In my new book, When the Sickle Swings: Stories of Catholics Who Survived Communist Oppression, I document the testimonies of heroic Catholics who kept the faith despite persecution by hostile regimes the world over. I was privileged to interview survivors of communism whose stories unfolded in the political prisons of Cuba, the escape routes from Hungary, and the catacombs of Bratislava.
One particularly instructive setting can be found in the example of the underground Catholic Church in Czechoslovakia, which remained faithful to the Vatican and continued apostolic succession against the odds. The country fell to communism shortly after the Second World War, and the state-sponsored anti-Catholic actions were swift and lethal. The bishops were systematically targeted, some martyred. Over the course of two brief nights in 1949, “Operation K” and “Operation R” (named for the Czech words for monastery and convent) rounded up the country’s several thousand monks and nuns, consolidating them in cramped quarters, and pressed them into internment camps and forced labor. Anti-Catholic propaganda was unleashed in full force.
Citizens were weaponized against each other as informants. Most concerningly, communist ideologues infiltrated the Church hierarchy, winning a number of priests as collaborators. The official “National Church,” known in its later iteration as Pacem in Terris, gave to the state the obedience and loyalty due to the Vatican (similar to the National Church situation currently plaguing China). The National priests were elevated to positions of power and celebrated for their communist loyalties, whereas the priests loyal to the Vatican were forced to operate clandestinely, providing the sacraments to a besieged laity.
It is this clandestine Church, living out the faith became an arduous task. Despite the setbacks, faithful Catholics triumphed—not only did they keep the Faith, but they also orchestrated the downfall of the communist regime through public prayer and demonstrations.
The story of the faithful Catholics of Czechoslovakia affords several timeless lessons:
The first priority is always to save souls. Political mobilization and temporal victory are secondary, emerging from a strong foundation in the fundamentals of the Faith.
In chapter three, I profile Slovak politician Frantisek Miklosko, who worked closely with secret Bishop Jan Korec in the operations of the underground Church. One of Miklosko’s most notable achievements was the organization of the 1989 Candle Demonstration, a peaceful protest that sparked the Velvet Revolution, the bloodless overthrow of communism by means of public, prayerful protest. Miklosko remembers the success of the Demonstration as “a biblical miracle.” God was making His will known in a very dramatic way, and using the members of the underground Catholic Church as His instruments. Yet, as inspiring as this great political triumph was, it was only a segment of the underground Church’s activities. The Church’s mission continued to be what it had always been, and will always be: first and foremost, the salvation of souls. Miklosko notes the atmosphere of joy at the demonstration, marking the presence of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. The best anti-communist resistance realizes that it’s not enough to be anti-communist: you must be for something else. It is because the underground Church stood for the eternal principles of Catholicism that it was so successful in its anti-communist efforts.
Apostasy can be gradual. Resist in the small matters, and you will be better equipped to resist in the large matters.
In our interview, Olga Koutna-Izzo describes her ordeal with communism as “death by a thousand cuts.” Her principled refusal to join the Communist Party, the Young Pioneers, or the Communist Youth organizations cost her education and job opportunities, travel privileges, consumer access, and social standing. “My life would have been so much easier if I had joined that stupid organization!” she recalls. But she knew that such a capitulation, even in “small” matters, would amount to a deal with the devil. Rather than a one-time choice, this slow, white martyrdom required daily recommitment to Catholic teaching and moral principles. When dramatic events did occur (readers will learn about Olga’s confrontation with a Soviet tank in 1968), Olga was prepared to stand strong because she had approached the many small temptations of daily life with the same steadfastness.
The stories of these heroic Catholics (and many more!) illustrate the true gift of the Catholic Religion, and remind readers what a great privilege it is to die to self for Christ and His Church.