Connect to share and comment

Pope Francis could be godsend for reviled Czech Jesuits


Pope Francis could be a godsend for his fellow Jesuits in the Czech Republic, where the religious order is still reviled for its brutal re-imposition of Catholicism in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Dogged by a serious image problem ever since, the Jesuits -- known formally as the Society of Jesus -- have just 55 members in the Czech Republic, a largely secular ex-communist EU country of 10.5 million people.

Around half the Jesuits here were born before 1950, and new members rarely join the male-only order which takes vows of poverty and chastity and attaches great importance to education.

Enter Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pontiff, whose no-frills lifestyle and humility have made headlines around the globe since his historic election on March 13. He is also the first pope from Latin America.

"The election of Pope Francis may trigger interest in Jesuits (among Czechs) in a context that would not be so negative," Jaroslav Sebek, an expert on the history of the Church, told AFP.

Most Czechs equate the order with the 18th-century Jesuit preacher Anton Konias (1691-1760), a merciless censor who ordered the burning of no fewer than 30,000 books he dubbed "heretical".

"Konias was a little overzealous," Prague Jesuit Petr Kolar says dryly.

Meanwhile, Jan Hus, a reformer who was burnt at the stake in 1415 for heresy against Catholic doctrine remains a national icon among Czechs, who revere him to this day.

By the 16th Century, most Czechs had eschewed Catholicism, which first took root in the 9th century, to join Protestant churches spearheaded by Martin Luther and John Calvin among others during a period now known as the Reformation.

In 1620, the landmark Battle of White Mountain near Prague saw troops of the mostly Protestant Czech nobility suffer a stinging defeat at the hands of Catholic armies belonging to the Holy Roman Emperor.

Forced Catholicisation followed during a period dubbed the Counter-Reformation, leading Protestant elites to flee.

Jesuits were at the forefront of the repression.

"Furious destroyers of Czech books -- mould, moths, Jesuits," Czech journalist Karel Havlicek Borovsky (1821-1856) wrote in an epigram repeated by generations of schoolchildren.

Writer Alois Jirasek (1851-1930) dubbed the re-imposition of Catholicism a time of "Darkness".

The reputation of the Jesuits also suffered under Communist rule from 1948-89 in the former Czechoslovakia, when the atheist regime wasted no opportunity to tarnish the image of the church.

While neighbouring Poland remains deeply Roman Catholic, only one million Czech citizens declared themselves Catholic in a 2011 census.

Five million had no religion while 3.6 million said they were atheist.

Very few Czechs are aware of the positive achievements of the Jesuit order in their homeland, such as the setting up of around three dozens schools.

Jesuit priest Father Bohuslav Balbin (1621-1688), a historian and writer, was a patriot who wrote several history books on his country and promoted the Czech language.

And respected Jesuit Cardinal Tomas Spidlik (1919-2010), an expert on spirituality in eastern Christian countries, "contributed to the theological dialogue between the East and the West," said Sebek.

With its passion for science, the order also opened an observatory at the top of a tower at the Clementinum college, a masterpiece of Baroque architecture in Prague, where temperatures have been recorded every day since 1775.

"And we must not forget about the numerous Jesuits incarcerated in Nazi concentration camps and in Communist prisons, whose fate is largely forgotten today. It would be good if this could change," historian Sebek notes.

Father Kolar sees plenty of work for Jesuits nowadays.

"Pity that there are so few of us. There are so many things to do, like helping the marginalised or the Roma minority," he told AFP in an austere room at the Jesuit headquarters in central Prague, next to the Baroque church of Saint Ignatius de Loyola, a Spanish priest who founded the Society of Jesus in 1534.

"The order's image isn't important. What counts is what it can accomplish," he added with a smile.