Cardinal Korec celebrates his 60th episcopal ordination
A bishop at 27 serving
in factories and prisons
In keeping with tradition, the Holy Father sent a Letter in Latin to Cardinal Ján Chryzostom Korec, sj, for the 60th anniversary of his episcopal ordination.
At the age of 27 Ján Chryzostom, a Slovak Jesuit, was the youngest bishop in the world. His “underground” ordination, on the evening of 24 August 1951 in a Bratislava apartment, was celebrated “in all haste”, he recalls, “in the fear that from one minute to the next the police would burst in”. His priestly ordination had likewise been in secret.
For his first nine years as bishop he had a most unusual “diocese”: a factory, where by day he was a worker and by night a security guard. Born into a poor working class family, Korec was not afraid even when, in 1960, he was forcefully transferred from his “diocese”. He was arrested, tried and sentenced to 12 years in prison in a former monastery. His fellow prisoners included six bishops and 200 priests. For two years he was unable to celebrate Mass and survived in isolation thanks to a method of prayer based on the Spiritual Exercises. He was released in 1968, with the Prague Spring, and celebrated the Eucharist in public for the first time.
In 1969 he obtained a passport to travel to Rome where he met Paul VI who gave him the episcopal insignia: “his ring, a pectoral cross and two mitres that he had worn when he was Archbishop of Milan”, Cardinal Korec said. On his return to Czechoslovakia, he was jailed for another four years. Unfortunately, when he felt weak, he could expect no compassion because he was a third class citizen: his id documents were stamped with “convicted of treason to the homeland”.
On the 25th anniversary of his episcopal ordination in 1976 this story was in the news: “A man in Bratislava is filling the Czechoslovak atheist party with fear. His name is Ján Korec and he works as a labourer in a large factory. Although he is asthmatic... he is forced to load and unload heavy barrels of tar all day long”.
Not until 1989 could he wear, in public, the episcopal insignia that Pope Montini had given him. In 1990 John Paul II appointed him Bishop of Nitra, the oldest diocese in Central-Eastern Europe; then, in 1991, created him a cardinal. John Paul II asked him to preach the Lenten retreat at the Vatican in 1998. He welcomed the Holy Father to Slovakia three times.
His words are resonant: “No dictator, neither Hitler nor Stalin, ever has the last word in history. It is God who has the last word. They can arrest, torture, beat or even kill us, but in the end it is we who are the winners. Ours is not a personal strength but it is the strength of God, of Christ Risen”.
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