ROME — A priest who witnessed a miracle in communist Czechoslovakia in the 1940s was tortured and beaten to death for refusing to recant what he’d seen. And now Catholics from the country are honoring his heroic virtue and pushing for him to be recognized as a martyr.

At a recent gathering in Číhošť commemorating the priest’s brutal death, his current successor at the parish church says he’s grateful for efforts to overturn the decades-long silence on atrocities against Catholics in the 20th century.

“Naturally, I am glad that the issue of Father Josef Toufar is starting to be resolved, in which it will be shown how the political regime in our country actually was,” Father Tomas Fiala told CNA.

During the season of Advent in 1949 — the early phase of the communist era in Czechoslovakia — Father Toufar and some parishioners said they saw a cross at the altar in the church moving from one side to another several times. The event has come to be known as the “Číhošť Miracle.”

To prevent the news of the phenomenon from going public, the secret police interrogated Father Toufar, demanding that he say that he had moved the cross himself.

The priest, however, refused.

In response, the police beat him so severely that he was unable to speak, walk or sit. He died two months after the miracle took place.

After Father Toufar’s death, the Church and all religions were suppressed across the Soviet Union-led communist regime. The state was officially atheist, and any accounts of miracles and those who spoke of them were treated in a way to be erased from the record and the historical memory. The regime even filmed a documentary that tried to show that the Číhošť miracle was a forgery.

Despite their efforts, the account of the “Číhošť Miracle” has survived.

And now the damage is being reversed, said Father Fiala. “We would like to achieve that Father Josef Toufar is recognized as a martyr of the Church.”

On the Feb. 22, an estimated 500 people gathered for Mass in his former parish of Číhošť to commemorate the 65th anniversary of Father Toufar’s death. Cardinal Dominik Duka, archbishop of Prague, presided over the Mass. The church was so full with visitors from the entire country that they outnumbered the population of the village of Číhošť.

The liturgy was followed by an exhibition of Father Toufar’s former room and his belongings, as well as a discussion on his life and the beatification process.

According to Cardinal Duka, Father Toufar was “an icon for the years of violent collectivization” under the communist regime, he told Czech Radio.

The presumed remains of the priest have been exhumed from a mass grave near Prague. Once verified by scientists, they are set to be brought to Číhošť during a July pilgrimage around the time of Father Toufar’s birthday.

The event was seen as an act of support for the canonization cause of Father Toufar, which is still in the preliminary diocesan phase with approval from the Czech Bishops' Conference.

Historian and postulator of the cause for canonization Father Tomas Petracek told Czech Radio that the Mass was “a satisfactory argument that our engagement in the beatification of Father Josef Toufar is not vain, and it is not something made top-down, but it arises from people’s veneration.”