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The Iron Curtain that separated Eastern and Western Europe came down in 1991. Two years later, the U.S. bishops’ Eastern European Committee sent a 10-member team of Catholic journalists to Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia to determine the needs of the Catholic press in those countries. The fact-finding trip was financed by the Raskob Foundation for Catholic Activities. I was part of that team.
We met with some impressive people, including the archbishops of the four countries, the papal nuncios of both Poland and the Czech Republic, and numerous Catholic journalists. We came away impressed with most of them and with what they had been able to accomplish despite the tremendous obstacles they had to face during the years when their countries were dominated by communism.
Cardinal Miloslav Vlk of Czechoslovakia, for example, was later elected by this fellow bishops as head of the European Bishops Conference. He was ordained a priest in 1978, and was able to work as a priest for only 11 months before he had to go underground. He worked as a window washer for 10 years during which time he celebrated Mass in secret for a small community. In 1989, he went back to working in a parish, then was ordained a bishop and in 1991 was named Archbishop of Prague.
Cardinal Ján Chryzostom Korec of Bratislava, Slovakia, was ordained a priest in secret and then consecrated a bishop in secret when he was only 28 years old. He was imprisoned for a time, and later worked as an elevator repairman.
At our meeting in Bratislava, Cardinal Korec assembled 30 Catholic editors and their periodicals. We were amazed that there could be such a variety of Catholic periodicals and publications only three years after the Slovak Republic gained its freedom. The publications they showed us were truly impressive, many of them with large circulations and attractively printed.
Their problem, they told us, as had all the editors in the countries we visited, was that they were not qualified to edit those periodicals. While they looked good from a technical point, the quality of the content was lacking, they told us.
At the end of our trip, we identified four main problems: a lack of well-trained Catholic journalists—“well trained” including a knowledge of the subject matter they were writing about, namely, their Catholic faith; an inability to get news about what is happening in the Catholic world outside their countries. We were able to get Catholic News Service to work with them; financial limitations that were preventing them from doing what they would like to do. This problem was most pronounced in Lithuania; a problem of getting their periodicals distributed.
We found the situation definitely best in Poland and worst in Lithuania.
When we returned to the United States, we made our report to the bishops’ committee and to the Raskob Foundation. Later, other teams of Catholic journalists went over to provide training for Catholic journalists, and the bishops’ committee earmarked much of the money from the annual collection for Eastern Europe for the Catholic press in those countries.
(John Fink’s recent series of columns on Church history is now available in book form from Amazon. It is titled How Could This Church Survive? with the subtitle, It Must Be More Than a Human Institution.)†