Czech Republic – Brave pioneers

Eva-Maria Kolmann, ACN International

Adapted by Robert Lalonde, ACN Canada

The Carmelite Fathers are celebrating the 20th anniversary of their return to Prague. When they returned after the Communist era, they had to start again from scratch. Father Anastasio Roggero, who serves at the shrine of the Infant Jesus, remembers.CARMÉLITES -2

The man in Tram Number 22 opens his eyes wide in astonishment, as though he has seen a ghost. A procession like this is not something you see every day in the city of Prague! Amid ringing of bells the Infant Jesus of Prague is carried in procession through the streets – past churches, shop windows and Thai massage studios, past cafes, camera-clicking tourists and astonished passers-by. A seemingly endless procession follows behind, singing in praise of the “Jezulátko“, as the Child Jesus is lovingly known in the Czech language. Proudly, the “Little King” sails aloft through the streets on a flower-bedecked litter, his right hand raised in blessing of the city and the globe.

New hope returned for the Church

That such a public profession of faith should be possible today is by no means self-evident. For the former Czechoslovakia was one of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe that witnessed the most brutal persecution during the Communist era. All the faithful were subject to reprisals, while great numbers of priests and religious were sentenced to long prison terms or forced labour and their religious houses were dissolved. For several decades the image of the Infant Jesus of Prague stood alone and forgotten on its side altar. The woodworm invaded steadily further into the woodwork of pew and altar in the churches and the bells fell silent. God was officially dead.

Then in 1989 history took an unexpected turn. With the collapse of communism new hope at last returned for the Church. And likewise the Jezulátko was not to remain alone for much longer. For in 1993 Cardinal Miroslav Vlk, who was then Archbishop of Prague, invited a group of Carmelite Fathers from Italy into his archdiocese. Father Anastasio Roggero, from Genoa, who is now 74 years old and will be celebrating the golden jubilee of his priesthood this year, was one of these pioneers. It was to him that the Cardinal entrusted the pilgrimage church where the renowned image resides.

The beginning was far from easy. Father Anastasio recalls: “The church was in an unimaginable state. There were no religious services. Inside the sacristy the family who had the key to the church used to hang out their washing to dry. There was an old worn out piano standing there that the organist had not known how to get rid of. The floor and the cupboards were in a woeful state, and the crypt and the other parts of the church were just a pile of rubble. Father Victor and I had to find space to live, in two small rooms next to the organ, one of which housed the motor that operated the organ. The kitchen was reduced to a minimum and our dining room served at the same time as the office and the visitors’ room.

“Similarly, the former Franciscan monastery in Slány, around 20 km from Prague, which was given to the Carmelite Fathers for their novitiate because there was no space in Prague for the new vocations to the order, was in a woeful state. After the Franciscans had been expelled in 1950, the monastery was used as a prison and workshop and the monastery gardens were used, and misused, as a practice shooting range, rubbish tip, and even as a zoo. So the prior, Father Petr Glogar, and the other Carmelites found themselves facing a virtual ruin when the monastery was handed over to them. But they rolled up their sleeves and got to work.

Superhuman achievement

ACN helped them at the time with $20,000 for the renovation work and also helped them purchase a car for their pastoral work. Meanwhile, thanks to the hard work of the Carmelite Fathers, the monastery is once more a little jewel of peace and beauty. Around the monastery a lively community, with many young families, has sprung up. And the monastery also serves as a retreat house and thus, together with the shrine of the Infant Jesus, is an important centre of the Catholic Church in the Archdiocese of Prague.

The four Carmelite Fathers in the shrine church in Prague also have their hands full. For over a million people come here each year from all over the world to visit the image of the Infant Jesus. The most famous of these pilgrims recently was Pope Benedict XVI, who in September 2009 made the Infant Jesus of Prague the first stop on his visit to the Czech Republic.

CARMÉLITES-1For the Carmelite Fathers his visit was a “great encouragement”, says Father Anastasio, himself a veritable polyglot who is able to celebrate Holy Mass in at least 10 different languages and welcome almost all the pilgrims in their own mother tongue. Nor does he simply wait for the pilgrims to come to Prague, but also works to spread the devotion to the Child Jesus throughout the world. He has already sent countless copies of the Infant Jesus of Prague to many countries of Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe and to the United States, and new shrines are appearing on every continent. Mongolia, Mauritius, La Reunion, the Republic of Central Africa, China, Japan, Burma and Singapore are just a few examples. Even in Pakistan there is now a shrine to the Infant Jesus of Prague. The biggest shrines
to the Infant Jesus in the world are in neighboring India. Hence there are now also two Indian Carmelite Fathers at the shrine in Prague, helping to welcome the many pilgrims.

And so graces and blessings are spreading out from Prague into the entire world. It is now 20 years since the Carmelite Fathers have been back in the capital of the Czech Republic. There is still a great deal to do. The apparent beauty of the church of Our Lady of Victories should not deceive anyone as to the fact that the challenges are still immense, even close on a quarter of a century after the end of communism. But what the Fathers have managed to do since they arrived here is an almost superhuman achievement. “For 20 years we have witnessed the growing number of the faithful who come here from every continent to pray to the Child Jesus and to look for his smile, to implore graces and tell us of their answered prayers”, says Father Anastasio happily.

The bells ring out. The Child Jesus moves on through the streets of Prague, Stalin is dead. Recent history has once again confirmed what the Carmelite nun, saint and philosopher Edith Stein wrote of the Infant Jesus of Prague, shortly before her death in the concentration camp of Auschwitz: “HE is the one who holds the reins in his hand, even if others think they do so.”

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