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.

The undeservedly forgotten cardinal

I came across a pretty nice-looking website that heralds the publication of an extensive biography of a forgotten Catholic great: Willem Marinus Cardinal van Rossum (1854-1932). Born a year after the Catholic hierarchy was re-established in the Netherlands, his career coincided with the period we now call the ‘rich Roman life’ (Rijke Roomsche Leven), when Catholics took full advantage of their newfound freedom to form all kinds of Catholic associations, unions and other clubs, to organise processions (if only below the great rivers) and take their devotions out of centuries of secrecy and hiding.

Cardinal van Rossum, then, was one that Dutch Catholics took pride in. His return to the Netherlands in 1924, as the papal legate to the Eucharistic Congress of Amsterdam, was basically the next best thing to the pope himself visiting. And his career was impressive in any case. In 1911, he was the first Dutch priest to be created a cardinal since the Reformation. He wasn’t a bishop then yet (something that is customary today, but less so in the past), but was appointed as President of the Pontifical Bible Commission in 1914, and two years later also as Major Penitentiary. In 1918 he also became Prefect of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (the current Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples), and his consecration to bishop followed in that same year. There’s a fuller list of his various duties on the biography page on the website I linked to above.

The titular churches he held (first as Cardinal-deacon and later as Cardinal-priest) were suitably high profile. From 1911 to 1915 he held the S. Cesareo in Palatio, which was later held by Blessed Karol Wojtyła, for one. From 1915 until his death in 1932, the cardinal was cardinal-priest of S. Croce in Gerusalemme (right), which before him was held by two later popes (Innocent VII and Benedict XIV) and today by Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, the emeritus archbishop of Prague.

As bishop he was the titular archbishop of Caesarea in Mauretania (there it is again), later held by to name but two, my own Bishop Gerard de Korte and Cardinal Walter Brandmüller.

Willem Cardinal van Rossum, because of his pioneering role for the rejuvenated Dutch Church, is deserving of a proper biography, and judging by the website above, this could be it.

Photo credit: [1] incaelo.wordpress.com, [2] Anthony Majanlahti/Wikipedia