Book review by Patrick Stevens
Out of the Depths, Miriam Therese Winter, Crossroad, NY, 2001.
This is the story of a Roman Catholic woman in Czechoslovakia, Ludmila Javorova, ordained to the priesthood in 1970 by her bishop, Felix Davidek of Brno.
After 1945, when World War II ended, much of Eastern Europe continued to be occupied by troops from Soviet Russia, troops that did not go home but remained to support communist governments which were very repressive. Uninvited, they administered all local and national government offices, suppressing political expression, imprisoning people suspected of dissent, controlling education and employment, food supply, access to news, and above all, religion. It was virtually impossible to receive information from other countries by mail, newspapers, radio, or television, or to send mail and information out, or to travel abroad.
It was against the law to practice religion, to say mass, to baptize, to celebrate the Eucharist, to celebrate sacramental marriages. Priests who did so and were caught ended up in prison or in the Gulag Archipelago, a vast strung-out network of prisons that dotted the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites where slave labor, hunger, torture, and executions were common.
How did the sacraments and the Christian message of peace, love, and perseverance reach those who badly needed this encouragement? In the strictest anti-Christian regime since the Roman Empire, Bishop Davidek, together with the priests and laity around him, founded Koinotes, an underground Catholic network with university and seminary classes to educate people in liberal arts, philosophy, and theology, and to continue to ordain priests in secret. Ludmila had known Bishop Davidek as a family friend since her childhood. First as his assistant and later as teacher and indispensable organizer with him, she frequently risked arrest and imprisonment to further the work of Koinotes.
At some point the Czech regime became so repressive that Bishop Davidek began to consider the idea of ordaining women. Contact with Rome had been impossible for some time, so he called on Catholic scholars and theologians within Czechoslovakia, most of whom had received their education in European universities or in Rome in earlier years. Together they determined, after careful study and discussion of the Scriptures and of theology, that the ordination of women, although not currently practiced, was in accordance with the teachings of Jesus and consistent with the practice and values of the early church. Bishop Davidek then ordained Ludmila and a number of other women to the diaconate, and some further to the priesthood. These women, unsuspected, had more freedom of movement than the men, in reaching people in danger or in prison, to bring counseling, absolution, and the Eucharist. Ludmila put in tiring days of work in a carpet factory, and wakeful nights teaching and ministering. Restoring their spiritual strength by concelebrating with the bishop and other priests, these women accomplished their ministry inconspicuously, with great devotion, practical sense, and humility through these perilous years.
After the fall of the Soviet Empire, some measure of freedom and sanity was gradually restored. Bishop Davidek, his health broken, was dead. But those who were known to have secretly resisted during the years of repression were now the heroes of the country, acknowledged and honored. When communication beyond the borders of the country was again possible, Ludmila, who for years had been the bishop’s principal assistant in the diocese, wrote to Rome to inform the hierarchy of the situation in her country, and also of the work of the ordained women.
Surely it had now been established that ordaining women was in accordance with the Gospel. And women priests had shown that they were good priests– intelligent, brave, sturdy, compassionate, even in the most dangerous and demanding situations. Surely it was clear now that there was no obstacle to continuing to ordain them! They need no longer keep their ministries secret. Surely their death-defying work through many difficult years would be acknowledged; they would be recognized openly. Women would continue their ministries, now in the full light of day, integrated into the traditional system of parishes and dioceses. Wouldn’t they?
Ludmila never received any acknowledgment of her letters.
With the return of the Vatican-controlled clergy, the vast and heroic network that had sustained the Church faithful in secret was dismantled and swept aside. It was difficult to acknowledge one’s own priesthood in the face of Rome’s silence, and the other women, priests and deacons both, do not want to make their names public today. Ludmila continues her long career as a teacher of theology, now in the schools of the Czech Republic. She leads a prayerful life and, secure in her theological understanding of her ordination, celebrates mass alone or with small groups of family and friends. Her humility, tenacity, charm, and contemplative spirit shine forth in the numerous and well-chosen excerpts from her own writings which the author, Winter, uses, giving an impression of co-authorship.
Ludmila’s unwavering charity and devotion to the service of others could, in a better day and in a better Church, lead to her canonization.