Extraordinary life of new Czech Cardinal, Dominik Duka

Extraordinary life of new Czech Cardinal, Dominik Duka

Peter Westmore

Among the 22 new Cardinals appointed on 18 February in St Peter's Basilica was the recently-appointed Archbishop of Prague, Cardinal Dominik Duka OP.

As Cardinal Duka does not come from the English-speaking world, nor is he Italian, little attention has been given to his appointment as a Cardinal. Yet his life, which broadly spanned the era of Soviet control of Czechoslovakia, deserves recognition and celebration.

Born in 1943, in the Czech city of Hradec Králové, his Christian name was Jaroslav. His father was a professional army officer who, during the war, fled his homeland and found his way to Britain where he fought in the Free Czech Army against the Nazis.

His father returned to his homeland after the war, but was imprisoned after the Soviet-backed communist coup in 1948.

Jaroslav graduated from high school in 1959, but for political reasons was prevented from entering higher education. He then worked for the government-owned ZVU engineering works, training as a locksmith.

He applied for entry to the seminary of Sts Cyril and Methodius, but instead was put in the army and only able to enter the seminary in 1965 after completing military service and returning to work at the ZVU works.

Ordination

In January 1968, he secretly joined the banned Dominican Order and received the monastic name Dominik. On completing his seminary formation he was ordained to the priesthood in 1970 and served for the next five years as a priest in the Prague Archdiocese.

In 1975, as a result of his successful work in evangelisation the communist authorities withdrew his licence to practise as a priest and he became a draughtsman at the Skoda plant in Plzen where he was to work for the next 15 years.

During this period, he was heavily involved in the religious underground, became a vicar to the Provincial of the Dominicans in 1976 and from 1976 to 1981 was master of the clergy.

He participated in the establishment of the Dominicans' secret study centre and organised religious activities for youth across the entire country. In 1979 he graduated with a Licentiate in Theology from the Pontifical Theological Faculty of St John the Baptist in Warsaw, Poland.

For his activity in the Dominican Order and secret publishing of books (the so-called "samizdat") he was arrested in 1981-1982 and jailed in the Bory Prison in Plzen, along with the playwright Vaclav Havel, Jesuit priest Fr Frantisek Lizna, and many others who had signed the human rights document, Charter 77.

It was Havel's contact with these two priests that fundamentally changed his attitude to Christianity which he came to recognise as essential to the protection of human rights and Western civilisation.

(Vaclav Havel became the first President of Czechoslovakia after the collapse of communism and after the breakup of Czechoslovakia, President of the Czech Republic.)

In 1986, while still working at the Skoda plant, Fr Duka was made Provincial of the Dominican Province in Czechoslovakia and held this position over the period when communism collapsed in Eastern Europe, including Czechoslovakia, until 1998.

In that year, Pope John Paul II appointed him Bishop of Hradec Králové (literally Queen's Castle) in the north of the Czech republic near the border with Poland.

Bishop Duka commenced a vigorous program of religious renewal in the diocese, along with the construction of new schools and theological institutes and the refurbishment of Holy Spirit Cathedral to mark the 700th anniversary of its foundation.

From 2000-2004, he was vice-president of the Czech Bishops Conference and is currently president of the Commission for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Commission for Catholic Education within the Bishops Conference.

From 2004-2008, he was also administrator of a neighbouring diocese and in 2010 appointed to succeed Cardinal Miloslav Vlk who retired at the age of 77 as Archbishop of Prague.

Communist persecution

Cardinal Vlk had also been a victim of communist persecution. After finishing school in 1952, he had to work in a motor vehicle factory, then spent three years in military service and later became a professional archivist.

After four years theological training in the mid-1960s, Miloslav was ordained a priest during the brief Prague Spring in 1968, but three years later was exiled to remote parishes in the mountains.

In 1978, as part of the crack-down on human rights activists, Fr Vlk's permit to serve as a priest was revoked by the communist authorities and he returned to Prague where he worked as a window cleaner for eight years while secretly serving as a priest. He was only permitted to serve openly after the collapse of communism.

After Cardinal Vlk's retirement took effect in 2010, it was appropriate that he should have been the principal celebrant at the installation of Archbishop Duka as his successor.

Cardinal Duka has been very active in encouraging Christians to work together (acute religious divisions go back to the 15th century Hussite uprising.) In 2010 Catholics made up 27% of the total population, but are a large majority of religious believers (two-thirds of Czechs describing themselves as non-believers).

In 2008 and 2009 he initiated a Week of Mutual Understanding across the country, a pastoral activity among inhabitants of large cities regardless of their faith.

He has written books on theology and biblical history and was one of those initiating a 30-year project, now completed, to translate the Jerusalem Bible into the Czech language.

As a Cardinal, he is uniquely qualified for "the task of helping the Successor of [St] Peter in carrying out his ministry of confirming the brethren in the faith," as Pope Benedict said in announcing his appointment.

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