Around our house, we’ve been reading lately about a figure largely unknown to the world – as almost all of us are – but courageous and saintly and worthy of notice: Sylvester Krcmery. A Czechoslovak doctor and Catholic layman, Krcmery was engaged in lifelong evangelization, outreach to those marginalized under Communism, organizing the underground Catholic Church, clandestine publications, and leadership in the “Candle Demonstration.”
That last item was, in 1988, a peaceful protest – on the demonstrators’ side anyway (the Communist government turned water cannons on the grandfathers and grandmothers, parents with children, and students who flooded a square in Bratislava because they had had enough of “scientific” socialism). That brutality was one of the sparks that set off the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, which encouraged similar uprisings throughout the Warsaw Pact.
This heroic history along with many other stories has been lost to us because we care and teach about almost nothing in the past now except the alleged sins of the West and the Church. Even the great Cardinals who resisted Nazism and Communism – Faulhaber, von Galen, Stepinac, Wysinski, Mindszenty – have all but disappeared down the memory hole.
In the supposedly free West, we’ve done a more thorough job at hiding such large and significant figures – and the truths that they were willing to suffer and die to preserve – than totalitarians did with their crude propaganda and repression.
Krcmery trained as a psychologist and wrote a remarkable memoir, Break Point: A True Account of Brainwashing and the Greater Power of the Gospel, published in 1995 with an Introduction by one of TCT’s founders, Michael Novak. Krcmery recounts the seven years he spent in solitary confinement. John’s Gospel (which he had memorized before his arrest) strengthened him during the beatings, deprivation, and brainwashing he underwent, experiences so frequent and brutal that he got to the point that he didn’t really feel pain any longer. But the Gospel kept his mind and spirit intact.
Such stories are worth recovering for their own sake, of course. Some people broke in the 20thcentury’s totalitarian prisons. Others, like Krcmery, Solzhenitsyn, and Havel became great human beings – some, doubtless, saints. I also find Krcmery noteworthy because he did great things, in his own little corner of the world, to great effect – a figure to emulate.
I’ve written here recently about how those of us emotionally driven to action may need to pause and gather ourselves in a renewed and different spirit. It’s interesting how quite a few great figures in the recent past had to undergo enforced inactivity to find their full vocations in circumstances far more violent than our own.
Ours are challenging enough, and in a way more dispiriting, because we’re undergoing a subtle cultural undermining of both our constitutional order and Christian beliefs, civilizational achievements that, once gone, cannot be easily recovered. But success is not our business. Our business is truth – then living it in action.
There are some good signs – that we tend to overlook because of the disorder all around us, including within the Church. But renewal is modestly, steadily happening, though in the end it may lead to the smaller, purer Church that Joseph Ratzinger predicted.
I was given a newer edition of Krcmery’s book, This Saved Us, in Bratislava a few weeks ago at the 10thanniversary of a Catholic residential college there, the Kolegium Antona Neuwirtha (KAN), which you can read about here. (Anton Neuwirth was himself an M.D. and dissident.)
Its president is Martin Luteran, a dedicated young man who earned a doctorate in philosophy at Oxford before returning home to found the college. He was also one of the earliest students of the Free Society Seminar (FSS), founded by Michael Novak in 2000. I have been running it under the auspices of Faith & Reason Institute for the last decade or so.
KAN has formed hundreds of students who are now active in journalism, business, academics, the church, and government, as has the FSS, which marks its 20thanniversary next year. (Our colleagues at the Tertio Millennio Seminar in Poland are closing in on their 30th.)
We aren’t going to take back the culture-forming institutions or the Catholic colleges and universities in America any time soon, if ever. But we can either indulge in anger over the loss of what many immigrant Catholics sacrificed to build, or imitate them by building the next generation of truly Catholic institutions. The Cardinal Newman Society publishes reliable guides to institutions already in place.
I’ve described here before, our Fides et Ratio Seminars – which have engaged faculty, staff, and administrators at Catholic institutions for more than a decade now. We also have the Witherspoon Institute at Princeton inspired by Robert George, and the Lumen Christi Institute at the University of Chicago created by Thomas Levergood and the late Cardinal Francis George.
And the Thomistic Institute, an even more ambitious program organized by the Dominican House of Studies in Washington D.C., is now on campuses all over the country. You can listen to many of the lectures it has sponsored here. (I’ve spoken for them several times and will be talking about “Augustine and Aquinas in Dante’s Commedia” at Columbia University on April 10.)
And FOCUS has campus ministers and chaplains in many places who are not only forming undergraduates nationally and internationally to be committed Catholics, but to go out into the world as missionaries and aid workers.
These days you can even get good Catholic instruction online at the Augustine Institute, Catholic Distance University, or the International Catholic University. And if your diocese or parish doesn’t have access to the Augustine Institute’s FORMED program, you should ask your bishop or pastor why.
We may be facing the kind of trials Krcmery did – though we can already see Western governments edging towards designating Catholics and other traditional Christians as violators of “human rights” (i.e., abortion and homosexuality) and promoters of “hate.”
But we need all the tools we have been creating – and must develop them further and fast – so that our culture does not repeat a recent, dark, and instructive history.