A hundred years before Martin Luther ignited the Christian Reformation in Germany, Jan Hus in the Czech lands instituted church reforms before being burned at the stake for heresy. Now, Germany's faithful are almost equally divided into Protestants and Roman Catholics -- but the Czechs are predominantly of no religion at all. Jan Schwarz, newly elected patriarch of the Czechoslovak Hussite Church, tells RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill that the story of the Hussites and the history of the Czech lands are inseparable.
Prague, 7 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The Czech Hussite Church established its character when Catholic leaders burned Bohemian religious reformer Jan Hus at the stake in 1415 for heresy. Ever since, to be a Hussite has meant facing difficulties.
Jan Schwarz, newly elected patriarch of the Czechoslovak Hussite Church, says this parallel makes the Hussites a uniquely national church. The church and the Czech and Slovak peoples share a turbulent past, and in 2001 are struggling against common obstacles.
Catholics, and later the Catholic rulers of the Austro-Hungarian empire, suppressed the Hussites. Then came the Nazis and the communists. Now, Schwarz says, both the church and the people are finding they have leapt from the hot grill of communism into the fire of rampant materialism.
Schwarz says he would never hope for a catastrophe to drive people back to the church. It is nonetheless true, he says in an interview with RFE/RL, that a catastrophic event like the 11 September terrorist attacks in the United States reminds people of their mortality and sends them in search of their souls.
Just as disaster turns people toward spiritual things, he says, freedom confers a responsibility to recognize human limits: "We all have experienced in our lives times when we could not bear our burden, when, in the words of the Bible, we hired a goldsmith to forge our God and then, humbling ourselves, bowed and scraped and worshipped our idols and served them for such a long time that we grew powerless. Freedom bears in itself a similar danger. We are again offered a new burden."
Schwarz says the present state of the tiny Hussite Church does not amount to a commentary on Jan Hus's theology. Hus anticipated the Reformation by a century, insisting that services be held in the Czech language rather than church Latin, and -- among other reforms -- that laypeople should participate in both the bread and the wine of communion. The Catholics serve sacramental wine to priests only.
Schwarz says the present Czechoslovak Hussite Church is a new movement informed by Hus's thinking: "This benchmark in Czech history in fact overarches all our history, our whole historical legacy of the Czech nation. That is why we always return to Hus. That is why Hus provokes us, and that is why also the new church that follows the Hussite heritage looks toward Hus as to someone who inspires our future endeavors."
In the years before World War I, the Austrian Catholic rulers of the Czech lands succeeded in suppressing the Hussites, if not out of existence, at least into obscurity. But between the wars the church resurrected itself, just as the Czech nation did. The Nazis subjugated both the Czechs and their worship, but after World War II both flourished briefly again. By 1950, the Czechoslovak Hussites numbered a million faithful.
But Patriarch Schwarz says the communist regime devastated freedom of worship, along with other freedoms: "When I decided to go to church in the time of socialism, when I expressed my belief, I automatically became a second-class citizen. I could not travel abroad. I knew that my children would not be permitted to study at the universities. I knew that if I asked the state for anything, I would always be relegated to the second class."
Schwarz says many Czechs found this burden of state disapproval too heavy to bear. The church Schwarz was chosen to lead last month has dwindled to 13 congregations of about 100,000 -- mostly elderly -- faithful.
After the fall of communism, Schwarz says, the church -- like the Czech people -- became caught up in the new materialism. He says that in its drive to win the restitution of properties seized by the communists, the church alienated many people.
"Not all churches managed to strive in a Biblical way to regain their properties. This harmed us in the eyes of the public. People rightfully questioned a church that came to the world calling for renewal and spiritual values espoused by Jesus Christ, the poor and humble, but then sat at the negotiating table and discussed money and property with an avidity that would instruct or shame a banker."
The new patriarch says he recognizes that he and his fellow church leaders have a difficult task in restoring the Hussites to their former influence in Czech and Slovak life. "Czechs are famous for their deep mistrust of anything, which is a part of church tradition."
But Schwartz says he is eager to take up the challenge. He suggests that Czechs, so often charged with the trait of envy, can turn even this characteristic to spiritual use.
"I would very much like for there to exist in this society a competitive spark, a healthy envy that would inform the activities of the religious communities. One that would cause one to say, 'Why don't I find in myself such belief that I can live as good and happy a life as, for example, those of my friends living in the particular Hussite religious community....'"
Schwarz says that if he could speak from a pulpit to the rest of Central Europe, his message would be this: In the postcommunist years, people have made for themselves a new prison -- that of materialism and consumerism. People say they don't have time for the spirit. But, Schwarz says, your time is your life. If you don't have time, you don't have a life.
(RFE/RL's Jana Mesarosova contributed to this report.)