Prague is Europe’s rediscovered crown jewel. Just four years after the communists were peacefully ousted in the Velvet Revolution of 1989, tourists are streaming into this lovely, unspoiled city on the Vlatava. So captivating are the Baroque buildings lining the streets winding down from Hradcany Castle; so mistily romantic is the cityscape of church domes and spires; so warmly do Baroque and Rococo meld with the open religious symbolism of sculpted saints standing guard on the Charles Bridge, and painted saints looking from atop windows, door frames, and from street-side shrines, that the traveler can scarcely recollect that the Czech Republic, only a brief moment ago, was one of the most cruelly oppressed countries that were handed to the communists in the degradation of Yalta.
Prague does not look like a communist city. With its spires and saints and crosses, and its ancient Jewish synagogue and cemetery, it looks not like a concrete warren for proletarians but like a thoroughly Judeo-Christian city. That amid such rich religious symbolism the communist system—through the Stalinism of Klement Gottwald and then the “normalization” of Gustav Husak—infected and controlled all of society, even to a large degree the Church, is witness to the insidious ability of totalitarianism to usurp religious symbols, drain them of supernatural meaning, and use them as cultural artifacts in the service of the state. That this Marxist-Leninist vise could be finally unloosed is a tribute to the resurgence in the human spirit of transcendent hope and, undoubtedly, to the care of two brother saints, Cyril and Methodius, whose feast day is the fourteenth of this month. Saints Cyril and Methodius, Apostles to the Slays, were born in Greece and became Byzantine missionaries in Moravia, Bohemia, and Bulgaria. Cyril died in Rome in 869, but Methodius went on to become papal legate to the Slav nations. He died in 885 in Czechoslovakia.
Little wonder that the third apostle who took the Slav nations into his care—Pope John Paul II—in a signal to the Church, the Slavic people, and the communists, named Cyril and Methodius patron saints of Europe, a title they share with Saint Benedict. John Paul further stressed the importance of these saints when he centered his fourth encyclical, Salvorum apostoli, specifically on their indispensable contribution to the Church in Europe.
Little wonder, too, that Pope John Paul himself was a key performer in the drama of nonviolent revolution that in 1989 swept Central and Eastern Europe clean of the communist curse. At least as essential to the drama as Vaclav Havel or Lech Walesa, John Paul served not as a political figure but as the unshakable moral force beyond politics, who reminded the world that God and not man assigns our destiny, and, therefore, that politics, being of human design, can never fulfill our destiny. Because the source of our being is God, our goal transcends anything we can dream up by ourselves. No system of our own creation can contain, exhaust, or fulfill us. Our relationship to God inscribes in us a purpose and end that transcends the world and can never be expressed ultimately by politics. Any system, then, that claims to encompass us totally is false. And, consequently, any regime that does not recognize that the lifeblood of politics is a culture that grows out of the cultus—that is, religion—is doomed.
As Pope John Paul wrote in his encyclical Centesimus annus,
At the heart of every culture lies the attitude a person takes to the greatest mystery: the mystery of God. Different cultures are basically different ways of facing the question of the meaning of personal existence. When this question is eliminated, the culture and moral life of nations are corrupted.
The revolution of 1989 was not in essence a movement of protest against a crumbling economy or even a corrupt regime. To make such a protest the whole of it is to reduce man to a materialist. The revolution was, rather, as Pope John Paul understood, a mortal combat, albeit nonviolent, between light and darkness, truth and lie, God and antichrist.
The “true course of the new developments” of 1989, according to Centesimus annus,
was the spiritual void brought about by atheism, which deprived the younger generations of a sense of direction and in many cases led them, in the irrepressible search for personal identity and for the meaning in life, to rediscover the religious roots of their national cultures, and to rediscover the person of Christ himself as the existentially adequate response to the desire in every human heart for goodness, truth and life.
As Pope John Paul insists, the human person bears a sacred imprint that gives him value simply because God created him, a value that is undeniably and irrevocably his. “Thus,” says Centesimus annus, “the root of modern totalitarianism is to be found in the denial of the transcendent dignity of the human person who, as the visible image of the invisible God, is therefore by his very nature the subject of rights which no one may violate—no individual, group, class, nation, or State.”
In The Final Revolution: the Resistance Church and the Collapse of Communism, a splendid and gripping analysis of why the revolution of 1989 came to be, George Weigel has captured the life and death struggle to give the human spirit room to breathe. The final revolution that made possible the peaceful toppling of the communist regime was a revolution of the spirit, a conversion in the souls of the people of Prague and Warsaw and the Gdansk shipyards, a new courage to speak the truth once again, to come forth from the dark and call a lie a lie. Once these oppressed people gave evil a name, they assumed the moral edge over the Marxist-Leninist lie and proved the communist regime a rotted corpse.
Weigel stresses that this “final revolution is not the end of history. It is the restoration of history to human dimensions.” The final revolution is a “revolution of conscience and the revitalization of the human spirit that, by radically relativizing the pretensions of the political, makes possible a politics that can support human flourishing,” thus restoring “the natural rhythms of history and society.” The revolution of 1989, in breaking “the pattern of revolution as we have understood the term since 1789,” was a “revolution of restoration: not a restoration of the ancien regime, but a recovery of normal politics after the fevered megapolitics of communism.”
Normal however, as Weigel cautions us, does not mean perfect. Perfection is a state to be reached only in heaven. Hence, the normality of politics requires constant habituation in virtue, for civility in society depends upon virtue in its citizens and is never far from a religious conversion in their souls.
An American visitor to Prague ought not to let the charm of this place dull his recollection of what went on here, nor ought he to think those goings-on so impossibly removed from what he knows at home. Our brutish, violent century has shown how fragile are the walls between truth and lie when people forget the difference, how tenuous is the rule of law when virtue does not undergird it, how varied and insidious are the strains of totalitarianism, how quickly are severed the bonds of civil accord. Pope John Paul points out in Centesimus annus: “If there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism.”
Taking John Paul’s statement as a guide, dare we say that in our own country the human person is the sacrosanct being he was 50 years ago, that he is as free as he was 50 years ago, or even 25 years ago?
We, too, need the patronage of Cyril and Methodius and the tutelage of the third apostle to the Slays, Pope John Paul.