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Pope Offers Tribute to ‘Fearless’ Hero of Catholic Underground Behind Iron Curtain

Pope Francis is praising the heroic witness given by Cardinal Ján Korec under the Communist dictatorship of Czechoslovakia.

Francis said that on hearing the news of the passing of Cardinal Korec, he was moved with “deep emotion” and sorrow, calling him “a generous and zealous shepherd who in his long ministry in the Church offered a fearless witness of the Gospel” and was a “staunch defender of the faith and human rights.” The pontiff sent a telegram of condolences to the President of Slovakia’s bishops’ conference.

Clandestinely ordained a bishop in 1951, Ján Chryzostom Korec become at age 27 the youngest bishop in the world, and ended up spending 39 years of his life either in prison or working as a laborer in a factory to survive. He documented what life was like in a Communist prison in his autobiographical book The Night of the Barbarians.

The Czechoslovak church under Communist rule was among the most repressed in the East, with mass jailings of priests and a state-sponsored clerical organization that sought to control church affairs, which the Vatican refused to recognize.

In his telegram, Pope Francis commended Korec, a fellow Jesuit, who “as a prisoner was prevented for years from freely exercising his mission as a bishop, yet never allowed himself to be intimidated and instead gave a radiant example of fortitude and trust in divine providence, as well as of loyalty to Peter.”

Korec’s loyalty to the Pope, in fact, was well known. In a letter he wrote from jail to the Slovak Minister of Justice, Korec denied the charges of treason for which he was imprisoned, but also stated:

The accusation of being faithful to the Pope, I take to be an honor. This fidelity does not need the approval or consent of anyone. Prison has not diminished this fidelity. It is just this that has allowed me to tolerate prison.

As an underground bishop under communist rule, Korec secretly ordained 120 priests. Only after the “Velvet Revolution” in 1989 could he officially be received as bishop of the diocese of Nitra, in Slovakia, where he continued to serve from 1990 to 2005. Established in 880 AD, Nitra is the oldest Catholic diocese in Central and Eastern Europe. Pope John Paul II made Korec a cardinal in 1991 in recognition for his service to the “Church of silence” in Czechoslovakia.

In a homily delivered in Fatima in 1992, Cardinal Korec declared:

Atheism destroyed true culture, the character of man and his conscience; it destroyed education and morality, and created a life of oppression in which there was no freedom. Atheists themselves felt the intolerable nature of such a life.

Until his death at 91 years of age on Saturday, Korec was one of the last six bishops appointed under Pius XII to be still alive.

Pope Francis said that he thanked the Lord “for having given his Church this eminent figure of a priest and a bishop,” praying that after so much suffering God welcome this “good and faithful servant” into his eternal happiness.

Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome

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