“Everything that has happened in my life has been a gift from God. My last name means ‘wolf’, and my personality is a bit like one. Yet when I started to live the Gospel in the light of the spirituality of unity, my wolf life finished, and my life as Miloslav, which means ‘gracious,’ began.”
Thus began the then archbishop, who continued: “In 1964 I went to the DDR (East Germany) to thank a priest who regularly sent me theology books – there weren’t any where we were. He had learned of the spirituality of unity at Erfurt. He told me how the Focolare Movement began and spoke to me of Jesus Forsaken. To tell the truth, I didn’t understand much. I do remember that he gave me a text by Chiara Lubich.”
He later met Natalia Dallapiccola, one of the first focolarine, who had also moved to the DDR. The cardinal was not yet even a seminarian, but would become one shortly. “I had many opportunities to to experience that this spirituality was real,” especially with other seminarians who were hard to deal with. It was with one of these that he actually began to share the ideal of unity.
“After I was ordained in 1968, I was appointed secretary for the bishop of České Budějovice, a very deep person.”
The bishop, however, found it difficult to accept the liturgical reform that had come with Vatican II. “I found myself judging him, but the focolarini explained to me that I had to love him instead of criticize him. At the time, I experienced that unity was the way to understand things, and to help others understand.”
After 1968, communism came to power, and Miloslav, who quite influential with young people, was sent far away to a parish lost in the mountains. “There I started to understand what I had been told about Jesus Forsaken. I placed my situation in God’s hands, just as Jesus on the cross had entrusted himself to the Father. It was my first profound encounter with Jesus Forsaken.”
After a year and a half, state officials ordered him to leave that post as well, where he had become close to residents. He was also absolutely prohibited from celebrating mass. “I understood that my choice of Jesus in his abandonment was a ‘yes’ that I had to say for always.”
He was transferred to another parish to start all over again, where he was only allowed to pray and give blessings. Yet this experience was also short lived: his license to exercise his ministry as a priest was then completely revoked. Father Vlk, however, did not lose his soul.
“God opened other horizons for me. I found work as a window washer in order to support myself. I was free to walk the streets of Prague and meet many priests. I was harder to control among the crowds, a simple, unknown worker.
“Once again this was the face of Jesus Forsaken. At first I rebelled against it. But I remember having heard a voice within saying, ‘I love you, I want you, not through your work, but I want to be in direct contact with you.’
“From that day on, each morning I said my ‘yes’ to him, and for 10 years I walked the roads with my bucket and window cleaning tools. In the heat and cold, on narrow streets full of traffic, filth and pollution.”
In 1980 the men’s Focolare center was opened in Prague, and “Miloslav the worker” asked to join “as the newest focolarino.”
“These were blessed years. I understood more and more what God asked of us priests: to go ahead with the strength from Jesus in our midst, loving Jesus Forsaken, and beginning again each day.”
In 1987 he had a sudden heart attack. “There in the hospital, I asked God: ‘Why? I lost the priesthood, and now I am losing my life…’ Once again I understood that this situation was also the face of Jesus Forsaken, and I put my life in his hands.”
The year before the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, he was given back his license to practice his priestly ministry. He was named the Bishop of České Budějovice. He soon would receive another nomination: “The Holy Father asked me to go to Prague as archbishop. There I understood that Jesus Forsaken had continually been the golden thread running through my life.”
The next year, with President Cardinal Martini’s term ending, Vlk was elected delegate to the Council of European Episcopal Conferences (CCEE).
“I saw all my inexperience, having for years been isolated from the rest of the world. But I felt the support from the Work of Mary. I went to Jesus in the Eucharist and told him, ‘This is your doing; the kingdom is yours, not mine.’ This new way of embracing Jesus Forsaken liberated me.”
Busy years followed on many fronts, but one particularly special activity was being moderator for the bishops who have made the spirituality of unity their own, for a good 18 years.
After a life spent for this goal of unity, last month on March 18 2017, Miloslav Vlk passed. A crowd gathered at St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague to show their respects in a final, moving goodbye.