Jan Chryzostom Korec: Cardinal, Confessor, and good Jesuit

24 OCTOBER 2015: Cardinal Korec passes away at the ripe age of 91. Pro eo apud Deum Patrem deprecemur.


As we know, a “confessor” is someone who suffers greatly for the faith, but is not killed (in which case that person would be a martyr).  Like the title “martyr”, the title of “confessor” is conferred by the Church on a worthy person only after his or her death– but don’t let the title of this post fool you.  Jan Chryzostom Korec, Bishop-emeritus of Nitra (Slovakia) is alive and kicking, and turns 90 years old today, 22 January!  It may indeed be a bit presumptuous of a simple layman to designate Korec a “confessor” while he still breathes, but if you read his most remarkable story, I’m sure you’ll find the title “confessor” most appropriate.

Jan Chryzostom Korec was born 22 January 1924 to a Catholic family in Bošany, within the Slovak part of what was then the Republic of Czechoslovakia.  He entered the Society of Jesus in 1939, studying philosophy and theology during the Nazi occupation in underground conditions similar to those experienced by Karol Wojtyla.  As for so many Eastern Europeans, the joyous end of World War II was short-lived for Korec; the postwar Soviet occupation led to the establishment of a communist Czech government in 1948. Despite their bitter hatred toward one another, both the communists and the fascists were hostile to the Church, and in many ways the communists were less subtle in their attacks against the Church.

But the young Korec was more than apt to counter the premises and dogmas of Marxist atheism: his 1947 licentiate thesis was entitled “The Philosophical Principles of Dialectic Materialism”, a critical yet reasoned appraisal of Marxism.  Not yet a priest, he assisted his fellow Czechoslovak Jesuits in the publication of numerous religious books and three religious periodicals, contributing to the material therein published.  Korec’s works were forcibly removed from publication by the authorities in an increasing government encroachment upon Catholic institutes.  On 13 April 1950, the persecution of the Czechoslovak Catholics reached new dramatic heights: the so-called “Night of the Barbarians” saw a nationwide raid on churches, monasteries, religious houses, and seminaries.  These institutions were closed.  The openly and vehemently atheist Marxist system began to imprison religious figures; nuns, brothers, monks, priests, and bishops were arrested simply for being nuns, brothers, monks, priests, and bishops; Korec was one of those arrested.  His poor health in prison earned him an exemption from forced military service, and he was released from confinement after five months into a country which banned open exercise of religion.  The Church in Czechoslovakia was now underground.

Monitoring the situation in with horror, the Holy See, through clandestine channels, approved the secret ordination of priests and bishops in an attempt to keep the Catholic Church alive in Czechoslovakia.  Korec was secretly ordained in October 1950 as a priest of the Society of Jesus at the age of 26.  Working as a manual laborer in the day, he exercised pastoral ministry and administered the sacraments in the shadows. All bishops known to the public were imprisoned by 1951; so dire was the predicament of the Church that in August of that year, at only 27 years old, Korec was secretly consecrated a bishop by a fellow Jesuit and clandestine bishop, Pavol Hnilica; Korec took as his episcopal motto ut omnes unum sint, in the hopes that the Church in his country would one day be free and united with the universal Church.  He was the youngest bishop in the world at the time.

Between 1951 and 1960, he worked first in a chemical factory, then as a laboratory technician, then as a security guard.  All this time, he carried out his secret ministry, ordaining priests, instructing the faithful, and offering the sacraments to a people starved of God’s grace.  A January 1960 raid on Korec’s house by the state security police revealed his priestly identity, and the following May he and other Jesuits were convicted of treason.  Korec received a 12-year incarceration sentence, most of which was spent in the infamous Valdice prison, sharing cells with the country’s worst criminals, and yet he continued to secretly minister to them.  During his imprisonment, he never failed to celebrate daily Mass– the Traditional Latin Mass– and earned the respect and confidence of his fellow prisoners.   In 1968, he was released during the brief liberalizing period of “Prague Spring”, and in 1969, under the conditions of Ostpolitik des Vatikans, he was allowed to go to Rome where Pope Paul VI received him a private audience.  Korec received from the hands of Papa Montini two mitres, an episcopal ring, a pectoral cross, and the crozier which he used as Archbishop of Milan– in other words, he finally received the proper signs of episcopal authority which he never had as a clandestine bishop.

Now that he was a public bishop, the State forbade him to publicly exercise his ministry, and he was forced to accept other civilian jobs under the watchful eye of the state police.  Korec worked as an elevator repairman, a street cleaner, and a carpenter.  All his activities were monitored.  His phone was tapped and Czechoslovak authorities mounted a propaganda campaign to discredit him.  But despite all this, the people of Slovakia continued to seek him out.  He wrote in secret and illegally distributed his religious and spiritual writings.  He held clandestine retreats, administered the sacraments, and ordained new priests to keep the Church alive.  During the Marian year 1987-88, he led over 150,000 people in a pilgrimage at Nitra until the state police summoned him for an interrogation.

Interestingly, Good Friday 1988 fell on the Feast of the Annunciation (25 March).  On this day in Bratislava, the police attacked a Catholic group’s demonstration in support of religious freedom and human rights; scores were wounded and imprisoned, and the day became known as “The Good Friday of Bratislava”. Korec could not be present because he was already in an interrogation with the police.  Twice the State tried to assassinate him– such was his popularity and influence among the devoutly Catholic Slovaks.  As an effective voice of opposition and as a unifying figure, the State feared him more and more as the Iron Curtain began to buckle.  Even in the outside world his name was spoken with admiration.  A foreign periodical wrote of him a few years prior:

There is a man in Bratislava whom the atheist Communist party fears. He is called Ján Korec and he works as an ordinary laborer in a large factory. Although he suffers from asthma he was forced to do heavy labor: to load and unload large drums of tar daily. When his strength gave out no one had compassion on him, because he was a citizen in the third category, that is, on his documents was stamped “Accused of Treason to his Country”.

The words of the ancient Roman rite at episcopal consecrations, by which rite Korec was made a bishop in 1951, came true: terribilis appareat adversariis Veritatis (may he appear fearsome to the enemies of Truth).  The coincidence of the feasts of Christ’s earthy beginning (the Annuncuation) and Christ’s death (Good Friday) surely pointed to the idea, well-understood by Korec himself, that through death and suffering comes new life; and shortly after the “Good Friday of Bratislava”, a Slovak Easter was on its way.  In November 1989, the communist government fell, and the Church in Czechoslovakia was free.

After a little over a month as Rector of the Cyril and Methodius Theological Faculty in Bratislava, Pope John Paul II named Korec Bishop of Nitra on 6 February 1990; on 28 June 1991, in recognition for his courageous and steadfast testimony throughout the communist persecution, Korec was created Cardinal-Priest of Santi Fabiano e Venanzio a Villa Fiorelli, becoming the first Cardinal of a free and democratic Slovak nation.

Today, despite the usual political infighting which accompanies the development of any democracy, Cardinal Korec is a much-revered figure in Slovakia, and Slovaks of all walks of life and of all ranks and positions turn to him for counsel.  He has earned respect for his steadfast testimony to the faith and unwavering support for his people; accordingly, he has received numerous awards and honors, including medals from foreign governments and doctorates honoris causa from Notre Dame and the Catholic University of America.  The day of his death (and may God long preserve him) will be a day of loss for the whole Church and for freedom-loving peoples everywhere.  Korec is a model Jesuit, whose steadfastness in the faith and to the traditional doctrine of the Church, even in the face of terrible persecutions, stands in stark contrast to others in the Society of Jesus who bend and sway to any wind of popular ideology.  It’s a shame that Karl Rahner, Stephen Privett, and James Martin are better known than this Slovakian Shepherd, a true pastor among his flock, who suffered the attack of the wolves, and who went forth unafraid to gather the wayward sheep into the fold of Christ

On this day, the 90th anniversary of his birth, we heartily say Eminentissime Domine, ad multos annos to Jan Chryzostom Korec– Cardinal, Confessor, and good Jesuit.

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