic Pole, a polyglot of impeccable manners and who, in his facial features and massive figure looked surprisingly like Winston Churchill. Laskowski had emigrated to Italy in the Twenties, had been part of General Anders‘ army and had devoted his life to the fight against Communism. He was a type of “guardian angel” for Monsignor Hnilica, as he helped him thwart the manouvres of the Communist Secret Services who had infiltrated his group, making use not only of a lot of agents, but also of the help from the Italian Communist Party. If Laskowski had been alive, Monsignor Hnilica would not have been involved in a nasty bit of business in the 90s, when he was persuaded by the scheming Freemason, Flavio Carboni, to pay money in order to obtain documents which would have proved the Vatican’s innocence in the bankruptcy of the Banco Ambrosiano.
Monsignor Hnilica was an ardent devotee of Our Lady of Fatima, convinced that this apparition had been one of God’s greatest interventions in human history, since the time of the Apostles. In all of the relations he had with the Pontiffs, he always insisted that the Consacration of Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary be made as requested by Our Lady on July 13th 1917. John Paul II, after having been dramatically wounded on May 13th 1981, attributed a miraculous protection to Our Lady and was impelled to study the message at a deeper level. Consequently, while he was convalescing at the Policlinico, he asked Monsignor Hnilica for a complete documentation of Fatima.
Then, On May 13th 1982, The Pope went on pilgrimage to Fatima, where he entrusted and consacrated to Our Lady “Those men and nations who have particular need of this entrustment and consacration.” The following day, Sister Lucy met Monsignor Hnilica, accompanied by Don Luigi Bianchi and Wanda Poltawska. When they asked her if she thought the consacration made by the Pontiff valid, the seer made a sign of no with her finger and then explained that the explicit consecration to Russia had been missing.
A second consacration was made by John Paul II on March 25th 1984, in St. Peter’s Square, before the Virgin’s statue specially brought from Portugal. Not even on this occasion was Russia expressly named, but there was simply a reference «to the peoples of which You await our consacration and entrustment». The Pope had written to all the bishops of the world asking them to join him. Among the few who agreed, was Monsignor Pavol Hnilica, who, from India, where he was at the time, had managed to obtain a tourist visa for Russia, and, that same day March 25th, inside the Kremlin, hiding behind the large pages of Pravda, he pronounced the words of consacration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
On May 12th and 13th, 2000, I was with Monsignor Hnilica at Fatima, on the occasion of John Paul II’s trip for the beatification of the little shepherds, Jacinta and Francesco. I did not share his excessive optimism for the Papacy of John Paul II, but the memory I have of him, after having known him for twenty-five years, is that of a man of great faith, who, today would have been right beside those who are fighting against what Cardinal Zen calls «the selling-out of the Church»