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Archbishop remembers Havel as friend and fellow prisoner

PRAGUE (CNS): “He knew the loss of freedom, the denial of human dignity, oppression and imprisonment,” Archbishop Dominik Duka, of Prague in Czechoslovakia, said of the former president of the country, Vaclav Havel, on the day of his death.

The archbishop called him a “friend and fellow prisoner.”

The president of the Czech Bishops’ Conference said the entire nation owes Havel a debt of gratitude for its freedom and the resurrection of the life and culture of the nation. 

The archbishop, who was imprisoned with Havel by the communists and continued to meet with him after the regime fell in 1989, asked that the bells of all Catholic churches in the Czech Republic ring at 6.00pm on the day the 75-year-old former leader of the nation died, December 18. 

The archbishop celebrated Havel’s funeral Mass on December 23 in St. Vitus Cathedral. 

Archbishop Duka said in a December 18 statement posted on the Czech bishops’ Website, “I am convinced that everyone across the country, regardless of political or religious beliefs, owes him honour and thanks.” 

Havel, a playwright and essayist, was one of the founders of the Charter 77 movement, which began criticising the communist government for its lack of respect for human rights in 1977. 

He did four years hard labour and nine months in prison for dissident activities before becoming head of state after the Velvet Revolution of 1989 that toppled the communist regime.

Havel resigned in 1992 when Slovakia declared its independence, but was elected president of the Czech Republic six months later. 

Havel met Pope John Paul II at least five times, on three occasions in Prague, and attended the late pope’s funeral at the Vatican in 2005.

The two men admired one another and saw each other as participants in the same battle for freedom, human rights, human dignity and respect for the cultures of Eastern Europe. He also met Pope Benedict XVI during his visit to Prague in 2009. 

In an interview with a Polish Catholic news agency in 2000, Havel said, “John Paul II is someone very close to me, who continually startles me with his personality and inspires me.”

He said, “His language, constantly stressing human dignity and recalling the rights of man, has been a novelty in the papacy’s history. If the pope had been someone else, from another part of the world, without the historical experience of Poland, he probably wouldn’t have had such a clear attitude to totalitarianism. John Paul II’s services in this area are undeniable.” 

He also told the press that in April 1990 he made his confession to Pope John Paul during his first Czech pilgrimage, while under the spell of the pope’s charismatic personality. 

“I suddenly realised I was in fact confessing in front of him, even though I’m not accustomed to going to confession, since I’m not a practicing Catholic. I felt the need because of the great will to understand the other person that emanates from the person of the pope,” said Havel. 

L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, noted that Havel attended a Mass of thanksgiving in St. Vitus Cathedral immediately after his inauguration in 1989, restoring a practice Czech leaders had followed for centuries until the communists came to power. 

“That ceremony was not only the recovery of an ancient liturgy that united politics and tradition, culture and religion, but represented the beginning of a new history, a history of freedom of which Vaclav Havel was the most important symbol,” the newspaper said.

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