Story and photo by DENE-HERN CHEN
Martin Stanek sums up the year 1989 with two events: the Velvet Revolution and his discovery of the Catholic Church.
“The Revolution was a nice time for me because I was so young– when you are 16, everything has a new color,” said Stanek, 34, the manager of the Academic Parish of Prague. “I did not know what to expect.”
At 16, Stanek hoped for a new freedom with politics and religion since the expression of both was restricted in communist Czechoslovakia. Priests were sometimes imprisoned for their activities, which could range from gathering in a non-church setting to talking to young people about religion.
“The regime wanted to destroy the intellectual level of church life,” said Stanek.
It succeeded. Today, the Czech Republic is 58 percent atheist, the highest in Europe after Estonia. The people’s resistance to religion goes back to the Hapsburg reign in the 13th century when Catholicism was forced upon the Czech lands. This historical fact was exploited during communism to create antagonism toward religion.
The Academic Parish of Prague wishes to change the negative attitudes by embracing the questions that non-believers have. Many parish-sponsored activities help to fuel discussion and analysis. The response has been positive– Stanek estimates about 1000 parishioners attend weekly mass at the St. Salvador Church, a large number by the standards of secular Prague.
Of the 1000 people attending weekly mass, about half of those are students. “Things are changing among the youth,” said Petr Mucha, a lecturer who specializes in religion and politics in Central Europe at NYU in Prague.
Stanek, who has an easy-going smile, started his spiritual education at 16 when his friend took him to church. He was attracted to its values, especially the idea of helping the people around him. It was a welcome departure from the suffocating atmosphere of the communist regime.
Two years after the fall of communism, Stanek was a student at Charles University studying Catholic theology and comparative religion. He was an optimistic child of the Velvet Revolution, the peaceful overthrow of the authoritarian regime– and then he witnessed the people’s growing desires for luxuries. Consumerism had become the Czech Republic’s new religion.
Today, the Czech Republic has one of the fastest growing GDPs in Europe. In 2004, the Czech Republic became the 27th member of the European Union causing the Czech crown currency to soar rapidly in value against the euro.
As the quality of living rises steadily, people may start to rethink their atheist beliefs. In a 2007 poll by STEM, a quarter of Czechs surveyed said they were not sure if they believed in a God, a small increase from 17 percent in 2006.
One of Stanek’s duties is to prepare people for baptism and conversion. He has witnessed the growing number of adult baptism at the parish. There were 12 people in 1993, including him, 33 baptisms in 2007 and already more than 53 scheduled for 2008.
Stanek credits this increase to Tomas Halik, the head priest of the parish and the country’s leading Catholic intellectual. Pavol Kutaj, a 23-year-old humanities student at Charles University feels that Halik’s guidance allows students to explore different perspectives within the religion.
“The parish gives a fresh point of view,” said Kutaj. For example, it encourages interfaith dialogue in the Czech Republic and has hosted a visit from His Holiness Dalai Lama of Tibet.
“Students are not willing to accept propaganda in theology, but they will question it and reflect it philosophically,” said Halik, who is also a professor of sociology and religion at Charles University.
Stanek describes a phenomenon where many students would arrive from small towns that have a strong Catholic center and slowly grow disenchanted with Catholicism because of the lifestyle in Prague. With help assimilating from the Academic Parish, Catholic youths are able to either reaffirm their beliefs or discover a more personal religious identity, said Stanek
Kutaj was born in a small, predominantly Catholic village in Slovakia. Despite his religious upbringing, Kutaj faces his own questions, especially since his peers at Charles University are from different backgrounds.
“You inherit religion,” said Kutaj. “But you have to find faith yourself.”
Stanek agrees. “These students have to lose their child-like faith, and they have to find the adult faith,” he said.