After the Velvet Revolution, the events that took place in Číhošť around the years 1949 and 1950 are being discussed more openly, as is the person of the local priest, Josef Toufar, the victim of brutal interrogation techniques of the Communist StB.
The parish church located in the geographical center of the Czech Republic, Číhošť, has become a modern place of pilgrimage thanks to an extraordinary occurrence, the stirring of a cross on the altar, which took place exactly 72 years ago, as well as thanks to the charismatic nature of Josef Toufar. It is also a place that has borne witness to the crimes of the totalitarian regime and was the trigger for anti-religious policies and ideologically motivated state propaganda. The very case of the so-called Číhošť Miracle, and how it coincides with the personality of Josef Toufar, is the topic of our interview with Professor Tomáš Petráček, historian, university lecturer, Roman-Catholic priest, and the postulator of the beatification process of Josef Toufar.
The totalitarian period employs many a modern historian in both countries that succeeded Czechoslovakia. Do you feel that this period, and the education of the public regarding its impact, is given enough attention? Can the present society learn from the mistakes of the past?
I feel that there has been a relatively large number of historical essays about modern history including the problematic topics of our joint past. What I feel is missing more is a thorough reflection of this time in art, culture, and political life, as well as ethical and value-oriented analytical thinking. We have not even truly come to terms with having displaced the Czech Germans, hence doing so with the legacy the Communist regime has left us is even more difficult. That is primarily what allows populists such as Miloš Zeman or Tomio Okamura to abuse issues from our past in their nationalist and xenophobic campaigns. How hard it is to learn from the past, and I mean not just things far back in history, but also recent experiences, can be seen in present times as well. Even though the incompetent commercial government of Andrej Babiš caused the deaths of many more people than in other comparable countries, the longest-lasting school lockdown in Europe, and much more needless damage through their ineptitude and disorganized policies, many people are ready to vote for Babiš's movement again without a second thought.
The topic of the Číhošť Miracle, and the person of father Josef Toufar with which it is connected, still holds allure even after so many decades have passed. Why do you think that is?
There are several reasons. First of all, it is a very moving, biblically compelling story, which was picked up by a master storyteller in the person of Miloš Doležal. Besides a wave of interest in the 60s, and another one in the early 90s, it was really his book that made huge waves not just in religious circles, but also in large parts of the Czech public. Another one would be the fact that after Andrej Babiš and Miloš Zeman have taken office, there has been an increased effort to change the way the criminal nature of the Communist regime is viewed, to rewrite recent Czech history, and to rehabilitate certain active Communists. The story of pastor Toufar shows sharply and precisely the true nature of the Regime, which does not care one whit for an innocent human life.
Several witnesses have come forward to confirm that the cross on the church's main altar really did move. How did father Josef Toufar view this event, which would later end up costing him his life?
He tried to understand it, he thought about it a great deal, pondered whether it was a message for him, for his parish, or even a wider circle of people. As a humble traditionalist priest, he surely wanted to wait for an official ruling from the Church, which would never come due to the circumstances that followed, however.
The miracle has not been properly explained to this day. There have been many theories. Ranging from a supernatural sign from God or a miracle, through group hallucination or coincidence, all the way to speculations about the whole thing being orchestrated by the local preacher, or by the StB as a way to discredit and bring down the Church. How has the perception of the Číhošť Miracle changed over the years?
The involvement of Josef Toufar or any of the parishioners was ruled out. It was most definitely not construed by the Communist National Security Force either, all attempts to recreate potential mechanisms that could have been used have failed, even when attempted in laboratory conditions. The witnesses were a very diverse group of people in terms of occupation, age, and sex, and were all of sound mental health. You cannot hide anything in a church that small. Truth be told, we do not know. The fact that this mysterious occurrence does not, and probably never will, have a clear explanation of a possible cause or mechanism that could have made the cross move, adds to the allure of the story. Perhaps Christ himself on the cross trembled when he saw the horrors that the Czech nation would go on to face? Everyone is welcome to seek answers.
The cross, which was the fulcrum of this event, is no longer there. It was most likely destroyed by the Regime, never to be found again. Do you think that we will ever reach a conclusion, seeing as we are missing the "corpus delicti"?
We sometimes say that it is the last thing that Miloš Doležal has left to find. After seeing how many wonders and curiosities there are surrounding this story, I genuinely expect the cross to turn up somewhere. But I do not think it will shed light on why it actually moved.
What was it that father Josef Toufar won you over with?
The last four weeks of his life were quite well known, but it was only when Doležal's book came out that the truly unique and genuine nature – which often went beyond what was expected of a catholic priest of that time – of Josef Toufar came to light. The biggest miracle that the movement of the cross pointed to was, in fact, the selfless and caring, christian and priestly life he lived for the sake of others.
Josef Toufar in front of the door to the Číhošť church.
How would you describe him?
As a man who fully gave himself to, and expended himself for, his priestly calling, and in so doing found his joy and fulfillment. He was never prone to animosity, ideological thinking, careerism, or the need to hoard for himself. He lived his priesthood in joy amongst his parishioners, whom he never made distinctions or divisions between based on class or confession. He longed to be, and truly was, a pastor to all. When the Communists wanted to force him out of the Zahrádka parish, the petition in his support was signed by the majority of the little town, including members of the Church of Czechoslovakia and the Communists who lived there.
What is the legacy he left to the people, society, and the Church of today?
Perhaps the most relevant thing is his ability to bring together people of different views and affiliations, to protect society from division, malice, and cultural wars. That is something he has held onto to this day. For instance, there were many people and institutions of various beliefs that participated in the search for, and exhumation of, his remains from a mass grave in the Ďáblice graveyard in 2014, but they all did so knowing that they were serving a rare and extraordinary cause. And his legacy also serves as proof that the fundamental Christian mystery – the secret of Easter – still applies. The Communist Regime stole years of his priestly life, tried to smear his name, and get rid of his body, as well as the memory of him. Today, his influence on the Church and society is much more intense and powerful than it could have ever been during his life on Earth. The seed that has fallen unto the ground and withered shows now its effect multiplied manifold. The precursor for this was the authenticity, genuineness, and selflessness of the life he lived.
How does the beatification process work and what is the postulator's role in it?
It is a complicated procedure, which was initiated towards the end of 2018 after the relevant committees were organized and people were appointed to the respective positions. We are still searching for new sources of knowledge and witness statements, all the while having to react to waves of public interest and organize all sorts of events, such as the one to commemorate the 70th anniversary of his martyrdom in February 2020, just before the outbreak of the chaos surrounding Covid. Simply put, the postulator is a person who does his best to coordinate the entire process and put together the data that allows the governing bodies to decide whether the process should go forward.
What stage is his beatification process currently in?
We are still working on the diocesan part. We have been held up by the pandemic as well as other issues, but we plan to make significant headway on the formal side of things and finalize the diocesan part of the process.
Professor Tomáš Petráček, Ph.D., M.A., Th.D., was born May 18, 1972, in Hořice.
During his senior year in high school and the Velvet Revolution, he joined the Strike Committee. He graduated in history and anthropology from Charles University. In 2000, he entered the seminary, and in 2005, he was ordained.
He works as a university chaplain in Hradec Králové, and as a lecturer at Charles University and Hradec Králové University. He is the postulator of father Josef Toufar. In December 2019, he was appointed as a professor of Charles University.
He has authored many studies and published works about the history of religion, the middle ages, and modern history. The written edition of the interview with Professor Tomáš Petráček – Naděje v Dějinách (Hope in History) – has received several Book of the Year 2020 awards.
Czech Don Bosco
Rt Rev. Josef Toufar (July 14, 1902 - February 25, 1950) was ordained in 1940 in Hradec Králové. In his first parish of Zahrádka, he was responsible for forming the youth, inspired by St. Don Bosco, he established the Christian Youth Association. During the war, he helped local Jewish families and provided cover for anti-Nazi activities. Following February 1948, he was transferred to the Číhošť parish. That is where, during his sermon, on the evening of December 11, 1949, a wooden cross on the main altar started dangling and eventually came to rest pointing at the pulpit from which Josef Toufar was preaching. This did not escape the attention of the Communist Regime. On January 28, 1950, the StB abducted him, transported him to Valdice, and subjected him to brutal interrogations that lasted several weeks.
In an attempt to prove his guilt and discredit the Church, he was brought to the Číhošť church during the night of February 23, 1950, to "reenact" what previously happened and show that the movement of the cross was orchestrated by him. During this ordeal, Josef Toufar collapsed, and shortly after surgery the next day, he died.
He was buried in a mass grave in Ďáblice, Prague, and returned to Číhošť in 2015.
The supposedly miraculous cross is in Číhošť no longer.
The Church of the Assumption of Virgin Mary in Číhošť is a new place of pilgrimage.