Remembering Cardinal Jozef Tomko, Courageous Witness of the Persecuted Church

Slovakian shepherd, who died at 98, lived his vocation in exile in the Eternal City.

Cardinal Jozef Tomko of Slovakia is seen during Pope Benedict XVI's general audience on St-Peter square at the Vatican, November 2, 2005.
Cardinal Jozef Tomko of Slovakia is seen during Pope Benedict XVI's general audience on St-Peter square at the Vatican, November 2, 2005. (photo: Patrick Hertzog / AFP/Getty)

The death of Cardinal Jozef Tomko on Monday — at 98, he was the oldest living cardinal, recalled a difficult, but heroic, period in the life of the Church. 

He was the last of the indomitable Cold War cardinals from behind the Iron Curtain. He was also one of the last giants of the John Paul pontificate. Cardinals Francis Arinze, Camillo Ruini and George Pell are among the few surviving elders — and, of course, Benedict XVI himself.

At his funeral on Thursday at St. Peter’s Basilica, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, dean of the College of Cardinals, recalled how the young Slovak seminarian was sent to Rome for studies at the conclusion of World War II. Due to “opposition of the communist government to the Catholic Church,” Tomko was not able to return to his home diocese of Košice in then-Czechoslovakia. He was ordained a priest in Rome in 1949 and served in Rome thereafter. Father Tomko began his priesthood in exile.

Thirty years later, Cardinal Re recalled, St. John Paul II appointed Tomko secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops and decided to personally consecrate him a bishop. Again, the communists interfered, giving permission to only a few of Bishop-elect Tomko’s family and friends to travel to Rome. The Holy Father thus moved the ordination from the vast St. Peter’s Basilica to the much smaller Sistine Chapel, not a bad consolation prize — and a clear signal.

The 1979 ordination was carried out with great solemnity, Cardinal Re said, “because the Pope wanted to underline his closeness to Slovakia and the entire Church of silence in that very difficult moment for Catholics living behind the Iron Curtain.”


The Church of Silence

Upon his election in 1978, John Paul was asked about what his papacy would mean for the “Church of Silence,” as the persecuted Christians under Soviet domination had come to be called.

John Paul’s response was that the persecuted Church was no longer silent: “It speaks with my voice.”

There were few Central and Eastern Europeans working in the Roman Curia in the 1970s. Croatian Cardinal Franjo Šeper was the most prominent, as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; Bishop Andrzej Deskur of Poland and then-Msgr. Tomko were in more minor roles. They would be made cardinals together in 1985, part of John Paul’s determination to highlight the courageous witness of the persecuted Church and to encourage it by honoring her pastors.

It was important for John Paul that the Roman Curia know firsthand the experience of living under totalitarianism. Tomko, the talented Slovak, was one who lived that every day in his exile from home.

Tomko was studying in Rome in 1948 when the communists seized power in Czechoslovakia. Unable to return to his country, he spent his young priesthood as vice rector and rector of the Czech seminary in Rome, the Pontifical Nepomucenum College, from 1950 to 1965. He then taught at Roman universities and worked at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Elevated by John Paul to a moderately senior role in 1979 as secretary for the Synod of Bishops, Tomko would also become a key figure in the Holy Father’s circle supporting the suffering Church.

In 1980, John Paul declared Sts. Cyril and Methodius, the missionaries to the Slavic peoples, as co-patrons of Europe, alongside St. Benedict. In 1981, Tomko found the Slovak Institute of Sts. Cyril and Methodius in Rome. Later, it became the pontifical college for priests from Slovakia.

Cardinals who spend their lives in Rome are usually given a simple funeral in St. Peter’s and then buried in any number of Roman churches or cemeteries, easily overlooked in the Eternal City. 

Cardinal Tomko, instead, will be treated in the manner of the cardinal lions of the East — Cardinal József Mindszenty of Hungary, Cardinal Josef Beran of the Czech Republic, Cardinal Josyf Slipyj of Ukraine — who were returned to their native countries posthumously after the defeat of communism. 

Cardinal Tomko, after his funeral in the presence of Pope Francis in Rome Thursday, will return to Slovakia to lie in state for two days before burial at St. Elisabeth Cathedral in Košice, Slovakia, the same place where he ought to have been ordained a priest 73 years ago.


The Church in Mission

Tomko was appointed by John Paul as prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples (Propaganda Fide) and created a cardinal in 1985. Responsible for supporting the Church in mission countries, “Propaganda” controls enormous resources and is responsible for the appointment of bishops and erection of dioceses in vast parts of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the remote part of the Americas. During Cardinal Tomko’s tenure, 1985-2001, Propaganda also had responsibility for some territories behind the Iron Curtain. So senior is the position that it was known in Vatican parlance as the “red pope.”

Aside from governance, Cardinal Tomko also faced a key doctrinal challenge. By 1985, many were questioning the Church’s mission altogether, wondering if interreligious dialogue had replaced the evangelical mandate to make disciples.

In 1988, at an international conference at his congregation’s university in Rome, the Pontifical Urban University, Cardinal Tomko decided to give a provocative address: He outlined traditional Catholic teaching on missionary activity, proposed anew by Vatican II’s teaching on the unique role of Jesus as Light of the Nations and Redeemer of all humanity.

His address set off a firestorm of controversy, with some decrying Cardinal Tomko for being at odds with the amorphous “spirit” of the Council that no longer insisted on the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and the urgency of conversion to him. Observing the reaction to Cardinal Tomko’s vision, John Paul told him, “It’s about time that I say something about all this.”

The result, and key achievement of Cardinal Tomko’s tenure as “red pope,” was the 1990 encyclical Redemptoris Missio (Mission of the Redeemer). John Paul taught that the “Church is missionary by her very nature.” It was one of John Paul’s key documents in correcting the errors that followed Vatican II.

A relatively straight line can be drawn from Redemptoris Missio to the Aparecida document of the Latin American bishops in 2007 and then Evangelii Gaudium of Pope Francis in 2013. Cardinal Tomko was a key figure at the beginning of that trajectory.


The Church of St. John Paul II 

Before Propaganda — now decreed by Pope Francis to be the Dicastery for Evangelization, the highest ranking of all the dicasteries — Tomko was head of the synod office. In that role he organized the 1980 Synod on the Family, John Paul’s first as pope.

The Slovakian shepherd would live long enough to see the teaching of Familiaris Consortio, the post-synodal exhortation published in 1981, come under attack at the Synods on the Family in 2014 and 2015. The attempts in Amoris Laetitia to ambiguously undermine the teaching of John Paul were a trial for Cardinal Tomko in his old age.

Yet he continued his wise and holy presence in Rome. He was often seen praying the Rosary in St. Peter’s Square in the evening. In 1996, John Paul appointed him cardinal-priest of Santa Sabina, which includes the ceremonial role of imposing ashes on the Holy Father during his annual Ash Wednesday visit to Santa Sabina. It was a role that Cardinal Tomko executed for John Paul, Benedict and Francis, though he found it difficult to tell the Pope to repent, as the liturgical formula requires.

Last September, Cardinal Tomko accompanied Pope Francis on his visit to Slovakia, as he had with John Paul on his three trips to his native country. What was impossible for him to do in 1949, he did four times in the company of the Pope, making his contribution to the witness of a suffering Church that changed history.