Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, 60, the 35th archbishop of Prague, has been president of the Council of Catholic Episcopates of Europe (CCEE) since April 1993. Ordained in 1968, after studying at the Czech capital's Charles University, his state priest's license was withdrawn by the communist government a decade later, although he continued ministering secretly while working as a window-cleaner.

In February 1990, after communist rule was overthrown in Czechoslovakia's “velvet Revolution,” Cardinal Vlk was appointed bishop of Ceske-Budejovice, from where he succeeded the late Cardinal Frantisek Tomasek as Czech primate in August 1992. He was named a cardinal in October 1994. As the CCEE's first East European head, Cardinal Vlk has worked to rebuild ties between the Church on both sides of the continent. He spoke with the Register during a recent visit to Warsaw, Poland.

Register: When bishops from nine East European countries met in Warsaw at the end of April, their aim was to prepare a common position for the CCEE's ninth symposium in Rome next October. Why was the Polish capital the venue and what were the main priorities?

Vlk: This was the second big regional meeting of East European Church representatives. Warsaw was chosen since the Polish Church is the region's largest, with the greatest capacity and the most trained personnel working. In October 1994, we discussed what communism had done to Eastern Europe, especially in destroying the Church as a community and dividing bishops and priests from the laity. This had created a passive, inactive element within the Church. We have to address that problem in order to rebuild the sense of a living community.

When we meet our Western counterparts in October, we'll attempt to convey something of the insights which our unique experiences have given us. The latest meeting was one of five regional Church forums recently established around Europe, with bases in Warsaw, Poland; Budapest, Hungary; Paris, London and Rome.

Six years have now passed since the first discussions on how to reintegrate the Churches of the East and West after the collapse of communism. Has progress been made?

A West European bishop expressed well the differences between us at a recent meeting. “We in the West have highly developed social instincts,” he told me, “and we are now deeply involved in activities on the horizontal level. In the East, by contrast, you seem to have been more preoccupied with the internal spiritual life and have closed yourselves off from outward concerns.”

This neatly sums up the contrast between the two sides of the Church. We now need, on the one hand, to reach more deeply toward our spiritual roots, while also becoming more open to external tasks and challenges. It's in this sense that East and West really can exchange gifts—and learn to breathe, as the Pope has said, with both lungs simultaneously.

Is this summary of the differences really still applicable, though? Some would say belonging to a Catholic minority in West European society requires a high degree of spiritual awareness and commitment, whereas the East European Church has been preoccupied with regaining its properties and rebuilding its public structures?

When I say the East Europeans should be more open to externals, I particularly have in mind social issues. The communists barred us from being engaged in public affairs and did not allow us to speak out. They tried to drive us into the private sphere of life. But the Church is not just a spiritual institution. We are part of contemporary society, and are co-responsible for it—Christians are also citizens. If the Church wishes to be a spiritual sign, it must also be present in the public sphere.

In the past decade, the chairman of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, stressed that Europe “needs a soul.” His successor, Jacques Santer, said the same thing during a recent visit to Turin, Italy. The Church isn't the only institution which can support this dimension of life— there are others who should do it too. But it has a special duty to bring God closer. If it fails to respond to society's need for a spiritual anchor, it will be failing in its task.

Aren't there dangers that too active an approach to social matters leads to the Church being identified too closely with political parties—or at least failing to repudiate parties who claim to enjoy special Church favor?

We shouldn't descend to the level of party politics. The Church is universal and Christians belong to various parties. If we identify the Church with one party only, we circumscribe its role, alter our vocation and separate ourselves from others. We've seen this happen in recent years in many parts of Europe—especially in Eastern Europe, but also in Italy. In reality, Christians have the right to belong to various parties, according to their consciences.

Don't East European Christians have a tendency to think too ideologically?

Any merger of religion with party politics, or of religion with the state is inappropriate. The history of the Catholic Church shows this goes against the Church's vocation. Indeed, we already have plenty of experience of the problems that arise when that happens. Under the Habsburg Empire, the link between the Catholic faith and the rulers was highly damaging to both Church and state. But control of religion by the state reached its negative apogee during the communist period.

Should the Church in Eastern Europe also engage in the “accounting of consciences” which was urged by the Pope in his 1994 exhortation Tertio Millenio Adveniente?

This process is essential everywhere. In Eastern Europe, too, the Church is far from being an institution without any sins. It is formed out of people; and people are weak and easily lost. At the beginning of every Mass, we beat our breasts and confess our guilt with the words: “My fault, my very great fault.” This is not just a formality. If we take it seriously, it should also include our faults in public life. The holiness of the Church is more than the sum of the holiness of individual Christians. It is also the contemporary holiness of Christ. If we have committed sins, we must admit it loudly and clearly.

Some Church leaders have resisted this, saying that the Church's communist-era persecution has been penance enough for any past misdeeds. Some also argue that if the Church admits making mistakes, it implies that God makes mistakes too.

The communist persecution concerns only the last half-century. But for this 1,000-year anniversary, we must look back over the whole millennium, since the first major division between Christians. We shouldn't evaluate past periods from contemporary perspectives only. But we should state clearly that our predecessors committed many mistakes—particularly through the practice of giving truth priority over love.

In your own Czech Republic, this process of accounting is proving difficult. Some historians and theologians—Catholic and Protestant—say the May 1995 canonization of St. Jan Sarkander (1576-1620) only makes sense if some parallel gesture is now made by the Church on the case of the martyred Bohemian reformer, Jan Hus (1369-1415).

These two cases are completely different. Hus was a Catholic priest who was burnt at the stake calling Ave Maria. We have set up a special commission to study details of his life and personality. It has now become an ecumenical body, with almost all Christian confessions participating. Through working together we have turned the project into a laboratory of ecumenism.

Sarkander's case belongs to another epoch. It's clear that he was attacked for his opinions on the pretext of having brought Polish soldiers to fight the Protestants. And he was condemned to a martyr's death on the basis of the Protestant motto cuius regio eius religio (whosever the reign, his the religion), which Catholics didn't accept. From today's perspective, all of this would be unthinkable. But at the time, human freedom was not respected and Czech opinions were deeply divided. The controversy surrounding Sarkander has forced us to set up a separate ecumenical commission to arrive at the truth about the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. We want to foster reconciliation and a mutual healing of wounds in line with the intentions of John Paul II.

Some say these two cases also reflect a kind of schizophrenia in the Czech identity—of a society which feels itself Protestant, but which is today overwhelmingly Catholic. Are Czech's in a real sense, prisoners of the past?

The excessively close link forged between Church and empire after the defeat of Protestant rebel armies by the Habsburgs at the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620, far from extending the Church's benefits, actually caused it great harm. The absolutist Austrian Empress Maria Teresa (1740-80) and Emperor Joseph II (1741-1790) appointed bishops to state offices, which went against Czech interests. The situation provoked vengeful reactions when the first independent Czech republic was set up after World War I. The new Czech state had a strong patriotic, nationalist character—everything which seemed to go against this was punished. It has indeed taken a long time to break free from the painful consequences of Habsburg rule.

The communist regime continued the policy of “punishing the Church.” Perhaps we are seeing echoes of the same thinking in today's liberal, anti-clerical Czech Premier Vaclav Klaus, too.

The hostile attitudes shown by some politicians and other members of society are a historical inheritance, first and foremost, from the communist period. Communism struggled against the Church and attempted to destroy it. For decades, propagandists presented the Church as a backward institution from the past—the unenlightened force, as Czech writer Alois Jirasek (1851-1930) said, of an 18th century Dark Age.

It was a black image in a black time, intended to inspire feelings of revulsion within society. This image of the Church has penetrated many politicians’ heads. That explains why they are not capable of liberating themselves from this caricature of the Church, or of releasing themselves from this form of indoctrination. They unwittingly live under the impression that the Church is acting against the nation, while wishing to gain access to the ruling power. In this sense, communism still exists in peoples’ heads. Our task is to neutralize the prejudice. But this will take a long time.

There's talk today of a new border being formed in the heart of Eastern Europe—between countries with predominantly Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox divisions. The Balkan war, it's said, has shown that religious conflicts still live on beneath the surface of modern European life.

To speak of some new division would be an anachronism—a throwback to the situation in Europe after the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia which ended the Thirty Years War by dividing Europe into religious spheres. Certain religious groups and individuals do indeed appear to believe that cuius regio eius religio should be reapplied. But we can't go back 350 years into history. It would make no sense to return to such thinking today.

—Jonathan Luxmoore