A Leader Aspires to Step Down

Vaclav Maly helped to launch a revolution; now he intends to become a parish priest again. PROFILE

IT was not an ordinary Sunday church service. Czechoslovakia's best and brightest - artists, actors, scientists, those who made this November's miraculous 10-day revolution - packed St. Margaret's Cathedral, a large, 18th-century baroque masterpiece. A huge Czech tricolor framed the altar. The faithful sang the Czech national anthem. They raised their hands in V-for-victory celebration. The occasion was Fr. Vaclav Maly's first public Mass in a decade. Back in 1979, Mr. Maly lost his state license to preach shortly after he joined the Charter 77 human rights group. If he celebrated Mass or just put on a clerical collar, he risked a two-year prison term.

His story shows how recent events have turned Czechoslovakia upside down, bringing the once persecuted to power. It also shows how the next steps remain unsure and unclear. Having led the revolution to success, Maly plans to step back from power. Instead of joining the government as a minister or an ambassador, he has decided to become a parish priest once again. On Jan. 1, he took up his new position in a small church in the Smichov neighborhood of Prague.

``My place is in the parish, not in politics,'' he said after the Mass at St. Margaret's. ``I'm only a servant of the people who was thrust for a while into an unusual position.'' (East German pastor Rainer Eppelmann also helped overthrow his country's communist leaders [see story, Dec. 28, p. 14]. Reverend Eppelmann has chosen to stay in politics.)

A Job Stoking Coal

After his license was revoked 10 years ago, Maly cleaned toilets in the Prague subways and worked as a stoker in a hotel, pouring lumps of dirty brown coal into a red-hot furnace. Eventually, he received a small stipend from a religious foundation in the West, which enabled him to study theology. He turned his cramped apartment, which he shares with his widowed father, into a sort of monk's cell. The kitchen contains a cot and a spare table that doubles as a desk. His face was ruby red with enthusiasm. This is no thin, timid clergyman. Michelangelo could have sculpted him, with his stocky, broad shoulders and his large, thick hands.

In his home, Maly always offers visitors a sweet cup of Chinese tea. He speaks with compassion and hope. His English is halting, measured, but with a powerful eloquence. When he searches for a word, he looks down at the table and concentrates. Always willing to meet with foreign journalists, he inevitably turned his interviews into lessons in personal courage.

``In 1968, I was the only believer in my high school class,'' he explained. ``Everyone was so excited about politics.''

When the Soviet invasion came, his friends were crushed.

``They put all their faith in political changes,'' he said. ``I also had another faith.'' He decided to become a priest. ``My classmates in high school used to tease me about my religious beliefs,'' he said. ``Now young people show respect for my choice.''

This interest frightened the authorities. Maly lost his license after talking to young people in a church outside the parish where he had been assigned. His politics also marked him as a troublemaker. Of the nine priests who signed the Charter 77 documents, all had their licenses taken away.

Cautious figures within the Czechoslovak Roman Catholic Church criticized the banned priests as too provocative. Maly rejected their orders.

``They practice some philosophy of little steps,'' he said. ``They believe that if you collaborate and make small compromises, you will gain some small advantages.'' His own message is much simpler: ``We just want to live as free people.''

When freedom came to Czechoslovakia this November, Maly became the first spokesman of the opposition group Civic Forum. Before cheering crowds of hundreds of thousands, he stood at a balcony on Wenceslas Square.

``There can be no confidence in the leadership of a state that refuses to tell the people the truth and give them the rights and freedoms that are common even in third-world countries,'' he said. ``We can wait no longer.''

The crowd cheered, ``Long Live Maly!'' Overnight, his became a household name. The publicity put him in an uncomfortable position: Unlike the Polish church, which is the traditional guardian of national aspirations, the Czech church represented the pillar of authority of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. More than 99 percent of all Poles are Roman Catholic; many Czechs are atheist or Protestant.

``This is not Poland,'' says Jana Ryslinkova of the Civic Forum. ``People, especially the middle-aged, would not be comfortable with a priest like Father Maly playing politics.''

Maly agrees. In recent years, he says, the church has won much goodwill for its increasingly strong stand in favor of national independence and human rights. A religious revival has begun to take shape. Annual pilgrimages have attracted thousands, and Masses are more crowded than ever before.

The church now has a chance to further expand. Old restrictions against religious freedom suddenly have vanished. Pacem in Terris, the communist-supported group of priests condemned by the pope, has been disbanded. An unlimited number of youngsters now will be able to enter seminaries, while banned priests like Maly may resume their work. All of the new-found public esteem could be jeopardized if it becomes embroiled in partisan politics.

``The church must play a moral role,'' Maly says. ``It must not play a political role.''

For similar reasons, he believes that Civic Forum, the group he helped found, must forgo the temptation to turn itself into a political party. It must organize the institution of a democratic constitution and free elections, and then withdraw.

``We must be a political movement,'' he says, ``not a political party.''

But pulling back may not be easy. In Poland, Solidarity also saw itself as a movement, not a party, and yet when the moment came, it formed a government. Similarly, Civic Forum now has named a number of ministers, and Civic Forum leader Vaclav Havel has become president. Civic Forum Foreign Minister Jiri Dienstbier offered Maly an ambassadorship, which he declined.

A Czech National Hero?

But few observers can imagine that so powerful a presence as Vaclav Maly will spend the rest of his career ministering to a local parish. His following has become too large. The Mass at St. Margaret's was the largest in memory, according to Fr. Alois Kansky, the church's director.

``This was an exceptional Mass,'' he says. ``We only had as many people before for the burial of Jarolsav Seifert.''

Many say Maly will become a national hero like Seifert, a Nobel Prize-winning poet. At the least, they say, Maly will enjoy a prominent career within the church hierarchy. He already enjoys close relations with Cardinal Frantisek Tomasek, the aging primate.

``He's Tomasek's right-hand man,'' says Jiri Knot, a church activist. ``I see him as future cardinal.''

Such suggestions make Maly blush. For him, a simple public Mass seems to represent enough compensation for his long years of political struggle.

``It was a strange feeling, giving Mass,'' he says, smiling. ``I'm not a professional politician. I'm only an imperfect servant of God.''

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