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Pope Francis mourns cardinal who ‘fearlessly’ stood up to Czechoslovakia’s communist regime

Cardinal Ján Korec

Slovak Cardinal Ján Chryzostom Korec, retired Bishop of Nitra who was secretly ordained a priest and bishop and spent more than a dozen years in prison, has died aged 91.

In a condolence message Pope Francis said Cardinal Korec was a “fearless witness of the Gospel and a strong defender of the Christian faith and human rights”.

“Incarcerated and prevented for years from freely exercising his episcopal mission, he never let himself be intimidated, always giving a shining example of strength and trust in divine providence,” Francis said.

After the communists came to power in Czechoslovakia, the authorities began arresting bishops, deporting priests and closing churches. The survival of the Church was entrusted in part to a handful of people like the then-26-year-old Ján Korec, who was ordained a Jesuit priest in secret in 1950 and secretly was ordained a bishop less than a year later.

For nine years he worked in a factory full time, secretly celebrating Mass and ministering to Catholics. Arrested and sentenced to prison in 1960, he continued to celebrate Mass and would minister to fellow inmates. When he was discovered, he was put into isolation, which he said “was the most terrible punishment. Yet necessity is the mother of invention, so I discovered a very simple system to break up the isolation. I imagined I was making spiritual exercises. I followed a very detailed and intense daily programme. I began in the morning with a good hour of meditation,” as he had done previously.

Although obviously without vestments or liturgical books, he did have bread and wine, so he was able to celebrate Mass and “that was enough to give me such joy. After Mass, my programme of studies began: I reviewed from memory theological and philosophical texts, discussing them out loud as if I was at the university, in front of the professors. When I felt tired I relaxed by singing religious songs.”

When he was released from isolation, he said, “I felt spiritually stronger as if I really had completed a series of spiritual exercises.”

With the Prague Spring of 1968, a period of liberalisation, he was released from prison. Although in poor health, he found work first as a street sweeper, then as a labourer in a tar factory. He was able to “retire” in 1984.

In 1990, with the fall of communism and the full re-establishment of the hierarchy, St John Paul II named him bishop of Nitra, the diocese in which he was born on January 22, 1924. He was named a cardinal in 1991.

Cardinal Korec’s death left the College of Cardinals with 218 members, 118 of whom are under the age of 80 and therefore eligible to vote in a conclave.