Cardinal Watch: Cardinal Vlk turns 80

With today’s 80th birthday of Czech Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, by chance on Ascension Day, the number of cardinal electors drops to 122, returning it almost back to the legal maximum.

With the fighting spirit of his namesake (‘Vlk’ means ‘wolf’ in Czech), Cardinal Vlk has left his mark as the Church and nation of the Czechs found their place in Europe after the yoke of Communism.

Only ordained a priest at 36, Miloslav Vlk is not so much a product of academia, although he is no slouch there, but worked his way through life in Communist Czechoslovakia – even as a priest he had to work as a window cleaner for eight years in order to stay out of the government’s sights. A worker-cardinal turns 80.

Born in 1932, Miloslav Vlk grew up under the threat and occupation of Nazi Germany. During the height of the war – as entire villages were massacred in retaliation for resistance activities – 11-year-old Miloslav first started thinking about the priesthood. However, considering this a dream unattainable for a farm boy, he instead wanted to become an aircraft pilot. As the war ended, and a new Communist Czechoslovakia was created, Miloslav worked in an automobile factory and did his military service in the first half of the 1950s. He was then able to study archival science in Prague and worked in various archives until the mid-1960s. In 1964, he could finally follow his desire of studying theology in Litomerice. In the summer of 1968, during the Prague Spring of political liberalisation (which would soon be crushed by the Soviet Union), Miloslav Vlk was ordained to the priesthood, 36 years old.

He started his ministry working as secretary to Bishop Joseph Hlouch of Ceské Budejovice. This was apparently reason for state authorities to consider him suspicious, and in 1971, Father Vlk was forced to relocate to various parishes throughout southern Bohemia, and in 1978, he lost his state authorisation to exercise his priestly ministry. From 1978 until the end of 1988, Fr. Vlk lived in hiding, earning an income, first as a window cleaner and, from 1986, as an archivist in the archives of Prague’s State Bank.

In 1989 the tides turned. As the end of Communism in Czechoslovakia loomed, Fr. Vlk was again authorised to exercise his priestly ministry for a ‘trial year’. He worked as a curate near the Bavarian border. And then, in 1990, the country ceased to be Communist…

On 14 February 1990, Blessed Pope John Paul II pulled Father Vlk out of obscurity and appointed him as bishop of his native Ceské Budejovice. He would not be holding that position for very long, because a mere year later, he was called to Prague, to succeed 91-year-old Cardinal Tomášek as archbishop of Prague. As archbishop, and since 1994 as cardinal, Msgr. Vlk concerned himself not only with the local Church, but also with the Church in Europe, mirroring the new Czech Republic’s international outlook. From 1993 to 2001 he was President of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences, He was also the special secretary of the first Special Assembly for Europe of the Synod of Bishops in 1991 and also took part in the ninth General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops (1994) and the second Special Assembly for Europe (1999).

Cardinal Vlk resigned as archbishop of Prague in February of 2010 and was succeeded by Dominik Duka. He is cardinal-priest of the Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. He was, until his 80th birthday, a member of the Congregation for Oriental Churches, the Pontifical Council for Social Communications and the Special Council for Europe of the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops.

Ascension Day

“And he said to them, ‘Go out to the whole world; proclaim the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptised will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned. These are the signs that will be associated with believers: in my name they will cast out devils; they will have the gift of tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands and be unharmed should they drink deadly poison; they will lay their hands on the sick, who will recover.’
And so the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven; there at the right hand of God he took his place, while they, going out, preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word by the signs that accompanied it.”

Mark 16:15-20

Today we celebrate Ascension Day, although celebrate is perhaps not the correct term. After all, the Apostles had no reason to celebrate when their Teacher returned to His Father. After the sorrow of the Crucifixion, the joy of the countless appearances of Christ after His Resurrection, now there came a true ending of sorts. Now they had to go out alone or in small groups and spread the Gospel among all creation. Not a small task, even with the prospect of the Lord “working with them”. The Apostles, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles, needed some time to come to terms with this new reality. They surely didn’t feel like celebrating.

But we do today. Maybe it’s easier for us, since the Lord remains with us in the same way that He has ever since our Baptism. Apart from the readings at Mass and the prayers of the day, we have no real sense of change in our life. Instead, we may renew our efforts to follow the commandment that Christ gave His disciples upon His Ascension: to go out into the world and proclaim the Gospel to all creation.

Today’s Gospel reading offers us some examples on how to do so, or rather: how the Lord helps us in doing so. There are signs which accompany the work of the Apostles, and which still accompany our work in the same way. Those sings can take all kinds of forms; it is not as if God is limited in His help. They need not always be great miracles (although they certainly can be – consider, for one, the miracle of the sun at Fatima), or even take place at the same time that a modern Apostle does his or her work.

Often, we only realise that God was with us, helping us, confirming our words and works, when we look back at the things that happened or that we, or someone else, did. A prayer answered, a chance encounter with someone new, a seemingly random set of occurrences, some words read out, a homily… the possibilities are endless. What these signs indicate is that Christ is still with us, and that He will always be with us on our way to our ultimate goal. And that is why we celebrate today.

Art credit: “He vanished from their sight,” by Harold Copping