Sep 29, 2009

Benedict XVI confronts the ghost of Jan Hus

With gratitude to the National Catholic Reporter
(comments at end of article are particularly noteworthy)

by John L Allen Jr on Sep. 27, 2009

Though lengthy volumes have been written about Christian history in the Czech lands, the casual observer really only needs two words to understand the striking ambivalence that Catholicism often evokes here: Jan Hus.

In America, “Good King Wenceslas” is probably the single most famous figure from Czech history, owing largely to the popular Christmas carol. His memory lives on here too, but more commonly it’s the medieval preacher Jan Hus who is lionized as the real father of the Czech nation and the embodiment of its virtues. The fact that Hus was burned at the stake by the Catholic church in 1415 goes a long way toward explaining why, for some locals, being Czech and being hostile to Catholicism are practically the same thing.

Even the most avowedly atheistic Czechs celebrate Hus as a nationalist founder. Ted Turnau, who teaches the sociology of religion at Charles University, says that in Czech schools still today, Hus is often presented as the father of the nation, and of resistance to outside domination, with only scant mention of his religious views.

Born in 1372 in Bohemia, Hus is widely acknowledged as a forerunner of the Protestant Reformation, sort of a prototype for Martin Luther. He encouraged reading the Bible in Czech, condemned the medieval practice of indulgences, and insisted that “the church” is not merely the hierarchy but the entire fellowship of believers. Summoned to the Council of Constance to face charges of heresy, Hus refused to recant and was executed on July 6, 1415.

Several leading Christian denominations in the country trace their origins to Hus, including, naturally, the Hussite Church. Hus’ martyrdom has long been a sticking point, not only in ecumenical relations, but in broader tensions between Czech society and the church.

Prague’s Cardinal Miloslav Vlk has played a lead role in trying to heal that wound. Beginning in 1993, Vlk chaired a commission that studied Hus’ life and legacy, with an eye towards reevaluation. In 1995, Vlk became the first official representative of the Catholic church ever to attend a memorial of Hus’ death, held at the Bethlehem Chapel where Hus preached from 1402 to 1412. One year later, Vlk expressed regret in the name of all Czech Catholics for Hus’ death.

Those efforts culminated in a three-day symposium dedicated to Hus in Rome in 1999, when Pope John Paul II issued a historic apology for his “cruel death” and praised him for his “moral courage.”
That history formed the backdrop to Pope Benedict XVI’s meeting this afternoon in Prague with leaders of other Christian churches in the Czech Republic, held at the headquarters of the Archdiocese of Prague.

In welcoming the pope, Pavel Černý, a theologian with the Church of the Brethren and president of the Ecumenical Council of Churches in the Czech Republic, reminded Benedict that “for centuries, the figure of Jan Hus divided the churches and also the perception of history.” He thanked the Catholic church for the initiative of Pope John Paul II, which, Černý said, brought “his character and his struggle for the truth” to light, “which still has something to say for our struggles today.”

As expected, Benedict alluded to the need to “heal the wounds of the past,” and specifically referred to the 1999 Rome symposium on Hus.

“I pray that such ecumenical initiatives will bear fruit not only in order to persevere on the path to Christian unity, but for the good of the entire European society,” the pope said.

Benedict did not, however, offer any new apology for the death of Hus, or announce any new evaluation of Hus as a reformer.

In general, Benedict’s remarks to the ecumenical leaders were focused more on the present than the past. In the teeth of social currents that the pope said are trying to “marginalize the influence of Christianity in public life,” he called on all Christians to join forces.

Christianity must present itself, Benedict said, as offering “the spiritual and moral support that allows a meaningful dialogue with persons of other cultures and religions.”

European Christians, the pope suggested, have a particular contribution to make in that regard.
“When Europe sits down to listen to the story of Christianity, it hears its own story,” Benedict said. “Its notion of justice, liberty and social responsibility, together with the cultural and legal institutions created to defend these ideas and to transmit them to future generations, have been shaped by its Christian legacy.

“In truth, its memory of the past animates its aspirations for the future,” Benedict said.

In effect, the pope’s calculation seemed to be that the best way for Catholics and the spiritual sons and daughters of Jan Hus to overcome their troubled past is to concentrate on common efforts in the here-and-now.

And these 2 comments  on the NCR website are also worth quoting:

"Summoned to the Council of Constance to face charges of heresy, Hus refused to recant and was executed on July 6, 1415."

The reality was worse than John describes. Hus had been promised safe passage to the Council of Constance. Of course he was burned anyway. Hussites would be persecuted and burned at the stake for years to come.

With Jan Hus the RCC got a wake up call for the coming Protestant Reformation a century early. The church leaders hit the snooze button. The RCC has paid the price ever since.

I am a lifelong Catholic, who for the past 12 years have been privileged and honored to served as the founding CEO of the Moravian Ministries Foundation in America, a ministry of the Northern and Southern Provinces of the Moravian Church in America.

Moravians trace their roots directly to Jon Hus and consider him their spiritual founder. Since coming to the US over 350 years ago, Moravians have had a profound, but quiet impact on our country and Christianity. They were among the original settlers of Bethlehem, PA. They founded the 6th oldest college in America - Moravian College. They also settled what is now Winston-Salem, NC and founded the oldest women's college in America - Salem College. Moravians also played a critical role in John Wesley's faith journey on his voyage to Savannah, GA. More importantly, they brought their faith, without persecution, to Native Americans and were the first missionaries to the Islands of the Caribbean. In fact, Moravian missionaries accompanied and ministered to the Cherokees during what is called the "Trail of tears." And there is more....

From my experience, despite OUR treatment of Hus, they harbor no anti-Catholic feelings. In fact, their motto "In essential unity, non-essential liberties, but in all things, love" is something I see and experience everyday. While I am sure they would enjoy a warmer and deeper relationship with the Catholic Church and would welcome a clearer statement on Hus's murder by the Church (Let us keep in mind, the Pope promised Hus safe passage, but proceeded to have him killed) - as a Cathlolic I am offended by the Pope's lack of appropriate response.

In particular the statement, "the pope’s calculation seemed to be that the best way for Catholics and the spiritual sons and daughters of Jan Hus to overcome their troubled past is to concentrate on common efforts in the here-and-now" is very troubling theologically. As Catholics, Penance is a sacrament. We are told by the Church to repent for our sins. Therefore, the Pope, as the leader of the Church, should ask for forgiveness from the followers of Hus for our murdering him - and not treat this as a political matter.

Once again, my Church has fallen short and makes us all look small and un-Christian-like..

I say AMEN to that - Jayden.